Carolyn Hoskins’ passion project explores the Black American legacy — and aims to leave one too.
Carolyn Hoskins’ grandson Domini was only 5 years old when he posed the question that would change her life.
“Granny, aren’t there any other Black people that did anything besides Martin Luther King Jr.?” he asked her.
It was February 1997, and Domini, who was learning about Black History Month at his elementary school in Belmont, had already written two reports on King. He wanted something new.
Twenty-five years later, Hoskins is the proud owner and curator of the Domini Hoskins Black History Museum & Learning Center, named, of course, after her grandson. From a few homemade posters, the roving collection has grown to include thousands of photos, household appliances, movie posters, sports jerseys and other memorabilia.
“As you can see today, the answer to that question is 22,000 square feet of Black history,” Hoskins says, gesturing around her.
The museum, which began as a kindergarten homework project and has since toured schools and event centers throughout the Bay Area, has now found a temporary home at 890 Jefferson Ave. in Redwood City, in celebration of Black History Month. This is the museum’s first exhibit since before the pandemic.
“I think it’s really incredible,” says Redwood City council member Michael Smith, who visited the exhibit on its opening night. He added that, in exploring Hoskins’ collection, he felt proud to be a member of the community — specifically a Black person in the community. “There’s so much richness in terms of material and substance.”
Hoskins, at least 70 years old but ageless with her thick-rimmed glasses and violet hair, says the exhibit is a place for people to come and experience, firsthand, the contributions African Americans have made to the United States.
“I want everyone that comes in here to walk away learning something about my history,” she says. “And the whole concept is, it’s not just Black history, it’s world history.”
From the segregated Midwest to the 1970s Bay Area
Unlike for other museum curators, Hoskins’ vast collection — and the stories it contains — grew out of her own life experience.
Growing up in Edwardsville, Illinois, a small city with just over 8,000 people at the time, Hoskins says she knew almost everyone in the neighborhood. In fifth grade, Hoskins and the rest of her peers at Lincoln, a free public school for African American children, found out that they, like many others, would be integrating into the white elementary school just down the road.
“I was all excited because it was a really nice school,” Hoskins says. “Come Monday morning, we got dressed, ready to go to school, and had no idea what we were going to be facing.”
Hoskins remembers parents of white children she’d grown up with suddenly turning against the Black children, saying “vicious” and “hateful things” and forbidding their own daughters from playing with her.
Hoskins stuck with it, continuing on to Edwardsville High School, where she met her future husband, the late Robert “Bob” Hoskins, a high school football star who would go onto play for the 49ers. After his first professional season, Bob convinced his wife to leave her lifelong home with their four children and move across the country to California.
Redwood City in the ’70s, Hoskins remembers, was a culture shock. She was in awe of the racial and ethnic diversity and how easy it seemed for her children to get along with those of different backgrounds.
Of course, life was far from perfect. But it wasn’t until her grandson Domini asked that pivotal question that Hoskins realized how much of her — and their — history had been buried.
“This is something that is not taught in school,” she says. Figures like Rosa Parks and King, she felt, had been reduced to two-dimensional heroes, known only for sitting on a bus or giving one famous speech.
“This isn’t a movie. These were real people,” she says. She wanted Black children today to understand that “that could have been your great-great-grandmother, your great-uncle, someone within your family.”
Always a bit of a hobbyist antiquarian, Hoskins decided to put her life experience and personal collections to good use — as a chronicler of the untold history of Black America.
“I am going to educate the next generation to know this wasn’t right and to do better,” she says. “You have to accept and learn about the past to be able to walk into the future.”
The story of America, as told by Black people
The museum’s current home, in the 22,000-square-foot space at the corner of Jefferson and Middlefield, is the largest it’s ever had, with more than 100 tables overflowing with photos and artifacts that represent Black history, collected over the years from flea markets, antique shops and donations. And that’s hardly everything.
“That whole back room over there is still full of stuff that you just don’t have room to put out,” says Kathy Hoskins, who helps her mother manage the collections. “That’s why you have to pick and choose … because this whole building could be music and entertainment.”
The tour starts at the beginning, with slavery. Hoskins points to a pair of authentic metal shackles that say “Property of Georgetown County Plantation Police” and fingers a bit of cotton.
