Curtis House Offering Black History Month Tours

CURTIS HOUSE CULTURAL CENTER
The center houses photos, newspaper and magazine articles, and other documents and memorabilia depicting the contributions of Black residents to Abilene’s history. Contact Andrew Penns to schedule a group tour during Black History Month
630 Washington St.
Monday-Saturday 
10:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m.
Admission is by donation
325-518-4604

By LORETTA FULTON

Andrew Penns is used to hearing the words, “I didn’t know that,” but he never tires of it.

That comment frequently comes when visitors to the Curtis House Cultural Center hear Penns offer tidbits of information on artifacts, people, places, and events significant in the history of the contributions of Black Abilenians to the city’s development.

He will be doing that a lot throughout February, which is celebrated each year as Black History Month. Curtis House Cultural Center is a one-stop shop for Black history in Abilene. The center, which Penns leads, opened in 2016 as a project of Interested Citizens of Abilene North (ICAN).

Today, it is manned by three Black Abilenians who represent the past, the present, and the future–Penns, Robin Martin, and Jeremiah Taylor. 

From left Andrew Penns, Jeremiah Taylor, and Robin Martin man the Curtis House Cultural Center. Photo by Loretta Fulton

The youngest, Taylor, is a senior at Abilene Christian University and is on track to graduate in May. He began an internship at the center last fall and will continue until graduation. His job is relatively simple.

“Whatever Rev. Penns needs at that moment,” he said, with a big smile that signaled he didn’t  mind at all. 

Whatever Penns wants might mean painting, doing some plaster work, touching up an exhibit, or any of the zillions of odd jobs that come up in the historic house located on Washington Street. 

Both Martin and Penns have roots in the history represented in the Curtis House Cultural Center, and Taylor is learning from both of them. Martin is the daughter of the late Robert Brewster, who was the last principal of Woodson High School before it closed in 1970 in a farewell to segregation. Penns graduated from Woodson High School in 1967 and returned to Abilene after serving with the Army in Vietnam and working for a while in Austin. 

Martin’s family is well represented in a room that honors her late father and stepmother, Effie Brewster. Plaques and certificates line the walls in a tribute to both. A copy of a 1981 story in the Abilene Reporter-News tells about Effie Brewster being designated a certified Texas assessor by the board of directors of the Institute of Certified Texas Assessors. 

A copy of Robert Brewster’s obituary from the Reporter-News in 1995 carries a quote from Brewster about the critical role that teachers play in a child’s life.

Robin Martin in a room at Curtis House Cultural Center that honors her late parents. Photo by Loretta Fulton

“Character is copied and you never know what youngster is watching you and wants to be like you. It is a terrible thing to lead a young mind in the wrong direction.”

Jeremiah Taylor’s young mind definitely is not being led in the wrong direction. He is the son of Dr. Jerry Taylor, associate professor in ACU’s Department of Bible, Missions, and Ministry and

director of the university’s Carl Spain Center on Race Studies and Spiritual Action. Jeremiah Taylor is a history major at ACU and hopes someday to teach college African-American studies from Reconstruction to the present. But first, he will take a gap year after getting his bachelor’s degree and work in a museum in Dallas. 

“At this point,” he said, “I’m kind of just open to anything.”

For now, he works in the Spain Center, at Curtis House and is a student building supervisor on campus. And, he’s taking two accelerated courses, one in Black history and one in Black literature. 

His favorite room in the Curtis House Cultural Center is the one devoted to Black members of the military from Taylor County. His grandfather on his mother’s side of the family served in World War II, which makes the room even more meaningful.

“That’s really special to me,” he said.

A favorite artifact in the center is an album cover featuring the late Lyn Collins, an Abilenian who was discovered by legendary soul singer James Brown. They performed a concert together in Abilene. Jeremiah’s interest comes from his father.

“James Brown is one of my dad’s favorite of all time,” he said.

Jeremiah Taylor in the military room at Curtis House Cultural Center. Photo by Loretta Fulton

Jeremiah’s parents made sure their son and daughter, Alisha, grew up knowing African-American history. Jeremiah has been on one school trip to Africa and has been two other times when his father taught classes there. One site was especially memorable–Elmina Castle in Ghana, which was one of the main depots in the transatlantic slave trade for more than three centuries. Today, the castle is recognized by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as a World Heritage Site. 

Seeing that grim reminder of the history of slavery made a lasting impression on Jeremiah.

“Just seeing the building and spaces they were kept in is indescribable,” he said.

Loretta Fulton is creator and editor of Spirit of Abilene

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