As a girl growing up in Hardeman County, the daughter of sharecroppers, Hattye Mae Thomas Yarbrough couldn’t imagine many of the things she’s seen in her 95 years.
“Never in a million years” is when she thought she’d see America’s first African American president, for instance.
And “never in a million years” did she ever think she, the star basketball player from Paris, Tennessee, would ever have artifacts on display in a Smithsonian museum.
But, just like Barack Obama, it’s happened.
“These kids used to run from me in high school, saying, ‘Here comes Hattye Mae with her scrapbook!’” she said, laughing at the memory.
And it is Yarbrough who has actually had the last laugh.
The contents from one of her scrapbooks, a book packed full of memorabilia from African American soldiers who served during World War II, are now on display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, which held its grand opening Saturday, Sept. 24.
When she arrived on the third level and saw some of the things she donated – rocks sent to her from the beaches of Normandy on D-Day, a flag that belonged to her late husband, Ordrell, a booklet titled “Negroes in the War” – she was proud.
“I stood there and I looked around at all of the things there and I went back to …”
Yarbrough pauses to collect herself and gather her thoughts on what she has called the most important moment of her life.
Her journey to the Smithsonian began when her father sent her to live with her Uncle Bud and Aunt Sybil to attend high school in Paris.
Her brother cousins, as she calls them, had moved away and she inherited their room. Inside that room was a bookshelf that changed her life, she said.
In that bookshelf were magazines and other publications detailing the African American contribution to history, none of which was in her textbooks.
“I started reading them and one day I asked my aunt, “Is this true? Did colored folk really do this?”
During the war, Yarbrough, then a student at Lane College, collected letters, cards, telegrams, photos, unit patches, liberty cards and other memorabilia sent to her by African American soldiers she befriended while working at Camp Tyson and Fort Leonard Wood, Mo.
The scrapbook also contains photos from Africa, India and Europe; patches from almost every branch of the military and many different units; newspaper clippings; programs from plays performed at Ft. Leonard Wood; ticket stubs and more.
The war ended more than 70 years ago, and many of the soldiers she once knew, soldiers who served in once-segregated units, have died, she doesn’t want their service to the country to be forgotten.
This is just her collection, she said, but it shows participation and that is why it’s important to African American history.
She has dedicated her life to documenting as much as she could ever since her talk with Aunt Sybil around the table that day.
Eighty years later, she hopes she’s done her aunt proud.
“ … I went back to how I felt, I got that feeling the same night that I asked Aunt Sybil questions and she explained to me how we were who we were.
“And I thought about where I had come from as a little barefoot girl over in Hardeman County, slipping and pulling off my shoes when I got out of the house so my folks would not know I pulled my shoes off.
“And I thought about in my wildest dreams would I ever have imagined having something in the world’s museum. I had come a long ways and I was thankful God had brought me through all of this. I never would have made it if he hadn’t been directing my path. That’s exactly how I felt.”
“I went back to where I came from in Hardeman County and how Papa Johnny and Mama and Ordrell and Aunt Sybil and especially Donny, that was my older cousin, how they would feel if they knew this and could see it. Aunt Sybil would not believe this.”
Last weekend, Yarbrough traveled to Washington, D.C. to attend the museum’s grand opening, an event for which she’s been waiting for five years.
Also attending with her were her sister, Alma LaMar, Ted Kerr and J.J. Moore of Detroit, Mich.; Marjorie Embry of Jackson; Mattie Pearl Carter and Joan Patterson of Memphis; and Marsha Edwards, Diane Galloway and Laura Moore of Washington, D.C.
The event featured speakers like President Obama and entertainment by Patti LaBelle, Oprah Winfrey and Will Smith, to name a few. After several hours, the museum officially opened its doors and guests were invited to browse its three levels of collected history.