The Ongoing Struggle to Finance Black History

By Stuart, Reginald | The Crisis, January/February 2007 | Go to article overview

The Ongoing Struggle to Finance Black History


Stuart, Reginald, The Crisis


GALLERY

How would Carter G. Woodson assess the stated of exploring Black history today?

"I think he would see it as a dream come true," says John Fleming, who, on Jan. 1, became president of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, the group the late Woodson founded in 1915 to promote serious study of the contributions of Blacks in American history.

"He (Woodson) wanted to get it to the masses," says Fleming. "And that's what's finally happening."

Fleming was referring to the proliferation of efforts - large and small - to preserve and promote Black history through establishment of museums. But as plans for new African American museums continue to be announced, their boosters are having difficulty raising seed funds. Their established counterparts are also struggling financially in their efforts to sustain museum operations.

There was a time when Black history museums were hard to come by. Today they seem to be everywhere.

There are multimillion-dollar museums in Detroit; Cincinnati; Los Angeles; Memphis, Tenn. and Birmingham, Ala., all of them focusing on the Black experience in America. There are dozens of smaller museums in Philadelphia; Boston; New York City; and Washington, D.C In Greensboro, N.C, the International Civil Rights Center & Museum is set to open this year in the building once occupied by the F.W. Woolworth store where Black college students began their sit-ins to end segregated lunch counters in the 1960s.

In addition, there are ambitious plans for two mega-museums within 50 miles of one another - the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C, and the United States National Slavery Museum in Fredericksburg, Va. Together, the two could cost nearly half a billion dollars to build.

There are also plans for smaller museums and cultural centers in Pittsburgh; Atlanta; Jackson, Miss.; Wilmington, Del.; Nashville, Tenn.; Louisville, Ky.; Charlotte, N.C; and Prince George's County, Md. Collectively, they will require several hundred million dollars just for construction.

The rollout of these countless facilities comes at a delicate time for the nation's estimated 17,500 museums, about 200 of which are considered "Black" museums. Individual giving, never very high for historical museums, is down for a variety of reasons. Large philanthropies are retrenching as their portfolios remain weak compared with the start of the decade and competition for their funds tightens. State and local government support, long a mainstay for museums, has declined in some areas as government revenues fall and budgets tighten.

On top of those trends came the relatively recent financial stumbles of two high profile museums - the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati and the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit - that sent Shockwaves through the Black museum community.

"The reality is right now, for museums in general, it is a tough time and, for historical museums, a tougher time," says Spencer Crew, president of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center for the past five years. "There's been a challenge for museums across the board. Katrina. Tight state budgets. Foundations are asking different kinds of questions now. They are willing to give seed money. [But] they don't want to be sustaining things forever," says Crew, former director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History.

Crew knows firsthand what many museums face today, having been forced to batten down the hatches at his center. After raising $115 million to design, construct and staff the massive facility, the museum's business plan went up in smoke. Attendance, which had been projected at about 250,000 visitors a year when the museum opened in 2004, has been running closer to 180,000. Operating costs have exceeded revenue, which has been less than projected. …

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