While bicycling the perimeter of the United States in 2011-12 my partner and I tried to visit as many African American and other people’s history museums as possible. We discovered that the disturbing story of Minnesota’s stalled African American Museum — seven years of roadblocks– discussed in this interview with Nekima Levy-Pounds, is one that is replicated across the country.
- In Milwaukee we tried to visit ‘the only slavery museum in the United States.’ The windows were covered in plywood. Embossed letters across the building were gone, but we could stillmake out the words in weathered wood. African American Holocaust Museum. Founder, Dr. James Cameron, (only known survivor of a lynching) died in 2006. The city council refused to fund the museum and it closed in 2008. (Curators created a virtual museum.)
- In Fredricksburg, Virginia, the only part of the National Slavery Museum ever finished was a freedom garden. The project filed for bankruptcy two weeks before we biked into Fredericksburg.
- In Walterboro , South Carolina, we tried to visit the Slave Relic museum . There was a post-it-note on the door: “Knock. The doorbell does not work”. We knocked, but it was clear no-one was there. It looked, from the official city posting, as though the museum was in financial straits. A couple years later I was relieved to see Henry Louis Gates examining artifacts at the Museum for the Many Rivers To Cross TV series. I hope he gave the exhibit a donation.
- In Blythe, California we waited for the one-room Black History Museum, with its stunning wall murals, to open. At 10am a White man unlocked the door. We followed after him. The man, on his knees fixing electrical wires, told us:
“I just bought the place, it’s going to be my office space.”
One museum we did find open and in business was John Reed’s African American and Cape Verdean Museum in Hyannis, Massachusetts. Housed in a historic African American church, the Museum honored the history of the region’s working class Black and indigenous people, many of whom came to work in Cape Cod’s cranberry bogs or to provide domestic labor for those who “summered” on the Cape and Martha’s Vineyard. Reed had refused public funds, preferring to fundraise privately and retain total say on form and content of the museum.
In Oakland, California,
we visited the African American Museum — triumphant to find it open. Black Oakland has roots going back to WWI when people came to work the shipyards and canning industries. The Brotherhood of Pullman Porters and the Black Panthers originated here. The exhibit interviewed people of diverse ages and perspectives. I was struck by an agreement: decent union jobs, made earlier decades the “good old days.” When the jobs went, other foundations of a healthy society — neighborhood organizations, cultural opportunities — frayed. The Panthers stepped in, offering free breakfasts, health care, security and pride while the dominant society criminalized unemployment and hunger.
From there we went to the Art Museum, showing Question Bridge, a video montage of fifty Black men and youth questioning each other. “Do you feel you are free?” “Why are you afraid of being intelligent?” “If you’re gay, how do you deal with that in the community?” “What do you fear?” An eight year old asked, “When do you know you are a man?” All the men smiled before answering. A question about fathers brought tears.
Question Bridge illustrated how essential it is to establish venues where people’s histories and current realities can be told. The foreclosure of African American history, in Minnesota and around the nation is another Jim Crow. It must end.