April 15, 2014; Wichita Eagle
For the time being, the Kansas African American Museum will continue to operate from the former Calvary Baptist Church in Wichita, a venerable building on the National Historic Register of Places that dates back to 1917. The museum board has voted to relinquish its $1-a-year lease on 1.2 acres in the city’s museum district, which it has held since 2005, because the organization has not raised sufficient funds to proceed with construction of a new building on that site.
As reported in the Wichita Eagle, the board was faced with the difficult decision of either breaking ground on the new riverfront property in the hope that capital campaign contributions would follow, or postponing the project “to allow the museum to gain a strong financial footing.” While the organization still expects to relocate, that move could be delayed by as much as five years and a new site will need to be secured. “We’re looking at things realistically,” says board chairman Lee Williams.
In 2005, the Kansas museum was one of ten to receive national preservation awards from black history and culture magazine American Legacy. That same year, the city promised the institution prime riverfront real estate, with the understanding that the museum would raise the funds to construct a new building and the expectation that the new museum would open by 2011. Even though early plans calling for a budget of nearly $30 million were later reduced dramatically to $8 to $12 million, the Great Recession took its toll. Along the way, a previous executive director resigned under a cloud, with questions pertaining to fundraising and travel budgets.
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The current building is one of the few remaining structures from Wichita’s historic black business district. When the Calvary Baptist congregation relocated in 1972, preservationists saved the church from the wrecking ball and established what was then called the First National Black Historical Society Museum in 1973. The building was added to the National Register in 1993, and the new name was adopted in 1997.
While the building has provided a historically apt home for the museum’s collection, it lacks a climate-controlled environment and has only limited wheelchair access. And since the 1990s, when Sedgwick County expanded its jail facilities to within feet of the building—and in the process reduced nearby parking—the old location has lost some of its appeal.
Still, there may be a silver lining to giving the land back to the city and postponing the move. Museum executive director Mark McCormick says that while the name suggests that the organization tells the story of African Americans from Kansas, in reality the focus to date has mostly been on Wichita. “We’re looking at making the museum more Kansas focused, incorporating the stories of people like Langston Hughes, Gordon Parks, and others,” he explains.
And in the process, presumably, casting a wider fundraising net—across the state and perhaps beyond—that will make the new museum feasible.—Eileen Cunniffe