Museums that focus on the critical role of African Americans in U.S. history and culture are more popular than ever, and several cities are planning new or expanded facilities to attract tourists and scholars.
“There’s a new generation of [African-American culture] museums that are competitive in size and budget with most mainstream museums – and that’s a very new phenomenon,” said John Fleming, president of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History.
“The black community is interested in preserving [its] history and culture on a scale that our patrimony deserves,” he said. The African-American experience largely was ignored or misrepresented until recent decades, and even now, most students have a poor understanding of important people and events, Fleming told USINFO. “They know who Martin Luther King is, but they don’t really understand his significance in American history.”
African-American museums attract many visitors, he added. “Cities and states are interested in cultural tourism. You see where they put the Baltimore Afro-American museum [Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture], right on the waterfront, right in the tourist area? And the Birmingham [Alabama] Civil Rights Institute [BCRI] has been a major tourism draw for the city.”
BCRI Executive Director Lawrence Pijeaux agreed. “We are one of the major destination points for tourism in the state of Alabama,” he said. A recent economic impact study found that BCRI visitors spent about $5.7 million in the Birmingham metropolitan area between July 2002 and July 2003, and that 4 percent of the visitors were from foreign countries.
Birmingham has a civil rights district that includes the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, the site of a 1963 bombing that killed four young girls. The BCRI has a replica of a “Freedom Riders” bus ridden by nonviolent protesters in 1961 to challenge racial segregation. Another exhibit features the door to the jail cell where Martin Luther King Jr. sat in 1963 and wrote his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”
There are approximately 200 U.S. museums that focus on the African-American experience and “several projects are on the drawing board,” said Pijeaux, who also heads the Association of African American Museums. Among these are a museum in Atlanta to exhibit the papers of Martin Luther King Jr., the United States National Slavery Museum in Fredericksburg, Virginia, and the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington.
The old F.W. Woolworth store in Greensboro, North Carolina, is being converted into a museum that will display the “whites only” lunch counter where, in 1960, four black college students launched the sit-in movement to protest segregation.
One of the newest museums is the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati, which opened in 2004. It tells the stories of the estimated 100,000 slaves who escaped via the “underground railway,” a loose network of clandestine routes and safe havens provided by abolitionists, freed slaves and other sympathizers.
Among the exhibits is an unheated pen where slaves were chained and held before being shipped off for auction. “If the market [for slaves] was down, they would be kept here for months,” according to Carl Westmoreland, a senior adviser to the museum and the grandson of slaves. In a television interview, he said he wept when he first saw the slave pen.
Visiting a museum that displays slave shackles and whips or photographs of lynchings “can be very difficult and emotional,” Fleming acknowledged. “But that doesn’t mean that we should not preserve them.” It is important, he said, to “continue to tell the story.”
Not all African-American museums focus primarily on slavery or civil rights. Museums in Dallas and New Orleans, among others, are dedicated to African-American art and culture, and Kansas City, Missouri, has the American Jazz Museum. Fleming helped develop the National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center in Wilberforce, Ohio, which created an exhibit that traced African dance over 400 years. “People assume the Lindy Hop and the Charleston were created by white choreographers,” he said, but these and many other popular dances sprang out of African-American communities.
In New York, the Museum for African Art is being expanded and moved to a new home where it will be “a cultural gateway to Harlem,” according to Mayor Michael Blumberg. The new museum in Washington, which will take several years to develop, is going to “cover the breadth of experience from African origins down to the present,” Fleming said.
These museums are not just aimed at an African-American audience, they are for everyone, he stressed. They create the opportunity “to really understand the history of black people in this country … and how we have contributed to the development of this country.”
Additional information on these and other museums is available on the Web site of the Association of African American Museums.