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Spencer R. Crew Biography

Studied Black American History, Joined the NMAH, Promoted to NMAH Director



Crew, Spencer, photograph. AP/Wide World Photos.

A highly-respected historian of the black American experience, Dr. Spencer R. Crew's innovative museum exhibits have brought new life to American history. He is perhaps best known for his study of the Great Migration—the massive movement of Southern blacks to Northern cities in the early twentieth century. Crew was both the first black director of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History (NMAH) and the youngest. In 2001 he became executive director and chief executive officer (CEO) of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Studied Black American History

Spencer R. Crew was born on January 7, 1949, in Poughkeepsie, New York, and grew up in Woodmere Village, a predominantly white suburb of Cleveland, Ohio. His parents were professionals: Ada Lee (Scott) Crew was a psychiatric nurse and R. Spencer Crew a chemist. Crew seemed destined for an academic future. Indeed, he entered Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1967.

His college professors, Rhett Jones and Wilson Moses, introduced Crew to an African-American history that was both practical and real to him. Amidst the turmoil of the civil rights and anti-war movements, Crew involved himself in the small student Afro-American Society at Brown. Crew also met his wife at Brown, the future teacher Sandra Lorraine Prioleau.

Crew taught history while earning his doctorate from Rutgers University in 1979. His dissertation examined the migration of blacks from the South to New Jersey. By 1981 Crew had been teaching African-American and American history for more than seven years and he had a promising future in academia.

Joined the NMAH

Crew had never considered a museum career. However the Smithsonian's NMAH, a component of the world's largest museum and research complex, had hired a new director who was recruiting social historians for the museum staff. In 1981 Crew began his new career as a NMAH historian. In a 2000 interview Crew told Lynn Shapiro of the Organization of American Historians, "I came for a year, just to see what I thought of it, and I fell in love with the place. I liked the forum of public history and the chance to communicate with a much broader, diverse body of people than you do in the university." Crew told Shapiro that his job was as "a public scholar, to do research directed toward a public outlet."

Crew's first assignment was to curate a medium-sized exhibit. Over the next few years he worked with teams developing various exhibits and he began formulating new ideas of what a museum could be. Crew's major research interests were the Great Migration of rural blacks to Northern cities, propelled by the shortage of industrial workers during World War I, the migration's impact on cities, and perceptions of blacks in American history. In 1987 he curated his first major exhibit for the NMAH and wrote the accompanying book. Field to Factory: Afro-American Migration 1915–1940 stimulated widespread interest in the subject. It inspired films, symposia, and several new books. The exhibition was so popular that it became a permanent NMAH installation. During the course of his research Crew learned some of his own family's history. A photograph of his grandfather, Rufus Franklin Crew, who moved north to Cleveland in the 1920s, was included in the exhibit.

Field to Factory proved to be the first of several successful Crew exhibitions. In 1990 he co-curated Go Forth and Serve: Black Land Grant Colleges Enter a Second Century, followed by African American Images in Postal Service Stamps in 1992. Crew developed innovative ways of utilizing historical artifacts to bring life to museum exhibits. Crew and co-author James E. Sims opened their highly-regarded essay, "Locating Authenticity," with this statement: "The problem with things is that they are dumb. They are not eloquent, as some thinkers in art museums claim. They are dumb. And if by some ventriloquism they seem to speak, they lie."

Crew tried to use artifacts to bring history into modern life. He told Jennifer Sutton of the Brown Alumni Magazine: "What people don't understand about history is that there is no absolute answer. Part of history is continuing to explore a question from different perspectives and very often offering a new interpretation." He explained to Shapiro that historians should "be in the middle of the conversation about American identity. What does it mean to be an American? How do we reconcile those different perceptions and understand them better?… Facilitating that kind of a conversation is critical, if we're going to be successful as a nation and cope with the changes that are in front of us."

