Giving History a Hand

Children’s museum expands scope with new wing

“Children’s museums are designed to be inclusive,” says Joseph Knight, executive director of the Hands On! Children’s Museum.
Photo by Evan Anderson

Despite having grown up in the Hendersonville area, “I didn’t hear about the Kingdom of the Happy Land until I was 37,” says Crystal Cauley, founder and manager of the area’s Black History Collective. 

As the Civil War came to a close, a group of emancipated slaves established a refuge on 180 acres on the Green River, in the southern reaches of the county.

The queen of the Happy Land was named Louella Montgomery, who had a “dominant and moving spirit,” according to historical accounts.

Today, a century after the kingdom’s attrition in the early 1900s, Louella reigns again. But this time, she governs from inside the People’s Museum & Walk of Fame, a new addition unveiled at Hands On! Children’s Museum in late May. 

Located on North Main Street, the People’s Museum is a 1,000-square-foot venue dedicated to preserving the culture and history of Henderson County’s Black, Indigenous, and people of color. The Walk of Fame is a permanent exhibit of photographs and information on local trailblazers.

Some kiosks are interactive. “We have a high-powered microscope that visitors of all ages can use to look at their skin cells and compare them to each other,” says Executive Director Joseph Knight. “This is a great teachable moment to discuss how the color of your skin is determined by genetics more so than race.”

Photo by Evan Anderson

As Knight explains, Hands On! has long been a place where kids could explore gravity with Lego cars and the science of sound with musical instruments. But during the pandemic, when the facility was forced to close, he began to re-evaluate the museum’s master plan. 

“Children’s museums are designed to be inclusive spaces welcoming to all,” Knight tells Bold Life. “We felt that our community needed to have a resource where the stories and cultures of people of color could be preserved.” 

In January 2021, Knight organized an advisory team — a group of local citizens, including Cauley, who represented the unique cultural and ethnic diversity of Hendersonville and Henderson County. The collective spent the next year developing unique, factually accurate exhibits.

Photo by Evan Anderson

Diamond Cash, a local Black artist whose murals are featured in the People’s Museum, is also from Henderson County. “Growing up, I wasn’t exposed to any of this,” she says. “It wasn’t until college that I learned about certain parts of our country’s past.

“Kids shouldn’t have to wait years and years to learn more about their own history,” she adds.

But Knight also emphasizes the broad, multi-generational reach of the new space — which has tripled in size. “It’s one of the largest children’s museums in the region, with fun learning experiences for the whole family,” he says

Information on the Kingdom of the Happy Land is part of a permanent exhibit in the Museum. Painting by Gary Carden.
Photo by Evan Anderson

Of course, Cauley’s favorite part of the Hands On! revamp is the new exhibit on the Kingdom of the Happy Land.

“These people were previously enslaved and had no money whatsoever, and yet they worked together to buy property,” she says. “It’s amazing. There’s no telling what sharing this information could inspire.”  

Hands On! Children’s Museum, 318 North Main St., Hendersonville, 828-697-8333, info@handsonwnc.org. Admission to the People’s Museum & Walk of Fame is included in the $10 general admission to Hands On! Museum members get in free (see the website for more information: handsonwnc.org).

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