CBS 58 gets first look inside America's Black Holocaust Museum ahead of grand reopening in Milwaukee
MILWAUKEE (CBS 58) -- Nearly 14 years after it first closed, a staple in Milwaukee's Bronzeville neighborhood is coming back.
America's Black Holocaust Museum (ABHM) will open its doors to the public once again -- aiming to create dialogue and connection.
More than 400 years of African American history is now explained, here, in Milwaukee.
Spread out over roughly 4,000 square feet of space inside the new America's Black Holocaust Museum.
"So, you know, we start by telling people that the story of African people who were enslaved in America starts back in Africa. And we want them to understand what life in Africa was like, going back to some of the great civilizations throughout West Africa," Reggie Jackson, ABHM head griot, said.
Jackson took CBS 58 on an exclusive tour of the museum starting with the first exhibits -- starting before Africans were displaced by the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
It begins in places like the Great Pyramids of Egypt and the Mali Empire -- where, by some accounts, the richest person in history ever lived.
"King Mansa Musa, of the Mali Empire in West Africa, most people have never heard his story," Jackson said.
The new America's Black Holocaust Museum is in Milwaukee's Bronzeville neighborhood -- at the corner of Vel R. Phillips and North Avenue. Founder Dr. James Cameron -- the only known survivor of an attempted lynching -- created the museum in 1988.
The original location is just feet away from the new site.
"He wanted it to be like a teaching experience because you know, as you know, history wasn't taught, our history wasn't taught in public schools and Dad felt this was an opportunity to get this history out to all the people, and eventually maybe the schools would pick it up," Dr. Cameron's son, Virgil, said.
Dr. Cameron moved his family to Milwaukee from Indiana in the 1950s and immersed himself in the local civil rights movement. One of the museum's exhibits highlights this era in the Cream City.
"Telling the stories of the NAACP Youth Council, these young people who marched for 200 days. Telling the story of this wonderful alderwoman, Vel R. Phillips, Father Groppi who was involved," Jackson said.
Back then, Bronzeville was also a thriving area for African Americans in Milwaukee.
The area is part of the city's sixth district led by Alderwoman Milele Coggs.
Coggs remembers visiting the former museum as a child.
"Also when Bronzeville was created in 2005, legislatively, it had two anchors -- one of the anchors was the Inner-city Arts Council on 7th and North Avenue and the other anchor, that's stated legislatively was America's Black Holocaust Museum," Coggs said.
"Historically, Bronzeville has been, or cities that have had Bronzeville have had them, because we, as people of color, had our own community," ABHM President & CEO Dr. Robert "Bert" Davis said. "And every ethnic group, and racial group, has had their own communities, we've lost our Bronzeville."
But the museum's re-emergence, in its home neighborhood, is extremely important says Davis.
"The importance of Bronzeville was the epicenter for education, economic development, arts and culture, and so when you talk about scales of economy and you look at other communities, basic economics show that if you able to recycle dollars in your community, your community thrives on so many different levels. In most of our African American communities, it may circle once," he added.
Having a thorough, collective knowledge of African American history, starting at pre-captivity, was crucial to Dr. Cameron. Those who knew him say he saw education and information as building blocks of unity.
"As we're going through history, you're seeing that things are changing, and I would like to think that maybe we can help that change and I think that was Dad's idea," Virgil Cameron said.
The reopening of America's Black Holocaust Museum is nearly 14 years in the making.
The museum closed in 2008, after funding troubles and Dr. Cameron's death in 2006.
Virgil Cameron remembers the time as devastating.
"As a matter of fact, Reggie Jackson and I were here when we were forced to move that day on the spot," he said.
But the community would not let Dr. Cameron's dream die.
The museum eventually went virtual, and the group kept strategizing.
As part of their plans, Jackson set up a meeting with Ald. Coggs.
And she met with then-mayor Tom Barrett and the Department of City Development.
"I think it was important for us to assist with that re-emergence in Bronzeville, at the location that they started at not just for the fulfillment of Mr. Cameron's vision but also for the whole community to see," Coggs said.
With help from the city, the team was able to keep the museum in its original spot.
"Initially, they were still open when Reggie Jackson came to me about it. But with negotiations with the department of city development and the bank the city was able to step in and to negotiate a fair financial resolution and take ownership of the building," she explained.
America's Black Holocaust Museum now lives on the first floor of "The Griot", the residential and commercial space by developer Melissa Goins.
With a clear future in sight, the museum's funding slowly started to return.
In just the last couple of years, anonymous donors gave a total of $11 million dollars to the museum -- part of which will help create an endowment.
"I think one of the things that changed was the fact that people began to have those conversations about racial issues, racial history in America," Jackson said.
Jackson believes these new conversations encouraged reflection and softened concerns, from some, about a place called America's Black Holocaust Museum and what would be inside.
"Those fears were alleviated and said, we can be honest. We can tell the truth. These may be ugly parts of our history but it's still part of American history," Jackson said.
The museum's footprint doesn't end here.
The next phases involve community and educational programming and expansion within Bronzeville.
This means Dr. Cameron's legacy will live on and will his visions of racial understanding, reconciliation and healing -- for everyone.
"If we communicate, we are a powerful people and sometimes we can be our own worst enemies," Virgil Cameron said. "I hope this inspires people to do the best that they can and continue to march."
The grand reopening of America's Black Holocaust Museum Friday, Feb. 25, on Dr. Cameron's 108th birthday.
The ribbon-cutting ceremony start at 9 a.m.
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