The stories of Black America are on display like never before.
History and culture museums play a significant role in our lives. As physical representations and repositories of time, they share the stories of specific cities, regions or countries; artistic expressions; political legacies; cultural trends and icons; music history; religious paths; and more.
For African Americans, the documentation of their history in this country in these hallowed edifices is nothing new. The first African American museum was established in 1868 in Virginia, and since that time, Black history museums have continued to grow in number, scope, significance and architectural magnificence.
Step inside the following seven museums that together illuminate and celebrate the challenges and triumphs weaved into the fabric of so many African American communities and their experiences — past, present and future.
National Museum of African American History and Culture
Opened in 2016 as the 19th museum of the Smithsonian Institution, the National Museum of African American History and Culture is the only national museum devoted exclusively to the documentation of African American life, history and culture.
Encompassing approximately five acres, this state-of-the-art museum spans five floors and some 85,000 square feet and is home to an astounding 36,000-plus artifacts, a dozen exhibition spaces and 13 different multidimensional, interactive experiences.
The symbolism of its location on the National Mall in Washington and the architectural design of the building itself speak volumes about its importance in documenting and sharing the history, culture and stories of all Americans that contribute to the blended fabric of this nation.
The outstanding exhibits here encompass a wide variety of themes. “A Changing America” deals with the continuing definition of African American identity since African slaves were first brought to our shores. “Double Victory” focuses on the roles African Americans have always played in the U.S. armed forces, dating all the way back to the Revolutionary War.
“The City of Hope” was named in homage to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Martin Luther King Jr.’s unveiling of the Poor People’s Campaign in 1968. There’s also the Segregated Southern Railway Car, the Oprah Winfrey Theater and the Edisto Island Slave Cabin.
Groups can enjoy a variety of signature activities, such as dance and theater performances, film screenings, fashion shows, concerts and book discussions.
Opened to great fanfare in August, Tulsa’s Greenwood Rising is an institution 100 years in the making. On May 31, 1921, armed white men looted, burned and attacked the residents, homes, businesses and churches of Greenwood, a Black neighborhood north of downtown.
In only three days, an estimated 300 people were killed, some 1,200 homes were destroyed, and almost all of this historic African American community, called Black Wall Street, lay in smoldering ruins. Although called a race riot by some, the prevailing nomenclature is “the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.”
A national model of prosperity, of self-sufficiency and the embodiment of the Black American dream, Black Wall Street, oddly enough, came about as a result of segregation. Because Black people were denied the right to spend their money anywhere outside their 35- to 40-block community, they had no choice but to buy, eat, drive, worship, live and die in the Greenwood district.
Greenwood Rising is a combination state-of-the-art, multimillion-dollar history center, memorial and testament to the resilience and pioneering spirit of a community that at its core could never be destroyed.
Connecting it and several sites within the Historic Greenwood District is the Pathway to Hope. This beautiful, landscaped walking route peppered with unique artwork and relaxation benches symbolizes the rejoining of the area that was physically, mentally and emotionally cut off in the 1960s and 1970s when Interstate 244, under the guise of needed “urban renewal,” ousted the residents and many of their thriving business enterprises.
Atlanta has always held a special place and played a significant role in the history, achievements and legacy of the Black community. And it is here that you will find the African American Panoramic Experience Museum — the “Apex Museum” for short.
Located within the city’s Sweet Auburn Historic District, home to numerous other iconic and historical entities including the Martin Luther King Jr. Birth Home, the King Center for Nonviolent Social Change, the Old Ebenezer Baptist Church, the Rucker Building and Prince Hall Masons Grand Lodge, the Apex Museum is the oldest Black history museum in Atlanta.
Founded in 1978, it is in the John Wesley Dobbs Building, a historic structure in its own right, as it was built in 1910 and, several decades later, retitled in honor of its namesake, a powerful political and civic leader that back in the day was often referred to as the unofficial mayor of Auburn Avenue.
Visitors to the museum will find a wide array of permanent and changing exhibits that underscore the numerous contributions African Americans have made to the city, state, country and world.
“Sweet Auburn Street Pride” features artifacts and memorabilia related to the life and work of many of Atlanta’s early Black pioneers. “Africa: The Untold Story” spans some 6,000 years of the history of the continent, highlighting the culture, music, people and other aspects that have had positive reverberations all over the world.
Harvey B. Gantt Center for African American Arts and Culture
Charlotte, North Carolina
Originally founded as the Afro-American Cultural Center in the late 1970s by two University of North Carolina at Charlotte professors who wanted to create a Black studies center on campus, the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African American Arts and Culture has always been Afro-centered.