At a Glance …

Born Spencer R. Crew on January 7, 1949, in Poughkeepsie, NY; married Sandra Lorraine Prioleau, June 19, 1971; children: Alika L., Adom S. Education: Brown University, AB, history, 1971; Rutgers University, MA, history, 1973, PhD, history, 1979.

Career: University of Maryland-Baltimore County, Catonsville, MD, assistant professor of African-American and American History, 1978–81; Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of American History, Washington, DC, historian, 1981–87, curator 1987–89, Department of Social and Cultural History, chair, 1989–91, deputy director, 1991–92, acting director, 1992–94, director, 1994–01; National Civil Rights Museum, Memphis, TN, historical consultant, 1987–91; Civil Rights Institute, Birmingham, AL, consultant, 1991–94; National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, executive director, chief executive officer, 2001–.

Selected memberships: American Association of Museums, board member; American Historical Association, newsletter co-editor; Brown University, trustee, trustee emeritus, Alumni Association president-elect, Advisory Council on Diversity; National Council for History Education, trustee, chair; Organization of American Historians, Journal of American History editorial board member.

Selected awards: Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., Osceola Award, 1988; Smithsonian Institution, Certificate Award, 1989–92, Robert A. Brooks Award, 1994; Association for the Study of African American Life and History, Service Award, 1994; Rutgers University, Hall of Distinguished Alumni Inductee, 2003; University of Cincinnati, McMickmen College Distinguished Leadership Award, 2004.

Addresses: Office—National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, 50 E. Freedom Way, Cincinnati, Ohio 45202.

Promoted to NMAH Director

After several years as deputy and acting directors of the NMAH, in 1994 Crew became the museum's first black director. Under Crew the NMAH received three of its largest-ever gifts and acquired many important new objects. Crew was responsible for the acquisition of a section of the Woolworth lunch counter from Greensboro, North Carolina, the 1960 site of the first student sit-ins to end segregation. He also acquired puppeteer Jim Henson's Kermit the Frog and oversaw the conservation of the original "Star-Spangled Banner" that inspired the national anthem.

Crew told Shapiro about his goals at the NMAH: "Our task is to begin to illustrate the richness and complexity of history: that it's not a singular story and that there is no one single truth…. If people begin to understand the various pieces of information that go into the American story, it helps them to think differently about that story. If nothing else, I would hope that people leave here as critical thinkers…."

In 1998 Crew oversaw the opening of the landmark exhibition, Between a Rock and a Hard Place: A Dialogue on American Sweatshops, 1820-Present, followed by The American Presidency: A Glorious Burden. The latter, a highly-acclaimed permanent 7000-square-foot exhibit, covered all 41 past presidents, organized thematically in 11 distinct sections. Crew spoke to American Heritage on the exhibit's opening in November of 2000: "I hope visitors will leave it with a keener understanding of the office of the Presidency, the kinds of challenges it entails, and how dramatically it has evolved and changed over time. We also want people to appreciate how we, the citizens of this country, have had a tremendous impact on the way the Presidency operates. We often forget that the Presidency is an evolved institution. The Constitution provided only the vaguest notion of the job."

Dr. Crew left the Smithsonian in 2001 to become executive director and CEO of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. He was the fourth Smithsonian museum director to retire or resign since the January 2000, appointment of Lawrence M. Small, a business executive and the first non-academic to head the Institution. Crew and other directors complained that they had lost their autonomy under Small and that he was commercializing the Smithsonian at the expense of its research programs. Specifically, Small had excluded Crew from negotiations that led to the NMAH accepting large, controversial gifts. Crew also had been forced to abandon his plans for a NMAH center for the study of race, gender, and class conflict in America.

Fulfilled His Life's Dream

Crew's new position at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center enabled him to focus on black American history. Ebony quoted from his acceptance statement: "Building and leading the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center fulfills my life's dream." In addition to directing daily operations at the Center, Crew was responsible for the final designs of the programs and exhibits. The Freedom Center opened in 2004 as part of the Smithsonian's Affiliates Program.

