All across America, there are museums and cultural centers that celebrate and honor African American culture and history. For every well-known institution, like the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., there are many small and mid-sized museums telling important stories of the African American journey, locally, regionally, nationally, and globally. Writers Desiree Rew, Stan Thomas, and Sheryl Nance-Nash share their thoughts on those that left a lasting impression on them.
1. African American Museum Of History And Culture, Natchez, Mississippi
How much time do you have? You can lose yourself in the myriad of memories that are Natchez’s history. Where to begin? How about 1716 and work your way to the present via art, artifacts, photographs, manuscripts, documentaries, books, including those of native son Richard Wright, and more. Slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the Civil Rights Movement are all in the mix at the African American Museum of History and Culture. The city’s legacy includes being home to the Forks of the Road, the second largest slave market in the South; the Rhythm Nightclub fire, where more than 200 Black people died; and the Parchman Ordeal, where hundreds of civil rights protestors seeking equal voting rights were rounded up and put in the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman in 1965. The museum’s collection recounts more than 1,200 stories. The museum is a place where you can begin researching your ancestry. Access the museum’s log, pull up names of soldiers, and then go to the Department of Defense for records.
2. International Civil Rights Center & Museum, Greensboro, North Carolina
Step back in time at the International Civil Rights Center & Museum. I’ll never forget walking through the former F.W. Woolworth department store where four college freshmen, the Greensboro Four, made history as they sat at the “whites only” lunch counter and helped kick off the sit-in movement. The museum houses the restored lunch counter in its original location. It’s powerful and a spirit lingers. There’s plenty more to experience with the pictorials, video re-enactment, interactive component, and artifacts that defined the Civil Rights Movement, like the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Be ready for a surge of emotion that might come over you as you look at images of the era’s violence. Stark differences are also on display, like a double-sided Coca-Cola machine, where one side of the machine was meant to serve whites, and the other Blacks. Soda on one side was a nickel, the other a dime.
3. Harvey B. Gantt Center For African-American Arts And Culture, Charlotte, North Carolina
When in Charlotte, my favorite museum to visit is the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts and Culture. The “Gantt,” as it is called by Charlotteans, is named after the city’s first African-American Mayor. The Gantt took its present place in uptown Charlotte in 2009. If touring the museum, be prepared to experience your “wow” moment before opening the doors. You can’t help but be drawn into the fascinating shape of the building itself. A glass mural by North Carolina artist David Wilson entitled “Divergent Threads, Lucent Memories” adorns an outside wall on the side of the building. What I love most about the museum is the plethora of ways to learn through visual art, modern art, cultural conversations, as well as classes and activities. Admission to the museum is included when you purchase a Levine Center for the Arts Access Ticket but is affordable on its own.
4. Reginald F. Lewis Museum Of Maryland African-American History And Culture, Baltimore, Maryland
When visiting my hometown of Baltimore, my favorite museum is the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African-American History and Culture. In downtown Baltimore, just a brief walk from the Baltimore Inner Harbor and adjoining “Little Italy” community, this museum is massive. Opened in 2005, it is the largest African-American museum in the state. Maryland is the birthplace of many historical heroes from the slavery era until today. This museum puts on view the interplay of struggle and triumph in its five stories. My favorite exhibit was Roland Freeman’s Arabbers: Life in Baltimore Streets. It depicted through photographs the horse-drawn, fresh fruits and vegetables that made way through many communities in Baltimore. It is one of the fondest memories I have of my childhood. Free admission is given to museum members, Maryland public school educators, and children under 6 years of age.
5. Charles H. Wright Museum Of African-American History, Detroit, Michigan
I’ve had the pleasure of visiting Detroit’s Charles H. Wright Museum of African-American History on two occasions. Once was during a brief trip on my way to Ann Arbor and once to see the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, lay in honor for public visitation when she died. Opened in 1965, it is said to be one of the world’s oldest independent African-American museums. The attention to artistic detail is viewable from floor to ceiling within each independent gallery, and it includes a wall photomontage displaying the famous African-American Detroit artists who have had a major influence on the music industry and performing arts. We can experience exhibits from home or in person. It was here I learned African rulers or kings were called “Oba” and I chose that name as a nickname for my grandson, who was on the way. Today, he is Grandma’s Oba thanks to the Charles H. Wright Museum.
