The Wonder in a Little Girl’s Eyes, Rhonda Burnough Creates a Museum Celebrating African-American Families and Pioneers in Clayton County

Article by · July 26, 2023

::: Photo By Nathan Pearcy :::

It was the sparkling light that Rhonda Burnough saw in a young seven-year-old girl’s eyes that sparked an idea to honor the African-American experience in Clayton County. The young girl, her step-granddaughter named McKenzie Palmer, had just seen Burnough’s collection of African-American Santa dolls. 

“That look in her eyes. I wanted to share that with others,” she said. “That little girl’s eyes told me that there are artifacts in many families that are significant.”

The result is the R&M Museum, a local museum dedicated to showcasing pioneering African-Americans such as elected officials, schoolteachers and administrators, and other trail blazing figures that have shaped the history of the county. The R in the museum name is for Rhonda and the M is for Mary, her mother.

On a personal level, Burnough plans to display her extensive African-American doll collection that includes historical Barbie dolls of Rosa Parks, Alvin Ailey, Maya Angelou, Kathryn Johnson, and the original African-American Barbie doll. One of the most interesting dolls is the first African-American Chatty Cathy, which Burnough collected alongside the Caucasian Chatty Cathy she had played with for years.

“The voice was the same in both dolls,” she said.

Burnough is very particular when it comes to her doll collecting. She recently bought a Kamala Harris doll on the internet. But it was made with cheap plastic. “I sent it right back,” she said.

Her One American Girl Doll Melody Ellison, listed on the American Girl website as an African-American singer in 1964 from Detroit, is to honor Burnough’s hometown and the famous Hitsville of the Motown era. 

Among the collection is a Birthday Barbie sporting a classic Afro, an African-American male and female Nutcracker, 20 miniature Hallmark African-American Barbies, an Olympic Gold Medalist Gabby Douglas doll wearing her signature Nike workout suit, and an African-American Marine. 

Beyond the 31 Barbie dolls and 45 regular dolls, doll houses, and a doll hospital, Burnough encourages family members to showcase their own African-American collections, whatever they may be. According to Burnough, the museum’s purpose is to create an environment where families and individuals can display their family heirlooms and tell their personal stories.

“There is something about bringing your family together where stories are told. It helps you understand who you are,” Burnough said. “I want it to be a place where people talk and reminisce. I don’t want a stoic place. I want a magical place, a happy place.”

Burnough is putting her entire doll collection on display, including the Princess Tiana and Prince Naveen dolls from the 2009 Disney film The Princess and the Frog. These dolls are symbolic of the entire museum. According to a Disney website on the princess, “Tiana knew that a dream is a little bit of magic and a lot of hard work.”

The African-American dolls are just a part of the proposed museum, which at this writing was still looking for a permanent location, preferably a house rather than an industrial place, said Burnough. The other part of the museum is to honor African-Americans in Clayton County who were the firsts in their field.

The museum will pay tribute to elected officials, such as Congressman David Scott and Congresswoman Nikema Williams, County Commission Eldrin Bell, Police Chief Jeffrey Turner, Clayton police officers Sharkley Buford and Dana Scott, District Attorney Jewel Scott, and others who created the career path for others to follow. 

Burnough has not forgotten the officials in the county’s seven cities. She plans to have exhibits with African-American firsts in city government, including College Park Mayor Bianca Motley Broom, Riverdale Mayor Phaedra Graham, and Forest Park Mayor Angeline Butler. Several council members, police and fire chiefs, and police officers will be memorialized as well. 

Not all the officials will come from the ranks of elected politicians. Prominent African-Americans not elected consist of Chamber of Commerce Board Chair Pastor Wesley Greene and CEO Yulonda Darden Beauford, head of the water authority Bernard Franks, library director Rosiland Lett, among others.

The museum will observe the tremendous changes in the Clayton County School system, beginning with the William Alfred Fountain school created in 1952 as part of the Rosenwald Schools. This series of schools was conceived by Booker T. Washington of the Tuskegee Institute and Julius Rosenwald, the Jewish philanthropist and president of Sears Roebuck, to build state-of-the art schools for African-American children across the South. Some historians call this effort the most important initiative to advance black education in the segregated America of the early 20th century.

The story of the Rosenwald schools can be found in a book Burnough wants to include in the museum’s research material. A Better Life for Their Children by Andrew Feiler details the tremendous influence that students from these schools have had on this country. Many took the lessons learned at a Rosenwald school to become leaders of civil rights movement.

In Clayton County today there are nine schools named after African-Americans who greatly influenced the direction of the county’s educational system. One of these is named for a man with more than half a century of service to Clayton schools: Eddie White.

White was twice recognized as the Star Teacher at the high school and would twice be named Clayton County Teacher of the Year in 1972 and 1977, one of only two teachers to be so honored. His picture is the first in line at the teacher Hall of Fame display at the Clayton County School Administrative office in Jonesboro. And in 2010, the Eddie J. White Middle School Academy was established to honor the long-time teacher and administrator.

“Never in my wildest dreams would I think that a school would be named after me,” White told this publication a few years ago. “I’m very thankful and very honored. I feel I’m somewhat ministerial, which is what I set out to do, because kids and teachers came to me for advice. The bottom line is, I’ve done what I wanted to do originally.”

From the whimsy of dolls to the seriousness of politics, the M&R Museum will span the African-American experience on a purely local level. Burnough wants visitors to both learn and be enchanted.

“The museum is something that is evolving. It may not be perfect but it is a start,” Burnough said. “I want that warmth and excitement I saw in McKenzie’s eyes. I want to share that with others.”

1 Comment

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    Ivy Adams

    I have lived in Clayton County for over 20 years and had no idea that there were nine schools named after influential African-Americans. I absolutely love this. I cannot wait to take my neice!

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