Located on the banks of the Ohio River, which escaping slaves had called the River Jordan, the Freedom Center established a memorial to the secret network used by escaped slaves to reach freedom in the North and to the underground railroad's conductors such as Harriet Tubman. The museum's exhibits included an original 20-by-30-foot slave pen, depictions of the American slave trade, and tributes to nineteenth-century abolitionists. Although the Center's emotional appeal drew criticism from some historians, Crew told the New York Times on August 1, 2004: "We have a point of view. We're a museum of conscience." He wrote in Footsteps: "The Freedom Center is designed to provide an interactive and emotional museum experience that will encourage young people and their families to think about how they can be more productive and involved citizens today."

Crew wrote the introduction to Unchained Memories: Readings from the Slave Narratives, the companion book to the 2003 HBO documentary and an extended DVD. Meanwhile, the Freedom Center organized a traveling exhibit, Unchained Memories Interactive Learning Centers. In 2005 the exhibit won the prestigious Silver Muse Award from the American Association of Museums.

Dr. Crew has been in great demand as a lecturer and has been active in numerous academic and cultural organizations. In 2004 he was awarded the McMicken College Distinguished Leadership Award from the University of Cincinnati, for his "commitment to civic engagement, moral responsibility, creative leadership, and the values of liberal education."

Selected works


Field to Factory: Afro-American Migration 1915–1940, Smithsonian, 1987.
(With James E. Sims) "Locating Authenticity: Fragments of a Dialogue," Exhibiting Cultures: The Poetics and Politics of Museum Display, Ivan Karp and Steven D. Lavine, eds., Smithsonian, 1991, pp. 159-175.
Black Life in Secondary Cities: A Comparative Analysis of the Black Communities of Camden and Elizabeth, NJ, 1860–1920, Garland, 1993.
(With Lonnie G. Bunch III) "A Historian's Eye: Jacob Lawrence, Historical Reality, and the Migration Series," Jacob Lawrence: The Migration Series, Elizabeth Hutton Turner, ed., Rappahannock, 1993, pp. 23-32.


Field to Factory: Afro-American Migration 1915–1940, NMAH, 1987.
Go Forth and Serve: Black Land Grant Colleges Enter a Second Century, NMAH, 1990.
African American Images in Postal Service Stamps, NMAH, 1992.
Between a Rock and a Hard Place: A Dialogue on American Sweatshops, 1820-Present, 1998.
The American Presidency: A Glorious Burden, NMAH, 2000.
(With Cynthia Goodman) Unchained Memories (Multimedia traveling exhibit), National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, 2003.


"Why Become a Historian?" American Historical Association, www.historians.org/pubs/Free/why/crew.htm (September 18, 2005).



American Heritage, November 2000, p. 54.

Chicago Tribune, September 20, 2001.

Ebony, February 2005, p. 12.

Footsteps, January/February 2003, p. 44.

Jet, August 23, 2004, p. 20.

New York Times, September 20, 2001, p. E10; August 1, 2004, p. TR6.


"Alumni and Friends," McKicken College of Arts and Sciences, http://asweb.artsci.uc.edu/CollegeMain/alumni/2004_winners.html (September 18, 2005).

"Brown Alumni Association Officer Biographies," Brown Alumni Association, http://alumni.brown.edu/about/elections/05officers.html (September 18, 2005).

"Careers for Students of History," American Historical Association, www.historians.org/pubs/careers/crew.htm (September 18, 2005).

"History with a Human Face," Brown Alumni Magazine, www.brownalumnimagazine.com/storydetail.cfm?ID=441 (September 18, 2005).

"An Interview with Spencer Crew," Organization of American Historians, www.oah.org/pubs/nl/2000may/crew.html (September 18, 2005).

"Road to Freedom," PBS Online NewsHour, www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/race_relations/jan-june05/freedom_02-23.html (September 18, 2005).

"Spencer R. Crew," National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, www.freedomcenter.org/index.cfm?fuseaction=home.viewPage&page_id=48F2B25E-5A4A-4142-942F2841CDB2CC62 (September 18, 2005).

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