July 12, 2015; Post and Courier (Charleston, SC)

Before Dylann Storm Roof killed nine people in a South Carolina church, before Freddie Gray died in the back of a Baltimore police van, before Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, Charleston mayor Joe Riley was lobbying donors around the nation trying to raise money for the proposed International African American Museum. As of June 2014, Riley was searching for $25 million in private donations to leverage $50 million in public funding, though only half of the public dollars had been committed.

Roof’s murderous rampage has inspired Riley to redouble his efforts to raise the $75 million before he leaves office in January. “An act of racial hatred makes clear the need for this museum,” Riley said. “It’s needed so all of us will have the chance to understand.” Indefatigable, Riley has secured $12.5 million apiece from the city and the county, but the state has to date only committed $10 million toward its $25 million share and Riley has only raised $2 million toward the $25 million private sector target. Although the museum was going to have a major section on black churches all along, in the wake of Roof’s massacre, there will now be according to new plans a focus on the Emanuel AME Church. It may be that the horrific events of June 17th will spur increased donations for the Charleston museum.

The diverse history of African-Americans in this nation hardly falls into one narrow, tell-all story. For that reason, there are museums, ranging from the very small to the National Museum of African-American History and Culture under construction on the National Mall, being created to show, tell, and commemorate the history and culture of black men and women in the United States. For example, the first African-American museum in West Texas opened just last month in Lubbock, occupying the former location of Caviel’s Pharmacy, whose owners, Alfred and Billie Caviel, retired in 2009 and donated the building to the Roots Historical Arts Council in the hope that it would house a black museum. According to Lubbock city council member Floyd Price, the Caviels were the first African-American couple in the U.S. to own a pharmacy, explaining the prominent display of black-and-white photographs of black doctors, nurses, and dentists on the museum’s walls. In the village of Oxford on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, a tiny 12×24-foot building on the grounds of the John Wesley Methodist Episcopal Church of Oxford Neck is slated to open as Talbot County’s first African-American museum, with a rotating schedule of exhibits.

Why struggle through fundraising for construction and operations to create new museums dedicated to explaining black history and culture in the United States? In his spasm of hate, Dylann Roof helped make the explanation. Just as people failed to see that the Confederate flag was revived in the 1940s and 1950s not as a symbol of pride in Confederate soldiers but as a symbol of resistance to the burgeoning civil rights movement, it is increasingly clear that many Americans simply don’t know or appreciate the real history of blacks in this country overall nor the specific histories of blacks in particular parts of the U.S. For example, the museum in Talbot County might be important because Maryland was twice carried in the Democratic primaries, in 1964 and in 1972, by Alabama governor and longtime segregationist George Wallace, with strong support from Eastern Shore communities (though in 1972 Wallace indicated that he was no longer a segregationist). In Lubbock, it might be important for Americans to realize that the Ninth and Tenth U.S. Army Cavalry and the Twenty-fourth and Twenty-fifth infantry divisions, the cavalry known to local Indian tribes as “Buffalo Soldiers,” were all-black regiments patrolling West Texas in the 1870s.

There is another role for black museums: telling the story of African-Americans today. Recently, for example, the Charles H. Wright Museum of African-American History in Detroit hosted the 100th birthday of Detroit activist Grace Lee Boggs. Boggs has been active in Detroit’s community organizing and political mobilization since the 1950s, and despite failing health, she is still instructing Detroiters about what needs to happen to promote change. As she told Detroit rapper Invincible, “This is a great time to be alive. We are in the midst of a spiritual uprising.” If it weren’t for the Wright Museum, would there be programs like the birthday celebration of Boggs’s life and message, or the 22,000-square-foot “And Still We Rise” exhibit covering the evolution and history of blacks from their origins in Africa to the election of President Obama, or the reception for Ford Foundation president and CEO Darren Walker to meet with various community organizations the foundation has funded over the years in Detroit?

The survival of these museums—the tiny museums in Lubbock and Oxford, the much larger Wright in Detroit, and even Riley’s proposed museum in Charleston—is nonetheless uncertain. The Wright nearly went under less than two decades ago; last year, with the new attention focused on Detroit, the museum ended the year with a six-figure operating surplus and an endowment of $3 million, according to museum president Juanita Moore. But that doesn’t mean that the Wright’s future is smooth sailing. “The museum is doing well,” Moore said. “We are coming off a tough year, but I think we are very heartened. And we’re really excited about this whole year.” However, investment advisor Kelly Major Green put it differently: “The patient is out of the ICU, but we’re still in the hospital. I’m glad to be out of the ICU, and we’re committed to never go back to that brink. I’m confident we have the right pieces in place to do it. I’m not jubilant. I’m relieved and confident.”

Riley may succeed in part because of the impetus of the tragedy of white supremacist Dylann Roof. However, the nation has to think more deeply about how it supports not just the museums that cater largely to white elites but the museums that preserve and promote the history and culture of this nation’s black population.—Rick Cohen