Throughout 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 medium-sized museums telling important stories of African American travel, locally, regional, national and global. Writers Desiree Rew, Stan Thomas and Sheryl Nance-Nash share their thoughts on those who left a lasting impression on them.
1. African American Museum of History and Culture, Natchez, Mississippi
Sheryl Nance Nash
How much time do you have? You can get lost in the myriad of memories that are the story of Natchez. Where to start? 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 on display 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 protesters seeking equal voting rights were rounded up and incarcerated at the Mississippi State Penitentiary in Parchman in 1965. The museum’s collection numbers more than 1,200 stories. The museum is a place where you can start researching your ancestry. Go to the museum journal, find the names of the soldiers, then go to the Ministry of Defense to get records.
2. International Civil Rights Center and Museum, Greensboro, North Carolina
Sheryl Nance Nash
Step back in time at the International Civil Rights Center and Museum. I’ll never forget strolling through the former FW Woolworth department store where four freshmen, the Greensboro Four, made history by sitting at the ‘whites only’ lunch counter and helping launch the sit-in movement. The museum houses the restored lunch counter in its original location. It is powerful and a spirit lingers. There’s so much more to discover with the images, video re-enactments, interactive components and artifacts that defined the civil rights movement, like the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Prepare for a wave of emotion that could wash over you when you watch images of the violence of the time. Striking differences are also on display, such as 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
In Charlotte, my favorite museum to visit is the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African American Arts and Culture. The “Gantt”, as Charlotte residents call it, is named after the city’s first African-American mayor. The Gantt took its current place in downtown Charlotte in 2009. If you visit the museum, prepare for your “wow” moment before you open the doors. You can’t help but be drawn to the mesmerizing shape of the building itself. A glass mural by North Carolina artist David Wilson titled “Divergent Threads, Lucent Memories” adorns an exterior 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, and classes and activities. Admission to the museum is included when you purchase an admission ticket to the Levine Center for the Arts, but is affordable on its own.
4. Reginald F. Lewis Museum of African American History and Culture of Maryland, 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 steps from the Baltimore Inner Harbor and adjoining “Little Italy” community, this museum is huge. Opened in 2005, it is the largest African American museum in the state. Maryland is the birthplace of many historic heroes from the days of slavery to the present day. This museum depicts the interplay of struggle and triumph in its five stories. My favorite exhibit was Roland Freeman’s Arabbers: Life on the Streets of Baltimore. It depicts through photographs the fresh, horse-drawn fruits and vegetables that pass through many Baltimore communities. It’s one of the fondest memories I have of my childhood. Admission is free for museum members, Maryland public school educators, and children under age 6.
5. Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, Detroit, Michigan
I had the pleasure of visiting the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit twice. Once was on a brief trip en route to Ann Arbor and once to see the queen of soul, Aretha Franklin, honored for a public visitation upon her death. Opened in 1965, it is considered one of the oldest independent African-American museums in the world. The attention to artistic detail is visible from floor to ceiling in each independent gallery and includes a photomontage featuring Detroit’s famous African-American artists who have had a major influence on the music industry and the performing arts. . We can discover exhibitions at home or in person. It was here that I learned that African rulers or kings were called “Oba” and I chose this name as a nickname for my grandson, who was on his way. Today, he is Grandmother’s Oba thanks to the Charles H. Wright Museum.
6. Leimert Park Village, Los Angeles, CA
Stroll through Leimert Park Village and you might hear the sounds of live jazz or spoken word poetry emanating from The World Stage. Art galleries like Papillion invite you to admire works of art. Merchants selling everything from books and health products to Kente cloth and skateboards cater to the needs of mind, body and soul. Restaurants, community events and more bring people together here in “the village”.
Leimert Park Village, dubbed “the Black Greenwich Village” by filmmaker and former resident John Singleton, began as a planned community designed by Walter Leimert in 1928. It has since grown, prospered and even after surviving two riots and the devastating 1994 Northridge earthquake, remains a major center of African-American culture.
The construction of the subway’s Crenshaw/LAX light rail line brings massive changes to the village. The rail line, which runs along Crenshaw Boulevard, will stop at Leimert Park. An open-air gallery called Sankofa Park will anchor the village as part of the larger Destination Crenshaw project. It 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 back the growing collection of keepsakes, awards, etc. de Blake, in 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 National Jazz Institute and Eubie Blake Cultural Center.
The center offers a long list of programs including visual arts, music and dance. The art gallery presents many varied exhibitions. In keeping with part of the center’s origins, there are also a large number of programs aimed at children. Adults and seniors will also find programs created for them.
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 non-profit museum in 1976. Its aim is to “enable artists and their work to inspire new thinking about issues that intersect with the shared experiences of people in the diaspora Africa 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 showcases the Palmer Hayden Collection, which includes paintings by steel conductor John Henry. Past historical exhibits include The Civil Rights Movement: From Los Angeles to Selma.
The Museum of African American Art is only open Thursday through Sunday. Oh, and you’ll find it at 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 plans to reopen for visitors as soon as possible.
9. African American Arts and Culture Complex, San Francisco, CA
Originally founded in 1989 and located in the center of San Francisco’s historic Fillmore District, the African American Arts and Culture Complex is located in one of only two historically black communities remaining in San Francisco. The 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 showcase, congregate, and learn, while being a space for all to discover black art and culture”. To this end, they have classrooms, a dance studio, a lecture hall, a theater, a recording studio, a gallery and a multimedia laboratory.
AAACC collaborates with a group of artists who create works for display inside the complex, as well as other artists who are part of a mural program. An ongoing series of exhibits and events highlight AAACC’s dedication to African American culture inside the building and out in the community.
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