Lois Conley is the founder and executive director of The Griot Museum of Black History. In a handsome red-brick mansion with purple trim and a lovely yard in North St. Louis, the museum takes visitors through a story of the nation’s Black heritage, starting with a recreated section of a slave ship and a cabin built on the Wright-Smith Plantation in Jonesburg, Missouri. From there, the museum is populated by wax figures, including those of Carter G. Woodson, Dred and Harriet Scott, Elizabeth Keckley, Madame C.J. Walker, Miles Davis, and others. In one beloved section of The Griot are St. Louis natives Clark Terry and Josephine Baker. Conley made the museum’s first six figures.
The Griot was born of Conley’s tenacity and skills as a community-oriented organizer, who—before making the leap to museum founder—was the head of administration at a school of social work. After years of following conversation by others that there should be a history museum for and by Black people, and not seeing any results, she started it herself. With no money or overly fancy connections, she used her people skills to get the resources needed to make it happen. The Griot opened in 1997.
Twenty-three years after its founding, storytelling is key to The Griot. It serves as the foundation of Conley’s latest endeavor, the Impact HIV/AIDS Initiative. Working with a small team of St. Louis activists, historians, AIDS service employees, educators, and administrators, Conley is using exhibition, programming, and archive collection to establish The Griot as a place for people to share their HIV/AIDS stories. It is her latest project that further positions The Griot as a community resource, where people can come to learn and look as well as share and feel themselves represented, and where other organizations can expand their programs.
In 2019, the museum hosted a discussion between community leaders and artists Erise Williams Jr. and De Nichols, who made connections between the use of art and culture in AIDS activism and Black Lives Matter. Conley was a driving force behind the creation of the Robert Rayford Prayer Breakfast. Rayford, a 16-year-old Black teenager who was born and lived in St. Louis and died in 1969, is understood to be one of the earliest identifiable people living with HIV in the U.S. Below, Conley speaks to writer Theodore Kerr about Impact, and the role she sees Rayford playing in the ongoing story of HIV.
Theodore Kerr: Can you share with me how you came up with Impact?
Lois Conley: Let’s see, probably 5-6 years before ever starting The Griot, I attended a workshop by the Red Cross where they distributed these AIDS posters with beautiful artwork. I thought, I will save these. Once the museum opened, I tucked them away, still thinking, “At some point I will hang them on a wall in my office.” Then, a few years ago, the box where I stored the posters in my new office kept falling off the shelf. This, I figured, is a call to action. So I unpacked them and really looked at them. And you know what, all those years ago I went to that workshop because my brother was experiencing difficulties related to HIV. Seeing the posters now, I thought to myself, “Oh, maybe you don’t just want to put them up in your office, maybe you really should do something more with them.”
Around that same time, the HIV theme kept appearing—an ad in a magazine while I was on an airplane, another ad on TV about the prevalence of HIV/AIDS in the Black community—meanwhile, those darn posters were forever present. I thought to myself, what is haunting me? What is this about? I felt compelled to find a way to use the posters as the foundation for something at The Griot where we could raise awareness around HIV, spark interest, and motivate folks to do something. I wanted to let our community know about the history of HIV in our community, that it is still a real issue, and that we can do something about it. But first we have to know about it and accept it.
TK: You see The Griot as a community resource.
LC: Yes, absolutely, I want The Griot to be known as a place where not only are things collected, but where stories that are relevant to the Black community also are collected; that includes stories about HIV.
TK: What has been the community’s reaction to Impact?
LC: You know, a few people have asked, “Why is The Griot doing programs about HIV?” And I have said, “I’m talking about HIV/AIDS and the history of Black folks.” The Griot is a place of lifelong learning. That means that people who visit will always be able to learn about those things that impact our lives, whether good, bad, or otherwise. The history of HIV happens to be one of those things. We have always thought of ourselves as a place that serves the community, a grassroots organization with community betterment as an important focus of our work. HIV has become embedded in my brain as something The Griot is supposed to address. There is no choice about it.
TK: Why do you think people questioned you doing an AIDS initiative?
LC: I think that is people’s reaction is about HIV/AIDS, period, and the notions they have about who gets it and how they get it. When they talk about HIV, they say it quietly, cover their mouths the way they do when they share their age, or don’t look at me. And I get it. But it is something we need to deal with because it’s killing our community. And that’s the biggest reason for our Impact AIDS Initiative.
