THOMASVILLE, Ga. — Winter is the busiest time of year at a black history museum here named after its founder — a city native and retired Airman, who remains the driving force behind the collection of more than 5,000 items, most of them acquired locally.
“We have so many visitors in February for Black History Month that we can’t handle them all,” retired Chief Master Sgt. James Roosevelt “Jack” Hadley said. “We have to ask some to come in March.”
The 79-year-old’s personal touch is all over the Jack Hadley Black History Museum, which is housed in a former elementary school. Hadley tends constantly to the collection, said retired Air Force Reserve Senior Master Sgt. Walter Leslie, a member of the museum’s board of directors.
“He is the go-to guy for local black history. It’s his passion,” Leslie said.
Hadley grew up at Pebble Hill, a former Thomasville cotton plantation. Three decades after slavery was abolished, the property was purchased by an Ohio family who ran it for decades as a shooting estate where wealthy northerners hunted quail as an escape from frigid winters. It was still being used largely for hunting at the time of Hadley’s birth in 1936. The property now hosts tours, arts events, weddings and other celebrations.
Hadley joined the Air Force upon graduating Thomasville’s Frederick Douglass High School in 1956, eight years after President Harry Truman integrated the military services via an executive order.
“I was a supply guy, logistics, a box kicker,” he said. “I knew I had to bust my (butt), being black, to get recognized.”
He married a classmate, Christine Jackson, who had grown up on a different Thomasville plantation, Greenwood. They raised three children and moved 14 times during Hadley’s 28-year career. He started to develop a deeper interest in the American experience and achievements of those from his race in the late 1970s when he helped his son, Jim, put together a black history project for a school assignment when the family lived in Wiesbaden, West Germany. Hadley later presented it at his squadron before storing it for future use.
After retiring, the Hadleys returned to Thomasville, and the chief went to work for the U.S. Postal Service. He displayed the research project at a church, where it caught the eye of the director of the Thomasville Cultural Center for the Arts and Heritage Foundation, who invited him to participate in the city’s Black History Month events. He started to collect local items of black history and eventually had so much that he began to think of how best to share it with others.
Hadley signed a deed for the school property in 2003, paying $10 for the 7-acre site and $10 for surplus furniture. He raised $82,000 in the next few years, enough for the museum to open its doors in December 2006. He estimated that two-thirds of the collection is material from the surrounding area, giving visitors a feel for the lives of local African-Americans from slavery, through the post-Civil War Reconstruction period and into the Jim Crow era.
Hadley experienced the latter firsthand as a child and teen. The museum features extensive information about early black educators in Thomas County and has a tribute to Dr. Carter G. Woodson, an author and historian who, in 1926, started a weeklong celebration of black history that expanded to Black History Month 50 years later.
Hadley co-authored the 2000 book “African-American Life On the Southern Hunting Plantation” with Dr. Titus Brown, associate professor of African-American history at Florida A&M University, after conducting many interviews with his elders from Pebble Hill and surrounding plantations.
Leslie, the museum board member and retired Airman, is a native of La Grange, Georgia. He moved to Thomasville, his wife’s hometown, in 2012 after 26 years in California where he worked in information management before becoming a unit historian at March Air Reserve Base.
“I hated history in high school,” Leslie said. “The Air Force made me like it.”
An acquaintance introduced him to Hadley, who persuaded him to help at the museum.
“His enthusiasm was contagious. It was overwhelming. I couldn’t say no to him,” said Leslie, 56, who works at Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University in Tallahassee, Florida.
He occasionally shadows Hadley as he leads tours, trying to absorb all of his knowledge.
“I’m not there yet,” Leslie said. “Sometimes the responses you get from kids are breathtaking. Some of the things you see (on display) in here are not encouraging.”
Hadley’s goals for the museum include increasing visitors to make it sustainable and to recruit an executive director to succeed him upon his eventual retirement.
“I’m into it for the kids,” Hadley said. “They say ‘Wow.’ I do it so (they) don’t forget their heritage, I really do. It’s hard work, not easy. It costs $2,300 a month to keep the doors open.”
This feature is part of the “Through Airmen’s Eyes” series. These stories focus on individual Airmen, highlighting their Air Force story.