Opinion: Why African American museums are important in the midst of racial unrest

By: Jada Wright-Greene

Dr. Charles H. Wright’s traveling International Afro-American Museum, 1966. Courtesy of the Archives and Research Library of the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History.

I have been thinking and processing the issues that we are facing in our world. These issues are threaded and woven into the fabric of this world, things like hatred, bigotry, racism, and even COVID-19.  I began to ponder what is the role of Heritage Salon and the African American museums during this period of unrest.  Over the past few weeks, countless people have asked how can they educate themselves, or what can they do to learn more about black history and culture?  As the “African American Museum Activist,” the title that was given to me by one of my mentors in 2012, I felt the need to share the importance of support and the purpose of African American museums in a climate of inequities and injustices in our world.

African American museums were a result of the Black Power Movement. The deaths of leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X racialized Black America to become activists that promoted pride and self-reliance. This pride within the black culture and plight birthed the Black Power Movement. The Civil Rights Movement played an influential role in giving Black America a voice and place, but our voices continue to be muted and, we remained unwelcome in a country that has taken so much from us amid us giving so much to it.  African American museums are one of the cornerstones of the Black Power Movement. They preserve our history and share our stories through the lens of Black America. It shares the voice of those who came before us, in order to help us see ourselves through our eyes and not the eyes of mainstream media or whitewashed history books. A surge of African American museums began to open in major cities across the country. There are four museums that I call the “Four Pillars of the Black Museum Movement.”  The four museums are:

  • DuSable Museum of African American History, Chicago, IL
  • Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, Detroit, MI
  • Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum, Washington, DC
  • African American Museum of Philadelphia, Philadelphia, PA

Some of these museums had direct ties to The Black Power Movement. These institutions were instrumental in promoting the identity, history, art, and culture of African Americans.  Hence the birth of the Black Museum Movement.  African American museums have been telling and continue to share the TRUE and FACTUAL story of Black America.

The DuSable Museum of African-American History was founded in 1961 in the home of Dr. Margaret Burroughs and her husband, Charles on Michigan Avenue in Chicago, IL. The Burroughs and their friends and co-founders nurtured the museum for the next 12 years.  Image courtesy of the DuSable Museum

“Beginning in the 1990s, museums such as the National Civil Rights Museum, Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and the Charles H. Wright Museum linked the historic civil rights movement with contemporary struggles for civil and human rights,” says, Historian, Dr. Tara White.  These institutions and hundreds of others have curators, historians, and staff that are experts in African American history, the civil rights movement, and the racial injustices that have plagued our race for years.  These museums have collections of books, documents, and artifacts that are displayed and allow visitors to learn about the truth amid the racial injustices.

The part of history that African Americans have contributed to America is sometimes hidden or written from a negative perspective. The systemic issues within our education system have caused the curriculum to be exclusive of some of the facts about American History. Yes, I said American History, because African American History is AMERICAN History. We all can remember our first visit to a museum as an elementary school student. As we walked around these museums, we looked for items or exhibits that identified or connected to who we are. Mainstream museums are considered to be the source of history for everyone.  In these institutions, our stories are shared and written from the perspective of those who control the narrative. History often glorifies the majority by excluding negative facts that will impact the majority. We cannot depend on mainstream museums to tell our stories; we have recently discovered half-truths of the stories that are shared, grazing of the truth and in some instances, just a clear ignorance of the truth.

As the African American museum activist, I urge you to find your local African American museum, historic site or historic home in your city and (once the world opens up) visit them if you can. Since we are in a pandemic, take the time to review their websites, learn about them, and become a member or contribute a donation.  Consider volunteering at an institution, adding them to your “Giving Tuesday” for November, or gift a membership package as a Christmas present.

I urge you to dig deep into learning about the civil rights movement through institutions I call “Museums of the Movement.”  Here is a link (US Civil Rights Trail) to a website that gives you the opportunity to discover and explore the entire trail of the movement. You will be surprised, there are museums you will know, but also some smaller museums, churches and historic homes that you never heard of that were just as impactful.

Finally, we must support our African American museums, historic sites, historic homes, and cultural institutions. Our stories are being preserved, interpreted, and shared for our future generations. If WE don’t support them, how will we learn? How will our children understand our history? How can we move ahead, if we don’t know what we have overcome or not overcome at this point?

I, Jada Wright-Greene, THE African American Museum Activist, call you to support our African American museums, TODAY!

For more information about your local African American museum, historic site or historic home, feel free to email me jada@heritagesalon.org

With Museum Love,

Jada Wright-Greene

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