“This is real cotton that came from Greenville, Mississippi,” she says, adding that she wants to create a more immersive experience for her visitors than might be found in history books. “How many kids are going to have an opportunity to really be able to touch or see real cotton?”
The section on slavery occupies only a couple of tables near the entrance. A large black-and-white sign reads: “Black people have the oldest and the greatest history. Don’t let Slavery be the only chapter you know.”
Hoskins continues on through early Black history in America, including segregation, the formation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the fight for suffrage. She touches a jar of beans, which she says was once used as a way of denying Black people the opportunity to vote.
“People don’t understand how, back in the day, which my mom remembered, you had to count how many beans was in that jar to maybe be able to vote,” she explains. “Or sometimes they’d give you a quiz.”
She moves on to inventions, one of her favorite sections, pointing out tributes to potato chips, blood banks, hand-crank pencil sharpeners — all of which were pioneered in part, or entirely, by African Americans. There’s a section honoring Black veterans, featuring the Tuskegee Airmen, a large semi-circle of tables celebrating former President Barack Obama and an entire wall dedicated to Black hair.
“Madam C. J. Walker was the first Black millionaire,” Hoskins says. In fact, Walker, who was the first of her siblings not to be born into slavery, became the first self-made female millionaire in the United States by the time of her death in 1919.
“And she made her money through hair products,” the kind Hoskins used growing up, she adds proudly.
She wanders past displays of Black dolls and vintage food containers — including several with shameful depictions of Black people. Sports memorabilia, with near-shrines to the likes of Barry Bonds, Steph Curry and the Williams sisters, occupy a good sixth of the entire space. On the opposite wall is another sizable section dedicated to film and music — her daughter Kathy’s specialty.
“It’s broken down into blues, country and western, Ragtime,” Hoskins says. “So, there again, it’s not one aspect of the music that African Americans don’t excel in.”
Kathy is proud of the range of artists she’s represented in her music tribute, and she’s not the only one.
“The mayor from San Mateo was here the other night,” she says. “And he was saying that he appreciated it because it’s the history of it. So he was like, ‘I look over there, and I see Biggie and Tupac and LL Cool J— the people that got rap music started.’”
It’s a labor of love, says Kathy, who works full time as an assistant manager at Safeway and spent several late nights helping her mom set up.
As a nonprofit, the museum relies entirely on visitor donations and outside sponsorship, such as from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and local cities, including Redwood City, Belmont and San Mateo. Hoskins says she’s particularly grateful to Crosspoint Realty Services for contributing the current space and to the San Mateo County Event Center for donating over 100 tables.
Because the collections don’t have a permanent home, it’s up to the family to store all the signs, photos and artifacts and to set up and dismantle everything for each exhibit. And, Kathy says, it continues to grow.
“We have the debate all the time, ‘Where are you going to put the stuff?’” she says.
“But then we just keep adding onto it. Every time I go somewhere, I’m like, ‘Oh, she’ll like this. This will be good in there.’ And we just laugh about it.”
Hoskins also dreams of finding a permanent home for people to explore her collection. As she says, Black history isn’t only relevant in February.
“The history is there 365 days, and it should be taught and recognized all year.”
‘Black America is still marching’
Over the years, Hoskins has visited schools, hosted Black movie nights and popped up at community events like the San Mateo County Fair.
Her hope is to create a place where everyone can discover something new — where Black people can find pride in their own history and where those of other races can see, firsthand, the role that Black people have had in shaping American history and culture.
Plus, her daughter Kathy says, “Coming into this museum would be fun.”
The tour ends in front of a massive painted mural created by North Fair Oaks artist Jose Castro in response to local businesses boarding up their windows during the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests.
Originally standing outside the Fox Theatre in downtown Redwood City, the towering wooden panels, on loan from the city, bear protest slogans, a black fist and, at the center, a giant portrait of George Floyd.
This installation, along with a memorial for Black people killed by police and an altar for health care workers who died during the COVID-19 pandemic, represents Hoskins’ effort to remind people that history is ongoing.
“I say to people, during the death of George Floyd, you had thousands of people marching up and down Redwood City, San Mateo. A lot of those people did not even know why they were marching,” she says.
“But if you come in here, you’re going to be educated to understand why Black America is still marching.”
The museum, at 890 Jefferson Ave. in Redwood City, is open to visitors every day except Monday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. through Feb. 27. A $5 donation is requested, and masks are required for entry.