Okolo and Sababu Rashid founded the International Museum of Muslim Culture in 2000, and its inaugural exhibition, "Islamic Moorish Spain: It's Legacy to Europe and the West," debuted in April 2001. And it wasn't until 2004 when the couple, bringing re-discovered manuscripts from Timbuktu, Mali, to Mississippi, had the vision to create another exhibit. Okolo, the 61-year-old co-founder and executive director of the museum, and her husband, Sababu, visited the once-French colony and wanted to share what they had uncovered about the city.
"The Legacy of Timbuktu: Wonders of the Written Word" international exhibition program became a reality in 2006. The National Endowment for the Humanities funds the exhibition, along with several other cultural programs around the country.
"We're leading the effort to help better educate Americans about the Muslim world and its contributions. And it's primarily because we have the museum," Okolo says.
The IMMC partnered with the Mamma Haidara Memorial Library at Timbuktu in the Republic of Mali to bring ancient manuscripts to Jackson. "These ancient documents reveal that a sophisticated, highly literate and scholarly culture flourished in the city of Timbuktu and the region beginning in the 13th century, lasting more than 700 years," states a release for the exhibit.
"This was a time when the Renaissance ideas came from Arabia and West Africa ... these West Africans, that we were told only had oral culture," Rashid says. "They were interacting, traveling, developing scholarly works ... during this particular period of time from the 1100s up to the 1900s when the colonizers came."
Many families hid the manuscripts for more than 100 years after French colonizers stole many of the cherished pages, Rashid says. The Jackson exhibit houses 25 of an estimated 1 million re-discovered manuscripts.
"It does so much for our people, as African Americans. It helps us to now reclaim a legacy that's been lost, stolen or hidden. I feel like I've been specially blessed to be put in a position to be able to do this," she says.
In addition to the manuscripts, the exhibit contains interactive media, tents and other artifacts from the city. It chronicles Islam's spread through West Africa, a chronicling of ancient university education, French colonialism and the slave trade, the rise and fall of West African empire and modern-day Mali life. It also explores Muslim roots found in Mississippi blues music.
Maryam Rashid Washington, 30, the museum's education coordinator, researcher, tour guide and Rashid's daughter, is proud to see a missing piece of African and African American history brought to Mississippi.
"We could read, and we could write," Washington says. "A lot of our African American students, especially, it gives them a better understanding of their history. ... If you know yourself, you know your history."
One of the exhibition's major themes is religious tolerance as expressed in a vignette discussing the relationship between Muslims and Christians. Washington says about 98 percent of the exhibit visitors are non-Muslims.
"It teaches others more about Islam and the Islamic contributions to America," Rashid says.
The IMMC has partnered with Tougaloo College to host two historic national conferences, "Islamic West Africa's Legacy of Literacy and Music to America and the World" Feb. 19 and 20, and "Slavery and Its Legacy" Feb. 21 and 22 at the Jackson Convention Complex.
Scholars, filmmakers and experts, including Dr. Ali Mazrui, Dr. Aminah McCloud, Imam Zaid Shakir and Jackson City Council member Chokwe Lumumba will explore Islamic West African literacy and cultural contributions at "Islamic West Africa's Legacy of Literacy." Inspired by Brown University's President Ruth Simmons who mandated that the university explore its part in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, the conference and its presenters will not only focus on slavery of the past at "Slavery and its Legacy" but also its ramifications and evolution from traditional images of servitude to modern-day human trafficking.
On Sunday, Feb. 20, Dr. James Loewen, author of "Lies My Teacher Told Me," serves as the unifier between the two conferences, as he hosts a blended session, bringing together participants from both conferences.
"The Legacy of Timbuktu: Wonders of the Written Word" is housed at the Mississippi Arts Center (201 E. Pascagoula St.). The exhibition is open Tuesdays through Thursdays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Fridays, 3 p.m. to 5 p.m.; Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; and Sundays, noon to 5 p.m. For more information about the conferences this month, visit http://www.africanlegacy.org and http://www.muslimmuseum.org. Both conferences are free.