Black Museums: Keeping the Legacy Alive

Ebony, March 1994 | Go to article overview

Black Museums: Keeping the Legacy Alive


From ancient African civilizations through the first landing of blacks on American shores to contemporary life in Black America, Black museums have chronicled the tragedies and triumphs of African-Americans. As repositories of African-American history, culture and art, Black museums offer a window on the African Diaspora and Blacks' subsequent struggle for freedom.

In recent years, there has been a flurry of activity in the museum field, including proposals for repositories or memorials in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Jamestown, Va., to honor the contributions of Black Americans.

While governor of Virginia, L. Douglas Wilder convened a blue-ribbon panel, including historian John Hope Franklin and philanthropist Bill Cosby, for preliminary work on a national museum honoring the strength and the wisdom of African-American slaves at the Jamestown site where the first Africans in English America landed in 1619.

Through the arts, history, academia, music and the like, the Jamestown Slave Museum will stand as a symbol for generations to come of perseverance in overcoming adversity, cruelty and man's inhumanity to man. The museum will be an important piece of American history that has previously been left unaddressed. Plans for the museum were initiated in August 1993 and former Gov. Wilder has indicated that bringing the museum to fruition will be one of his major initiatives in the future.

In New York City, an effort is under way to preserve an African burial ground dating back to 1710. The remains were unearthed at the proposed site of a federal office building and courthouse in lower Manhattan. Rep. Charles B. Rangel, D-N.Y., Sen. Alphonse M. D'Amato, R-N.Y, and Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y., have introduced legislation in both houses of Congress requesting funds to redesign the federal building and to establish a memorial marking the gravesite.

But perhaps the boldest move to ensure that all Americans have the opportunity to learn about African-American history is a recent effort by legislators and Black cultural figures to establish a National African-American Museum on the Mall in Washington, D.C. The proposed museum will be a national repository for African-American objects and documents, a research and training facility for museum professionals and an authoritative resource on African-American history within the national museum complex on the Mall.

Legislation to establish the museum was introduced into both houses of Congress in 1991 by Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., and Sen. Paul Simon, D-III. The bill passed in the House in June 1993 and is awaiting action by the Senate. It the necessary authorizing legislation is enacted, and funding becomes available, the museum could open between 1996 and 2000.

Black history is also thriving at Black museums from coast to coast, including Chicago's DuSable Museum of African-American History, which recently added a new wing named for the late Harold Washington, the city's first Black mayor. At the National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center in Wilberforce, Ohio, visitors can view four decades of Black American life in one exhibit.

Harlem's Studio Museum is typical of many Black museums that offer visitors a global view of Black art work from Africa, the Americas and the Caribbean. At the Afro-American Historical and Cultural Museum in Philadelphia, an exhibit explores how the Great Migration permanently changed the dynamics of modern-day Philadelphia.

Thanks to more than 100 Black museums around the country, the legacy is being kept alive for generations to come. Local Black museum directors are working diligently to ensure the proper interpretation and preservation of African-American history. "Our mission is to collect, preserve, exhibit, document and interpret art and artifacts of the African and Black American Diaspora," explains Kinshasha Conwill, executive director of the Studio Museum in Harlem. …

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