In 2009, the center moved to the heart of Uptown Charlotte in the historic Second Ward and former Black community of Brooklyn and was renamed in honor of Harvey B. Gantt. In 1960, Gantt, who is still active within the Charlotte community, became the first African American student admitted to Clemson University. He went on to serve as Charlotte’s first African American mayor.
According to David Taylor, president and CEO of the Gantt center, one of the most striking aspects for visitors is the Grand Lobby staircase.
“Also known as Jacob’s Ladder, it became a highlighted feature thanks to our architect Phil Freelon, who was also the architect of the Smithsonian African American History Museum in Washington, D.C.,” he said.
It symbolizes a visual guidepost to continued education and reaching for greater things in life.
In addition to experiencing the rotating exhibits in the expansive gallery spaces and the videos that highlight tidbits of Charlotte Black history, groups can engage in several guided tours.
“Visualizing Black Art Enhanced” includes an art-making workshop. “Envision Me Enhanced” encompasses a goal-setting workshop. And “Activate the Image” features a writing and performing workshop.
The Gantt also offers three levels of event space, from the Grand Lobby to the rooftop terrace, all set against the backdrop of its award-winning architectural design.
Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture
Since it first opened its doors in 2005, the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture has stood as one of this country’s premier museums about the African American experience.
In the heart of downtown Baltimore, just a stone’s throw from Maryland’s iconic Inner Harbor, the museum is named for a successful entrepreneur, lawyer and philanthropist. Reginald Lewis was the first African American to build a billion-dollar company, and in the 1980s, he was one of the richest African American men in the U.S.
Spanning 82,000 square feet, the building is home to approximately 10,000 permanent objects that encompass some 400 years of history. The permanent and temporary exhibition spaces are expansive as well — over 13,000 square feet — detailing every aspect of the educational, industrial, artistic, political, military, sports and other Maryland history as it relates to the Black experience.
In addition to the exhibit and gallery spaces, visitors can also enjoy special events in the two-story theater and engage in a wide array of exciting educational programs offered throughout the year.
Several designated spaces are available for groups desiring to hold a meeting or a special event, including the beautiful outdoor terrace, which offers spectacular views of the city and harbor.
DuSable Museum of African American History
In a true testament to grassroots organization and community engagement, the Ebony Museum of Negro History and Art was founded in the home of a well-known activist, artist and educator in Chicago’s South Side neighborhood in 1961.
At the time, it was lauded as a truly homegrown cultural entity. Growing in scope and renown over the six decades that followed, it eventually was moved to the city’s grand Washington Park and was renamed the DuSable Museum of African American History. The name was chosen in honor of Chicago’s Haitian-born founder, Jean-Baptiste Pointe DuSable.
Today’s DuSable (pronounced “doo-SAW-bull”) Museum is a Smithsonian affiliate and carries the distinction of being the first independent, nonprofit museum in the country dedicated to the collection, documentation, preservation, study and dissemination of the history and culture of Africans and African Americans.
Visitors find a wealth of permanent and rotating interactive exhibits peppered with over 15,000 artifacts and artworks, including historical memorabilia, sculpture, paintings and photography.
Welcoming an estimated 100,000 visitors annually, the museum is a civic, cultural and artistic showplace that is both educational and inspirational. In addition to the exhibit and gallery space experiences, individual visitors and groups can enjoy special lectures, workshops, educational programs and other events.
California African American Museum
When a facility or entity is not only founded but designed, directed and curated by African Americans, it makes a clear statement about its focus and commitment to upholding important aspects of the global African Diaspora. Such is the case with the California African American Museum (CAAM).
South of downtown Los Angeles in the city’s famed Exposition Park, CAAM was originally founded in 1977, the result of a unique, multiyear campaign by numerous Black and other civic leaders to what became the first museum of art, history and culture dedicated to the Black experience and fully supported by a state.
Encompassing approximately 44,000 square feet, the museum features a remarkable 4,000-piece permanent collection of sculptures, paintings, artifacts, films, audio recordings and photographs that highlight a wide array of artistic genres from the 1800s to the present. Great attention and reverence are placed upon African American contributions to the artistic, political, economic and cultural landscapes.
Visitors can explore an impressive variety of permanent, temporary and traveling exhibits and gallery spaces, all aimed at interpreting the past and its effect on our present and potentially future identity as people of all colors, races, creeds, genders and sexual identities.
Special tours and programming are available for groups, as are visits to their noncirculating Research Library collection, teeming with over 6,000 records, books, periodicals and other documentation that date back to the museum’s formation.