By Damarius Johnson

In June 2020, UNESCO reported that museum closures prompted by COVID-19 will cause disproportionate economic impact on the viability of heritage sites in Africa, Asia, and the Pacific that possess limited resources to accommodate public health concerns, mitigate budgetary shortfalls, or curate digital exhibitions. By July, the American Alliance of Museums released a survey that nearly 33% of American museum directors polled expressed worry that their institutions face “significant risk” of closure by next fall. This general climate of uncertainty, precarity, and alarm about the futures of cultural institutions provides an opportunity to recognize the essential function of Black museums as repositories of cultural artifacts and sites of knowledge production. In particular, African American history museums in the United States, termed “Black Museums” during the Black Museum Movement of the 1960s, are gathering spaces that render Black intellectual work visible. Black museums are a single community among many spaces in which black study prevails: enslaved intellectuals excluded from academe (“Intellectual Labor on College Campuses”); enslaved women who articulated their selfhood through speech (“We Have No Way Through But to Create Ourselves”); contemporary engagements with inclusion and diversity among faculty of color in academia (“Marginalia: Notes on the Teachable Moment”). Black museums are distinct spaces in which a diverse community of museum patrons engage with Black intellectual histories as tangible and accessible exhibitions of material culture. Black museums invite community members to engage with black intellectual work outside of formal academic institutions.

This essay will discuss recently published histories of inaugural museum directors at the DuSable Museum of African American History (Chicago, IL), the National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center (Wilberforce, OH), and the National Museum of African American History and Culture (Washington, DC). In each case, Black intellectual histories shaped the identity formation and intellectual development of museum directors and legitimized the creation of new African American history museums. In the wake of anticolonial and black radical political movements of the 1960s and 70s, Black museum directors eschewed dominant narratives of Black exclusion to imagine the Black museum as an institutional home for Black intellectual histories, Black political mobilization, and revolutionary political imagination. Rationales for creating African American history museums often invoked longstanding debates about the scope of Black history, the meanings of African American life, and the hoped-for futures for African Americans in American society. Inaugural museum directors enticed donor investment and solicited community support by engaging, constructing, and imagining particular constructions of African diaspora histories and identities. Characterizing the relationship of African history and art to African American life was a recurring, paramount interpretive concern.

DuSable Museum of African American History

The DuSable Museum of African American History originated as the private collection of Charles and Margaret Burroughs in 1961. Dr. Margaret Burroughs was an African American college professor, K-12 educator, visual artist, poet, activist, and inaugural museum director at DuSable. She established and sustained DuSable as the second-oldest African American history museum in the United States and co-founded the landmark professional organization for Black museology, the African American Association of Museums (p. 32). Rebecca Zorach’s Art for People’s Sake: Artists and Community in Black Chicago, 1965-1975 situates Burroughs within a larger movement of Black Chicago visual artists who directed their aesthetic imagination to create public art that fostered African American cultural pride. Burroughs insisted that “art and history should teach racial self-appreciation (p. 20).” The early visitors to Burroughs’ private home collection of artworks were her Black neighbors in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood. By the mid-to-late 1970s, the Ebony Museum relocated to an administrative district, Centennial Park, and was renamed in honor of the first African American to settle in present-day Chicago: Jean Baptiste Point Dusable. By the late 1970s, Burroughs secured state and municipal funding, and the widespread popularity of Kwanzaa enticed larger, more diverse patrons to seek knowledge of African and African American history and patronize Black museums.

Burroughs insisted that “Negro History” would encompass “African history and the true history of black people in America…the most vital studies a Negro can undertake (p. 21).” Zorach argues that Burroughs’ incorporation of Yoruba religious and cultural themes into her creative works presaged her conception of “Negro History” in the museum. Burroughs’ use of the category “Negro History” recalls a tradition of incorporating African history into a broad view of African American contributions to American society that defined the careers of Theodore Holly, William Wells Brown, and Martin Delany in the 19th Century and professional historians such as Carter G. Woodson, John Wesley, and L.D. Reddick in the 20th. This differential emphasis of an America-centric or international perspective on African American history defines the boundaries of Pan-Africanism, Afrocentricity, Black internationalism, and African diaspora history. 

National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center

In a 2018 issue of the National Council of Public History, Fath Davis Ruffins chronicled a generation of “Black Titan” museum directors who founded early Black museums. Among this generation are Dr. Margaret Burroughs and Dr. John Fleming. Fleming was inaugural director of the National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center, the first national museum of African American history, established in Wilberforce, OH in 1988. Black intellectual history defined Fleming’s academic orientation, museology career, and organizational leadership. Before he arrived at Wilberforce, Fleming served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Malawi and worked alongside Marion Barry in the 1970s. By 1974, he earned s PhD in American History at Howard University in 1974 (p. 8). Among  the Howard University scholars he counts as forebears are Dr. Rayford Logan, Dr. Charles Wesley, Dr. Lorenzo Green, and Dr. John Hope Franklin. By the 1990s, he served as president of the African American Museums Association (today, Association of African American Museums). Fleming’s academic credentials, professional networks among Black museum professionals, and HBCU contacts positioned him to meet the novel challenges of museum leadership in Wilberforce, OH.

