It’s hard to keep up with Melinda McCrary as she moves through each corner of the Richmond Museum of History. In the research room, McCrary pointed to drawers and binders filled with photographs, newspaper clippings, and phonebooks dating back to 1903. Her eyes wandered over to the table in the middle of the room. “You have to see this,” she said as she put on rubber gloves and began to unfurl a plastic bag. She pulled out a white jacket with red scripted letters: “The Rebelettes.” The jacket, she explained, is likely from a DeAnza High School cheerleader’s uniform from the ’60s or ’70s.
The joy with which McCrary examined the jacket is hard to describe. It’s surprising and contagious, but it’s the same excitement that McCrary carries into every aspect of her work. As the curator, executive director, and collections manager of the museum, McCrary has implemented changes that have brought new life into the museum. “We have a new sense of potential and a new sense of pride,” she said.
In May of this year, McCrary received a historic preservation award from the City of Richmond for her role in preserving the Victor Arnautoff mural “Richmond Industrial City,” which had been unknowingly stored in the basement of the Richmond Post Office since 1976. She also received a $17,000 grant from California Humanities to fund the Speak Ohlone Exhibit Interactive Project, a permanent exhibit that highlights the Chochenyo Ohlone dialect and the history of the Ohlone people, the first community to inhabit the East Bay.
For McCrary, these two accolades are an exciting opportunity to increase the profile of the museum. But more importantly, they show that McCrary has big plans for the museum. McCrary has been working there since 2012 when she started as an intern while getting her master’s degree in museum studies at San Francisco State University. About a year later, she was named executive director. Since then, McCrary has been working to revive the museum and uncover the hidden histories of the city.
McCrary isn’t too interested in the shipyards of World War II. It’s important history, she admits, but there’s a lot of history before and after the shipyards that she feels is more representative of the city — histories like those of the Native American and Mexican periods and the social movements of the ’60s. “There’s a lot of difficult history there,” she said. “It’s something that California hasn’t really grappled with yet.”
Recently, McCrary curated a Black Panther exhibit, something she said would never have been considered under the previous leadership. The result, she said, was the most attended exhibit during her tenure. “People are really hungry for that history,” she said.
The Black Panther exhibit — along with other changes in the museum — was done with the intention of cultivating a stronger connection with the Richmond community. McCrary has begun to look to the community for input on exhibits, and she implemented quarterly free days and a school program for young students to be exposed to the museum. She’s also been working to digitize the artifacts, documents, and photographs in their archives.
These programs have brought in a new audience for the museum, and with that, more opportunity for McCrary to expand the interpretation of Richmond history. “In the past there was this idea of Richmond from 1905 on because that’s when the city was founded,” she said. “But I’m going all the way back.”
She sees her work as a kind of advocacy. By connecting with the community and integrating more diverse histories, McCrary hopes to inspire the younger generations in Richmond and instill a strong sense of pride in them about their city. “Local history demonstrates that extraordinary things have been done and it inspires people to do that in their own life,” she said.
She also wants her work to combat misconceptions about Richmond. “The Richmond economy and community as it is today is no fault of the people of Richmond,” she said. “You can trace it all directly back to the loss of industry.”
After the war, the shipyards closed and with them, the loss of over 79,000 jobs that they supported. After the shipyards, the Ford assembly plant moved to Milpitas in 1956. Finally, Chevron moved their corporate offices to San Ramon, which McCrary said left Richmond without a significant tax base. All these losses, she said, left Richmond “with the rug pulled out from under them.”
That’s why McCrary feels so committed to sharing those hidden stories of Richmond. Those untold stories show that Richmond has plenty of history to be proud of and that it’s more than just the money and industries that have come in and out of the city. And McCrary works to make the museum a community effort. Most of the pieces on exhibit and in the archives have been donated by Richmond residents. She’s picky about what she accepts and even pickier about what goes on display. Everything must have a strong connection to Richmond, she said as she picked over a wedding dress donated by the curator of the Oakland Museum of California, who grew up in Richmond.
McCrary is proud of the work she and her team have done and she’s excited about the plans that she has in store for the museum. Housed in an old Carnegie Library, the museum has often been overlooked. But McCrary wants to make it the focal point of the Iron Triangle and Downtown Richmond. “We are an emerging cultural organization,” she said. “We have a long history but we are just now emerging to our potential.”