6. Leimert Park Village, Los Angeles, California
Stroll through Leimert Park Village and you may hear the sounds of live jazz or spoken word poetry emanating from The World Stage. Art galleries like Papillion invite you in to admire artwork. Merchants selling everything — from books to healthcare products to Kente cloth to skateboards — fill the needs of the mind, body, and soul. Restaurants, community events, and much more lead people to gather here in “the village.”
Leimert Park Village, dubbed “the Black Greenwich Village” by filmmaker and former resident John Singleton, began as a master-planned community conceived by Walter Leimert in 1928. It has since grown, flourished, and even after surviving two riots and the devastating 1994 Northridge earthquake, remains a major hub of African American culture.
Construction of Metro’s Crenshaw/LAX light rail line is bringing massive change to the village. The rail line, which runs along Crenshaw Boulevard, will have a stop at Leimert Park. An open-air gallery called Sankofa Park will anchor the village as part of the larger Destination Crenshaw project. This heralds a new future for Leimert Park while continuing to celebrate its rich history.
7. Eubie Blake Cultural Center, Baltimore, Maryland
James Hubert “Eubie” Blake was an African American pianist, lyricist, and composer. His musical Shuffle Along helped launch the careers of several performers while reviving the art of jazz.
The Neighborhood Parents Club at Dunbar High School in Baltimore established an after-school arts program in the 1960s that eventually grew into seven different cultural arts centers in the Baltimore area.
It was the intersection of a desire to bring the growing collection of Blake’s memorabilia, awards, etc., back to his birthplace of Baltimore, and the seven cultural centers that grew out of the efforts of the Parents Club that resulted in the formation of the Eubie Blake National Jazz Institute and Cultural Center.
The center fields a long list of programs including visual arts, music, and dance. The art gallery features numerous, varied exhibitions. In keeping with part of the center’s origins, there is also an extensive number of programs geared toward children. Adults and seniors will find programs created for them as well.
8. Museum Of African American Art, Los Angeles, California
Hidden in a department store is the site of the Museum of African American Art. Historian and artist Dr. Samella Lewis founded the nonprofit museum in 1976. Its purpose is to “allow artists and their work to inspire new thinking about the issues that intersect with the shared experiences of the people across the African diaspora and beyond.”
The museum houses masks, figurines, drums, jewelry, and ceremonial pieces from South America, the Caribbean, the South Pacific, and Africa. The permanent collection highlights the Palmer Hayden collection, featuring paintings of steel drivin’ man John Henry. Past historic exhibitions include The Civil Rights Movement: Los Angeles to Selma.
The Museum of African American Art is only open Thursday through Sunday. Oh, and you’ll find it at the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza, on the third floor of Macy’s, tucked away behind the bedding section.
Note: The Museum of African American Art is currently closed due to COVID-19 restrictions but is anticipating reopening for visitors as soon as possible.
9. African American Art & Culture Complex, San Francisco, California
Initially founded in 1989 and located in the center of San Francisco’s historic Fillmore District, the African American Art & Culture Complex is situated in one of only two historically Black communities left in San Francisco. AAACC is the only city-owned cultural center dedicated to the preservation of African American art and culture.
Twins Melonie and Melorra Green are co-executive directors of AAACC, whose mission is to be “a space for Black creatives to present, gather, and learn, while being a space for all to experience Black art and culture.” To that end, they have available classrooms, a dance studio, a conference room, theater, recording studio, gallery, and media lab.
AAACC collaborates with a group of artists that create work to be displayed inside the complex, as well as other artists that are part of a mural program. A continual series of exhibits and events underscore AAACC’s dedication to African American culture inside the building and outside in the community.
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