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Exploring the History of Racism

Milwaukee’s Black Holocaust Museum

Jun. 18, 2008
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  James Cameron was not as acclaimed as he would soon become and his America’s BlackHolocaustMuseum was mostly a rumor when a pair of white faces peered through the window at the museum’s original inner-city location. It was 1988 and whispers of something called a BlackHolocaustMuseum had trickled into Milwaukee.

  Truth be told: The two white faces were puzzled by the term “Black Holocaust,” but the kindly man who stepped up to the door and admitted them was eager to show that the word “Holocaust” was not hyperbole when applied to the black experience. Cameron experienced the catastrophe of American racism firsthand at age 16 when an angry mob broke into an Indiana courthouse in 1930, determined to lynch him before he could go to trial. A white man had been murdered and a woman raped, and several black men were rounded up on suspicion. Cameron maintained his innocence, but the local Ku Klux Klan stirred up the townsfolk, stormed the jail and pulled the three suspects outside to the hanging tree.

  One by one they were strung up from the branches. When Cameron’s turn came, a voice cried out from the mob, “Take this boy back! He had nothing to do with this!” In what was little short of a miracle, the crowd dispersed, leaving Cameron alive and determined to devote his life to the cause of civil rights. The BlackHolocaustMuseum, open since 1988 and in its present location since 1993, was the culmination of his life’s work.

  It has not been easy. In 2004 the museum almost closed due to financial straits and has been dogged with reports of money woes ever since, much to the surprise (and amusement) of its director, Bethany Criss. “It’s like one of those urban legends,” she says, adding with a touch of mischief that the museum’s allegedly endangered existence “hasn’t been bad for business!”

  Cameron’s death in 2006 was a blow to the institution, Criss admits. “Having Dr. Cameron alive to tell his own story was a huge boost,” she says. Without his presence, the already uphill struggle for funding was exacerbated. Nevertheless, despite the odds, the founder’s legacy still endures, serving as an anchor in the historic Bronzeville neighborhood.

  On June 19 the museum celebrates its 20th anniversary with a new exhibit and a new outlook partly attributable to the vigor and optimism of its young director. Criss has set herself the task of finding inexpensive and effective means of marketing an institution that for the past 20 years has largely depended on word-of-mouth and a utilitarian sign on the expressway to inform the public of its existence. E-mail campaigns and an improved Web site have been used to increase the museum’s local and national profile.

  Finding new and inventive ways of presenting its material with limited funding has been another challenge.

  “Most museums tend to have the same problems after a while,” Criss says. “People think, ‘Well, I’ve been there before, what else is new,’ so there’s constantly this attention to what we can do to draw people back in.”

  To this end, museum events have been strategically coordinated with those of wider significance, such as Black History Month, and efforts have been made to augment exhibits with film screenings. “It’s about moving the museum into the modern era,” Criss says.

Rethinking Racism

  The most significant opportunity to inject new life into the museum and broaden its relevance comes through the 20th anniversary exhibit that opened May 20. “Rethinking Racism” presents the concept of racism as a global phenomenon resulting from European colonization. Visual images, text and videos are used to explore how the concept of race was pioneered in the West by scientists like Sweden’s Carl Linnaeus, who separated humanity into five different races, each with defining characteristics (no prizes for guessing which one he placed at the apex of humanity!).

  “We’re not often taught the history of racism,” Criss explains. “Here we’re trying to broaden people’s understanding and show them it’s not just a black and white issue, but is part of a broader paradigm.” Propagandist images and discriminatory laws in Nazi Germany and South Africa under apartheid are compared to American Jim Crow laws and pop culture caricatures of blacks.

  “It’s been interesting to see people’s reactions to seeing Jim Crow juxtaposed with Nazi Germany and apartheid … to see their mental wheels turning,” Criss continues. “It pushes people to think outside the box, and when you push people to think outside the box, it really wakes them up.”

  The 20th anniversary couldn’t come at a better time, when the nation is still abuzz over Barack Obama’s Democratic victory. “The fact that Obama has the nomination is a huge triumph not just for black history, but minority history,” Criss says. She’s seen a resurgence of interest among young African Americans, not only tracing their ancestral history but that of the civil rights movement. “People want to know more about that period and also want to put him and this entire tremendous experience into context.”

  America’s BlackHolocaustMuseum celebrates its 20th anniversary on June 19 with free museum admission from 2-5 p.m. On June 21 at 2 p.m. the museum will host a screening of The House We Live In, the final installment of the “Power of an Illusion” film series that examines race in terms of politics, economics and culture. For more information, visit www.blackholocaustmuseum.org or call (414) 264-2500. The museum is located at 2233 N. Fourth St.


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