Calls for a national heritage site for African Americans emerged as early as 1915. In 1980, Public Law 96-430 granted legislative backing for the founding of a national museum for African Americans; unfortunately, federal appropriation was not forthcoming. Fleming faced tremendous difficulties with collecting artifacts and designing exhibitions that resulted from the absence of financial support to properly train museum staff, acquiring traveling exhibits, or fund collections trips. Compounding these budgetary concerns, Davis notes that many considered Wilberforce, OH as an inconvenient, distant, and obscure site for a national memorial for African Americans. In lieu of a federal appropriations budget, Fleming sustained the museum by gathering institutional, logistical, financial support from Wilberforce University and state-level appropriations from the Ohio History Connection. The absence of federal financial support offered greater curatorial freedom to depart from America-centric interpretations of ethnic histories that produced contentious congressional debate about whether the National Museum of the American Indian would receive federal appropriations.

In 1988, the same year that the National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center broke ground, Temple University established the first PhD program of African American Studies in the United States. Consequently, Fleming, like Burroughs, experienced the resurgence in African historical interest that shaped the expectations of museum patrons. The cultural popularity of Afrocentricity, alongside the financial, logistical, and intellectual partnership of Wilberforce University, and the legacies of Pan-Africanism at Wilberforce and Central State Martin R. Delany and W.E.B. DuBois expanded the possibilities for African American museum interpretation beyond American civic exceptionalism.

Smithsonian Museum of African American History & Culture

When the Smithsonian Museum of African American History & Culture opened in 2016, Black museum professionals engaged anew in debates about the meanings and scope of African American history. At last, the establishment of an African American history museum on the national mall fulfilled a century of demands left unsatisfied by Public Law 96-430. In his autobiography A Fools Errand, Dr. Lonnie Bunch, inaugural director of Smithsonian African American History & Culture museum, details the revenue sources of a capital campaign in which 40% of financial gifts were received from corporations and 75% of individual $1 million donations were given by African Americans. The museum received 70% of its collections from private donations and benefits from numerous museum partnerships throughout the country. Despite the outpouring of public support for the capital project and museum construction, Bunch preferred that architectural features be subtle but memorable elements that contribute to the functionality of the museum.

It was the architectural features of the museum that incorporated the recurring dialectic between Black internationalism and American civic exceptionalism into the Smithsonian museum. Bunch explains the narrative frame: “[This institution] must use African American history and culture as a lens to better understand what it means to be an American.” Yet, the design of the prominent external façade of the museum, inspired by architect David Adjaye, features a Corona that emulates the Yoruba crown-shaped Olowe of Ise. Pictured below is the Contemplative Court dedicated in honor of the African American historian Dr. John Hope Franklin.

Franklin’s recognition within the National Museum of African American History & Culture is significant as an intellectual forebear of the general historical interpretation provided at the museum. Franklin’s 1947 text From Slavery to Freedom remains a widely consulted African American history textbook printed in its ninth edition. Published in 2010, this ninth edition, like the original 1947 edition, presents African American history as a linear, progressive narrative of African American civic inclusion into the American body politic. In the brief coverage of precolonial African civilizations in From Slavery to Freedom and the broad curational approach within the museum, African history is an origin point for an African American history that exclusively occurs within the boundaries of the United States. Yet Bunch queries, along with Burroughs and Fleming: “[The] work still left us to wonder what the role of African would be in an African American museum.”

Bunch’s query is rearticulated in each generation of African American museum professionals and reinterpreted to the public in each exhibition in African American history museums. Black museums are places to think with others about the meanings of Black histories, identities, and destinies in educational institutions that are open to all and often free of charge. Black museums confront economic pressure to secure new and greater donor investment to curtail curatorial imagination. Underlying the precarity of our life under COVID-19, Black thought is a persistent and enduring legacy of our meaningful presence.

Damarius Johnson is a second-year PhD student in the Department of History at The Ohio State University. His research interests include African American history museums, West African history museums, and African material culture. His co-authored article, “Imagining the Not-Museum: Power, Pleasure, and Radical Museological Community,” is forthcoming in the 2020 issue of the Journal of Cultural Research in Art Education

Featured Image: John Hope Franklin Contemplative Court, National Museum of African American History & Culture. Photographer: Brad Feinknopf – OTTO.