I should mention, many people have been supportive of what we’re doing. They say to me, “This is the right thing to do, and we’re going to be there to help you do it.” I figure if we educate just a few folks or get only two people tested the first year, then we have made an impact. I actually think we have gotten five people tested!
TK: How important is Robert Rayford to you and exhibition?
LC: Like many people, I didn’t know the Robert Rayford story, and that’s an example of what I am taking about. This revelation that a 16-year-old boy died in St. Louis in 1969 helps us educate people about all that there is to consider about HIV. Furthermore, folks need to know that there was a Robert Rayford, a person whose life might have been quite different if we had known more about the illness, and if he had not been a poor, Black teenager. We know he didn’t know what HIV was; no one did. But he did know that something was making him sick. Maybe he wondered, “Who can I talk to? Who can help me?” If there had been more safe spaces for him to talk about himself, maybe something could have been different for him, and for others, as well. So, yeah, I think that Robert Rayford is critical and that his story is not only part of the bigger HIV/AIDS story but part of the story of Black folks as well.
TK: Can you say more?
LC: Maybe doctors didn’t know how to talk to Robert about what was going on. Certainly, doctors now don’t always know how to talk to people about their health. And most of us don’t have enough practice in asserting our needs and asking our questions during a doctor’s visit. We have to be able to ask somebody about what is going on with us. If we don’t talk about our problems, they never get resolved. So, I guess I would say, I think that Robert Rayford’s life in general, and his HIV status, is just critical to any discussion about health in the Black community.
TK: You just made something so clear: An important thread to Robert’s story is around health care justice.
LC: Absolutely. I would say health care injustice!
TK: That relates to something else I wanted to talk to you about. I was really moved and then challenged by how one of the most repeated things said at the Robert Rayford Prayer Breakfast was that it did not matter how Robert got HIV. That made me wonder if stigma is less connected to the sex and more connected to drugs and sex.
LC: My personal thought is that the stigma is related to sex. And, as I have said, I don’t want the initiative to be about sex or sexuality, per se, because no one has any business passing judgment on another’s sexual preference or sexual practices. As for the drugs, I am not sure. In my own experience, I had two brothers who have experiences with HIV. For one of them, IV drugs was a connection; he is the brother who died with HIV. With my other brother, I am not sure. Each of them live with it and, for certain, one of them died as a complication of it.
TK: I’m of two minds. I’m like, it doesn’t matter how someone gets HIV, but then, if it doesn’t matter, people should talk. Maybe we add stigma to anal sex and injecting drugs by not talking about it.
LC: Well, yes, because when it comes to sex, in the Black community, we only talk about heterosexual sex, if at all. We’ve gotten a little better, but same-sex discussions are taboo, you know? We have made progress, but it is 2019, and we have a way to go. After all, HIV is not found only among same-sex partners!
TK: Which is even more proof that The Griot is a good place for the Impact HIV/AIDS Initiative. It seems vital to me that someone may have the chance to consider HIV in relationship to Dred Scott’s case, slavery, and uplift narratives. It helps suggest that at the heart of HIV is something as old and ongoing as the country itself.
LC: Yeah. I want our stories told, even though I know that not all of them are great, or are about uplift and accomplishments. There’s some ugly, painful things in our stories, just like in everyone else’s. So whatever the story is, we have to tell it. My hope is that in doing so, we are able to change someone’s life.
TK: I think about this idea of what stories need to be told a lot when it comes to Robert. For you, how important is it that we have all the details of Robert’s life, including a photo?
LC: I don’t know that we need to know everything about his life, and I don’t even know that we need to have a photograph. For now, we can say we have a story, and from that we can help decide what the impact of his story will be, and we can think about what his life would have been had he been given a better chance. That said, I think it would be great if there were projects in which artists could conceive of Robert at different stages of his life, including full adulthood. You know, art can do that: give us a look at life from the past, present, and future. My hope is that through the initiative—exhibition, programs, dialogue—we begin to think about how we live our own lives.
TK: Last question, I know you want Impact HIV/AIDS Initiative to be a multi-year initiative. What are some things you want to focus on in the coming years?
LC: I want to hear from our community. I want to focus on women and older people. Both groups are seeing a rise in the incidence of the illness. So next year I’m hoping to bring more attention to them. And I want us to keep doing things that will keep people asking questions—questions of us, questions of decision-makers, questions of faith leaders—of anyone who has the ability to facilitate change. The Impact HIV/AIDS Initiative is consistent with the way we do things at The Griot—a bit out of the box!