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America's Black Holocaust Museum, founded in Milwaukee by a Catholic, reopening physically after 13 years

The nation's only major museum dedicated to the experience of anti-Blackness in America is returning to in-person status after more than a decade of financial struggle.

(America's Black Holocaust Museum)

America’s Black Holocaust Museum, a Milwaukee institution founded in 1988, is reopening physically on February 25th for the first time in more than 13 years.

After going virtual due to the Great Recession, the museum is making the transition back to the historic Black neighborhood of Bronzeville following an anonymous $10M donation late last year.

The museum had previously planned to re-open in the late 2010s, but that effort was delayed—and later hampered further by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“At a time of hyperpolarization, we are in dire need of safe spaces and opportunities created to bring us together to explore difficult issues, to learn, and to celebrate our history,” said ABHM President and CEO Dr. Robert “Bert” Davis at the time of the donation announcement.

“The reemergence of the museum is critical at this time for Bronzeville, Milwaukee, and nationally.”

The museum was founded by Dr. James Cameron the same year that the term “Black Holocaust”—or Maafa (Swahili for “disaster”)—began to emerge in academic and other literature, referencing the global phenomenon of anti-Blackness in the context of the slave trade.

Cameron himself embodied the experience in America, having survived an attempted lynching in Marion, Indiana in 1930 at the age of 16.

He had accompanied two Black friends (Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith) during their robbery and murder of a White man, occasioning a false accusation of rape from his girlfriend. A 15,000-strong mob later broke into the jail where the three were being held, kidnapped them, and murdered Shipp and Smith before hanging them from a tree in the city square.

The photo of their bodies, surrounded by the mob and other onlookers, has since become one of the most well-known artifacts of the Jim Crow era, inspiring the poem (and later, award-winning Black tune) “Strange Fruit”.

Cameron was saved from death by witnesses who shouted down the mob, declaring his innocence, but he was convicted of accessory to murder and served four years in prison. (He was later pardoned by the state of Indiana in 1991 and granted a key to the city of Marion.)

While in jail before the lynching attempt, he had encountered Sheriff Bernard Bradley, a Catholic he said was “the first White person to ever speak kind words” to him. Cameron would later convert to Catholicism himself, becoming a lifelong member of the Church.

He also became an engineer and an activist, obtaining a degree from Wayne State University in Detroit and founding multiple chapters of the NAACP in Indiana during the height of the Second Klu Klux Klan. He also oversaw the state government’s early attempts at racial equality while serving as Director of Civil Liberties from 1942 to 1950.

In his retirement, he founded the ABHM following a visit to the official Holocaust memorial in Israel, and it later became one of the largest Black museums in the country after moving into its own building on Juneteenth 1994.

“I think God saved me for something,” Cameron said in a 2005 interview.

“I hope [the museum] is it.”

Following Cameron’s death in 2006 and the museum’s subsequent closure and demolishment, a foundation in his name was inaugurated in 2012—which re-opened the museum in a virtual format the same year.

In 2016, the museum found a new prospective location in the Griot Building—itself named in honor of Cameron and built on the former ABHM footprint—and underwent a series of stops and starts in the quest to re-open physically.

Last year’s “transformational” gift brought more than a decade of planning to a head, and the first $5M check is mostly going toward preparations for the grand reopening—on Cameron’s birthday, and during Black History Month.

“The commitment will also support critical operations such as the addition of key staff and community programming,” the museum said in a statement, anticipating a hiring push advertised online in recent weeks.

Next Friday’s re-opening will feature a ceremony beginning at 9am ET and a ribbon cutting to follow. The museum will close at 5pm and a cocktail reception will take place in the museum at 7pm.

Tickets will be available at the museum for $7, and memberships can be purchased online here. Donations are also being accepted and are tax-deductible.

Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger, a seminarian with the Josephites, and a ThM student with the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University of Louisiana (XULA).

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