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Reimagining the Black Holocaust Museum

Organizers plan to open a new building in 2018

Mar. 7, 2017
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For some, the 2008 closing of America’s Black Holocaust Museum marked the end of a dream, but others refused to let one of Milwaukee’s singular cultural institutions die.

By 2010, the Black Holocaust Museum reappeared in virtual form. Under the wings of a new non-profit organization, the James Cameron Legacy Foundation, the museum began sending volunteers into the community giving talks on black history. 

At a Feb. 25 Legacy Foundation event at Centennial Hall, the Black Holocaust Museum’s Head Griot, Reggie Jackson, promised that the museum would resume operations in a new building, perhaps as early as next year. The “museum without walls,” as he called the digital initiative, will gain a new set of walls in the heart of Bronzeville, rising from the corner of North Avenue and Fourth Street. “We need to open up and tell the truth about our history—the bad as well as the good,” Jackson said.

Surviving a Lynching

While borrowing the word Holocaust to describe American racism struck an uncomfortable note in some ears when the museum opened in 1988, its founder, James Cameron, was a patient explicator, a kind-hearted docent guiding visitors through an exhibition of hell. He was nearly lynched by an Indiana mob in 1930. As he told the story, the noose was already around his neck when a voice from the crowd cried out that he was innocent of rape. His two traveling companions were not so fortunate.

One of the museum’s coordinators, Milwaukee filmmaker Brad Pruitt, refers to an infamous photograph of that lynching—the picture of two young black men hanging slightly apart from a branch that inspired the lyric of Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit.” “James Cameron was supposed to be the one in the middle,” Pruitt says.

But Cameron survived, gained an engineering degree, became a tireless campaigner for the NAACP and participated in many civil rights marches after moving to Milwaukee in the 1950s. He became a prolific writer-researcher of African American history. After visiting Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, Cameron was inspired to publically display the artifacts of racism he had collected. America’s Black Holocaust Museum was born.

About the museum’s 2008 closing, Pruitt says, “It was a perfect storm. Dr. Cameron passed away two years earlier. It’s always an issue when a founder dies—especially when you lose someone with such energy. Then, one of the museum’s most influential supporters, Marty Stein, died. And then, the recession…”

Keeping the Mission Alive

Pruitt had been working on a documentary of Cameron’s life with social worker-educator Fran Kaplan. Frustrated in their search for funding, they began working with the son of the museum’s founder, Virgil Cameron, along with Reggie Jackson and other activists, to reimagine the museum in the digital dimension. As Kaplan recalls, “The more we talked, the more we realized that the museum’s central story was told by the docents—the griots—more than the physical artifacts. We could tell those stories online.”

The virtual museum grew to include nearly 3,000 exhibits. The Legacy Foundation reported 1.4 million visits from around the world to the site in 2016. While the virtual museum was born in the necessity of a low budget, the result was a global reach Cameron never imagined when he opened the museum’s doors. According to Kaplan, teachers in Germany, France and Italy are using the exhibits in classrooms. And during the past few years, the museum has kept its mission alive in the physical world through its Griot to Go speakers program, which has attracted packed audiences to presentations on black history at Milwaukee-area public libraries.

So with such success as a “museum without walls,” why assume the financial risk of brick and mortar? Pruitt explains that Alderwoman Milele Coggs, whose district encompasses the historic Bronzeville neighborhood, championed the move. “For her, the museum is where her constituents live,” he says. “In communities of color, where institutions celebrating art and culture have atrophied, it’s vital to have physical spaces where people can gather, learn and commune.” At the Centennial Hall event, Coggs insisted that the museum’s return “couldn’t be more timely—there are some who are fighting to tear down the progress we have made.”

The projected physical museum will be part of a block-long development bounded by Fourth and Fifth streets and North and Garfield avenues. The museum will be housed in a new four-floor building designed by HGA Architects, the firm behind the similarly configured East Side Public Library. The museum and museum café will occupy the ground level. The Griot Apartments will fill the upper stories. Local art will be displayed in the café gallery. A parking lot will be available for visitors.

In the weeks to come, the Legacy Foundation will unveil a fundraising campaign for the museum’s construction. “Milwaukee has been the poster child for residential segregation,” Kaplan says. “When the Sherman Park incident happened last summer, the national media rushed here to talk about the situation. We couldn’t be in a better place as a museum facing these issues. A while back, when we introduced an exhibit called ‘Breaking News,’ someone from the local media asked, ‘Why do you call it Breaking News—you’re a museum?’ That might be a good point if the past wasn’t still with us in the present.

“Dr. Cameron had deep faith in the promise of America,” she continues. “He believed that when people understood our history better, the truth would set us free. The museum is carrying on that legacy. We’re helping to win the peace.”

For more information, visit abhmuseum.org.


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