HARLEM — When Motown Records founder Berry Gordy was moving his groundbreaking record label from Detroit to Los Angeles in 1972, his sister came up with the idea to launch a museum.
"It was ironic that I reacted the same way to her that she did to me when I first had my stupid idea to start a record company," Gordy told a crowd gathered at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture Monday night.
"Motown is moving to California and you want to take the trash we are leaving behind to start a museum?" Gordy recalled asking his late sister Esther Gordy Edwards.
"This is not trash," Gordy's sister replied. "This is history."
Gordy Edwards was right, and the Motown Museum opened at 2648 West Grand Blvd. in Detroit in 1985 and has drawn more than 1 million visitors since.
Now the museum is joining with the Schomburg for the exhibit "Motown: The Truth is a Hit," which traces the label's impact on the biggest cultural and social movements in this country's history, spanning integration, the Great Migration of blacks to the north and the civil rights movement.
"But for...Bessie Smith or Duke Ellington or Diana Ross and The Supremes or Little Stevie Wonder it is indeed hard to imagine the nation we live in today," said Schomburg Director Khalil Gibran Muhammad.
"Who sustained those artists along the way? Who recognized their achievements, preserved their legacies, made possible their embrace by the mainstream here and across the globe? Institutions like Motown," he added.
The exhibit includes everything from the $800 promissory note from the Gordy family savings account that he used to start his record company (the interest rate was 6 percent) to a glittery gown worn by Diana Ross that weighed 6 pounds. It also features records of speeches from Martin Luther King Jr., including an early version of his "I Have a Dream" address.
"People are reliving the story of where we came from and how the Motown family contributed to social change," Gordy said.
With its innovative style of taking R&B music and giving it pop sensibilities, Motown was able to bring people of different races together in their shared love for the music.
Artists like Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, the Jackson 5 (including a young Michael Jackson), and Diana Ross and The Supremes came from Motown Records. Those artists entertained but also were not afraid to tackle social issues of the day with songs like Gaye's "What's Going on," Ross' "Love Child" and Wonder's "Living For the City."
Allen Rawls, president of the Motown Museum, said Gordy's standard for releasing new music was that it had "those intangible emotions of honesty and authenticity." That spawned Gordy's "the truth is a hit" mantra.
If you only had $1 left and had to choose between buying a ham sandwich or the new Motown record, Gordy wanted the music to be so compelling that you would buy the record.
But the music of Motown didn't spawn itself. It has a rich history that dates back to its African roots, through slavery, the Great Migration and the civil rights movement.
"The truth that is present in the most basic tribal chant, field work song, spiritual, ragtime, blues swing bebop, doo wop or hip-hop. Interwoven in that rich tapestry of sound is the unique blend, which has become known as the Motown sound," Rawls added.
That history and tradition eventually made its way to Detroit where Gordy, a young songwriter, launched his own record label.
Today, between the Motown Museum, exhibits at institutions like the Schomburg and the new Motown musical now playing on Broadway, the legacy will be kept alive, said Robin Terry, chairwoman of the Motown Museum and Esther Gordy Edwards' granddaughter.
"People come from all over the world to see where this phenomenal story of Motown began. My grandmother founded this institution because she wanted it to be documented in history what took place there," Terry said. "She founded this institution in its birthplace so that it would be there to inspire future generations."
"Motown: The Truth is a Hit," presented by Northern Trust, the Motown Museum, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and "Motown: The Musical," will be on display until July 26, 2014 at the Schomburg Center, 515 Lenox Ave. at 135th Street.