Black History Museum and Cultural Center ask for public support
Richmond’s Black History Museum and Cultural Center is moving to a new home, there and it needs your help.
The Bold Vision, Bright Future fundraising campaign asks normal, everyday people to chip in toward the cost of the renovation. The campaign, housed on the online fundraising site Indiegogo, offers incentives for contributing as little as $25 and as much as $250.
“We are seeking funding from as many people as possible,” said Dr. Monroe Harris Jr., chair of the capital campaign, when I spoke with him by phone. “People like you, for instance!” he added with a chuckle. “It’s everyone’s museum and cultural center.”
There are many reasons to contribute, he said. “Preservation of our history. Telling the story. Making sure that the story is perpetuated now and into the future.
“We’re not only building a museum, but also a cultural center. It will be a gathering place for the community, a hub for activities, and the whole neighborhood will benefit. The new museum and cultural center will be a spotlight in the community.”
The Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia was founded 34 years ago, in 1981. Beginning ten years later, in 1991, it was located at 00 Clay Street in the historic Jackson Ward district of Richmond. The museum’s website explains the house’s rich black history: “Under the leadership of Maggie L. Walker, the country’s first female and Black bank president, the Council of Colored Women purchased the house in 1922. In 1932, it became the Black branch of the Richmond Public library and was named for Rosa D. Bowser, the first Black female school teacher in Richmond.”
But the Black History Museum has outgrown its home on Clay Street. The museum recently suspended operations in order to focus on the renovation and to prepare to move to its new location: the Leigh Street Armory, at 122 W. Leigh Street, also in the historic Jackson Ward district.
The Leigh Street Armory also has a rich black history. It was built in 1895 for the First Battalion Virginia Volunteers Infantry, the first African American regiment in Virginia. It is the oldest armory building still standing in the state, and one of only three in the country built for an African American regiment. Four years after it was built, the regiment was disbanded, and the building was transformed into a school for black children. It served in this capacity for 40 years.
For several years during World War II, the armory was a reception center for thousands of African American soldiers. Following the war, it returned to various educational uses for area schools. For a brief time in the 80s, it was under consideration as a location for the Black History Museum and Cultural Center, but shortly thereafter, a fire damaged the roof and upper floors. The building has stood vacant ever since, falling into disrepair.
Now, after decades of vacancy, years of planning, and months of delays, construction is underway. Construction began in the fall, and the official groundbreaking ceremony was in early November. The museum’s Youtube channel has videos of excavation, ductwork installation, concrete-pouring, and welding work. It’s really happening.
The new Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia will have double the exhibit space of the Clay Street location. It will feature a grand exhibition hall and an interactive cafe that will evoke a civil rights movement-era lunch counter. The museum will also include offices and space for the Richmond Jazz society, and will be available for weddings, arts events, and other cultural programming.
The renovation will modernize the existing structure and build an addition of several thousand square feet. The project’s designers, in collaboration with the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, have made a point of blending the new with the historic, refurbishing old windows, repairing plaster, and restoring paint work.
The newly renovated museum is expected to open in late 2015.
“I want people to have great anticipation for the opening,” Harris said. “This institution will be a great source of pride.”
In the application for the armory’s inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places, architectural historian Selden Richardson writes about the armory’s first opening, in October of 1895: “Such was the immense pride in the Jackson Ward community that the opening of the armory began a weeklong Military Bazaar, including a series of celebrations, drill exhibitions, and receptions. There were dances, concerts and speeches. … The African American newspaper, The Richmond Planet, proudly reported a few days later, ‘On last Wednesday night, the beautifully lighted armory could be seen from this section glowing in magnificent splendor.’”
The Bold Vision, Bright Future campaign offers you the chance to be a part of the armory’s next opening, as the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia, when the historic building is restored to its former glory and the museum extends its expanded resources to the community. A $100 contribution through the Indiegogo site earns you a complimentary invitation to the grand reopening celebration. (It also includes the incentive for the $25 contribution: a piece of the original brick from the armory.)
So get on board. For the incentives, for the preservation of a historic building, for the opportunities the expanded Black History Museum and Cultural Center will offer to Jackson Ward.
And for the sake of the future. Harris told me, “You know the old saying, ‘We have to know where we came from in order to know where we’re going.’ In order for us to fulfill our full destiny and our potential, we have to understand the past. We don’t live in a vacuum. Everything is built on something else.
“We need to take pride in our history, the mistakes and the good things, in order to avoid repeating the mistakes and to build on the positives. It’s important for us to know what has provided for such great opportunity now and going into the future.”
Make your contribution at blackhistorymuseum.org by becoming a member. Or visit indiegogo.com/projects/bold-vision-bright-future-campaign to watch the campaign video and earn your grand reopening invitations and small piece of history.
The video, which you can watch in full at either site, features the voices of dozens of people, past and present, young and old, black and white. Though speaking one by one, they make a collective case: “The preservation of our history is important. It records our struggles. It celebrates our accomplishments. It helps us understand ourselves. So we have to tell our story, through words, pictures, artifacts, sounds, interactive displays.
“The new Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia offers us this opportunity. It gives us a place to learn, to discuss, to share, preserve, and celebrate our past.
“I’ve been waiting all my life for a place like this.”
All photos courtesy of The Black History Museum.