Our writers’ 9 Favorite African American Cultural Centers in the United States
Across America there are museums and cultural centers that celebrate and honor African American culture and history. For every well-known institution, like the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC, there are many small and medium-sized museums that tell important stories of African-American journeys on a local, regional, national, and global scale. Authors Desiree Rew, Stan Thomas, and Sheryl Nance-Nash share their thoughts on those who have left a lasting impression on them.
1. African American Museum of History and Culture, Natchez, Mississippi
How much time do you have? You can lose yourself in the countless memories that make up Natchez history. where to start How about 1716 and work your way up to the present day through art, artifacts, photographs, manuscripts, documentaries, books including those by local son Richard Wright and more. Slavery, Civil War, Reconstruction, and the civil rights movement are omnipresent at the African American Museum of History and Culture. The city’s legacies include the Forks of the Road, the second largest slave market in the South; the Rhythm Nightclub fire that killed more than 200 black people; and the Parchman ordeal, in which hundreds of civil rights protesters demanding equal voting rights were rounded up and taken to the Mississippi State Penitentiary in Parchman in 1965. The museum’s collection tells more than 1,200 stories. The museum is a place where you can start researching your ancestors. Go to the museum’s log, pull up the names of the soldiers, and then go to the Department of Defense for records.
2. International Civil Rights Center and Museum, Greensboro, North Carolina
Step back in time at the International Civil Rights Center & Museum. I’ll never forget walking through the former FW Woolworth department store, where four freshmen, the Greensboro Four, made history sitting at the “whites-only” lunch counter and helping start the sit-in movement bring. The museum houses the restored snack bar in its original location. It is powerful and a spirit lingers. There’s much more to experience with the images, video re-enactments, interactive components and artifacts that made up the civil rights movement, like the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Be prepared for the emotional surge that might wash over you as you view images of the violence of the era. Clear differences are also shown, such as a double-sided Coca-Cola machine where one side of the machine should serve whites and the other blacks. Soda had a nickel on one side and a dime on the other.
3. Harvey B. Gantt Center for African American Arts and Culture, Charlotte, North Carolina
My favorite place to visit when in Charlotte is the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts and Culture. The “Gantt,” as Charlotteans call it, is named for the city’s first African-American mayor. The Gantt moved to its current location in Uptown Charlotte in 2009. As you tour the museum, prepare to have your “wow” moment before opening the doors. You can’t help but be drawn into the mesmerizing form of the building itself. A glass mural by North Carolina artist David Wilson titled “Divergent Threads, Lucent Memories” adorns an exterior wall on the side of the building. What I love most about the museum is the wealth of opportunities to learn through visual arts, modern art, cultural talks, and classes and activities. Admission to the museum is included with the purchase of a Levine Center for the Arts admission ticket, but is also affordable on its own.
4. Reginald F. Lewis Museum of African American History and Culture in Maryland, Baltimore, Maryland
When I visit my hometown of Baltimore, my favorite museum is the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African-American History and Culture. Located in downtown Baltimore, just a short walk from the Baltimore Inner Harbor and the adjacent Little Italy community, is this massive museum. Opened in 2005, it is the state’s largest African American museum. Maryland is the birthplace of many historical heroes from the days of slavery to the present day. This museum shows the interplay of battle and triumph over its five floors. My favorite exhibition was Roland Freeman’s Arabbers: Life on the Streets of Baltimore. It showcased through photographs the horse-drawn fresh fruits and vegetables that made their way into many of Baltimore’s communities. It’s one of the fondest memories I have of my childhood. Free admission is available to museum members, Maryland public school educators, and children under 6 years of age.
5. Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, Detroit, Michigan
I have had the pleasure of visiting the Charles H. Wright Museum of African-American History in Detroit twice. Once during a short trip en route to Ann Arbor and once to see how the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, lay in honor of the public visitation when she died. Opened in 1965, it is considered one of the oldest independent African American museums in the world. Attention to artistic detail is evident from floor to ceiling in each independent gallery, and includes a photomontage on the wall showcasing Detroit’s famous African-American artists who had a major impact on the music industry and performing arts. We can experience exhibits from home or in person. Here I learned that African rulers or kings were called ‘Oba’ and I chose this name as a nickname for my grandson who was traveling. Today he is Grandma’s Oba thanks to the Charles H. Wright Museum.
6. Leimert Park Village, Los Angeles, California
Stroll through Leimert Park Village and perhaps hear the sounds of live jazz or spoken poetry blaring from The World Stage. Art galleries like Papillion invite you to admire works of art. Vendors selling everything from books to health products to kente fabrics and skateboards meet the needs of the mind, body and soul. Restaurants, community events and much more cause people to congregate here in the “village”.
Nicknamed “the black Greenwich Village” by filmmaker and former resident John Singleton, Leimert Park Village began in 1928 as a masterfully planned community conceived by Walter Leimert. Since then it has grown, thrived, even surviving two riots and the devastating 1994 Northridge earthquake remains an important crossroads of African American culture.
The construction of the Crenshaw/LAX metro line is bringing massive changes to the village. The rail line, which runs along Crenshaw Boulevard, will stop at Leimert Park. An open-air gallery called Sankofa Park will anchor the village as part of the larger Destination Crenshaw project. This heralds a new future for Leimert Park while celebrating its rich history.
7. Eubie Blake Cultural Center, Baltimore, Maryland
James Hubert “Eubie” Blake was an African-American pianist, lyricist, and composer. His musical getting involved has helped launch the careers of several artists while reviving the art of jazz.
The Neighborhood Parents Club at Dunbar High School in Baltimore established an after-school arts program in the 1960s, which eventually grew into seven distinct cultural arts centers in the Baltimore area.
It was the crossroads between a desire to bring the growing collection of Blake’s memorabilia, awards, etc. back to his birthplace, Baltimore, and the seven cultural centers that grew out of the Parents Club’s efforts that led to the formation of the Eubie Blake National Jazz Institute and Cultural Center.
The center offers a long list of programs, including visual arts, music, and dance. The art gallery offers numerous, varied exhibitions. According to part of the center’s beginnings, there is also an extensive range of programs aimed at children. Adults and seniors will also find programs created for them.
8. Museum of African American Art, Los Angeles, California
The Museum of African American Art is tucked away in a department store. Samella Lewis founded the non-profit museum in 1976. Its purpose is to “enable artists and their work to stimulate new ways of thinking about the issues that intersect with the shared experiences of people in the African diaspora and beyond”.
The museum houses masks, figurines, drums, jewelry, and ceremonial pieces from South America, the Caribbean, the South Pacific, and Africa. The permanent collection highlights the Palmer Hayden collection of paintings by steel driver John Henry. Past historical exhibitions include The Civil Rights Movement: Los Angeles after Selma.
The Museum of African American Art is only open Thursday through Sunday. Oh, and you’ll find it in Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza on the third floor of Macy’s, tucked away behind the bed section.
Note: The Museum of African American Art is currently closed due to COVID-19 restrictions but expects to reopen to visitors soon.
9. African American Art & Culture Complex, San Francisco, California
Originally founded in 1989, the African American Art & Culture Complex is located in the center of San Francisco’s historic Fillmore District. It is in one of only two historically black communities left in San Francisco. AAACC is the only city cultural center dedicated to preserving African American arts and culture.
Twins Melonie and Melorra Green are Co-Executive Directors of AAACC, whose mission is “to be a place for Black creatives to showcase, congregate and learn, while also being a place where all Black… experience art and culture”. Classrooms, a dance studio, a conference room, a theatre, a recording studio, a gallery and a media laboratory are available for this purpose.
AAACC is collaborating with a group of artists who are creating work to be exhibited at the complex, as well as other artists who are part of a mural program. An ongoing series of exhibits and events demonstrate AAACC’s commitment to African American culture inside the building and outside the community.
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