By Ana Martinez-Ortiz
It was 2008 and Virgil Cameron, Reggie Jackson and two volunteers were packing up artifacts that had once been displayed in America’s Black Holocaust Museum. After being open for nearly 14 years, the museum was closing.
“That was a traumatic day,” Cameron said. “We were talking and wondering how we were going to get this thing to reopen.”
While it didn’t happen overnight, America’s Black Holocaust Museum did eventually reopen.
The grand reopening of America’s Black Holocaust Museum, 401 W. North Ave., took place last Friday, Feb. 25. The celebration featured prominent local and state leaders from Acting Mayor Cavalier Johnson to Kwabena Antoine Nixon, a Milwaukee-based poet, to Dr. Bert Davis.
The museum had been founded by Cameron’s father, Dr. James Cameron, in 1988. He is the only known person to survive a lynching. The museum started as a storefront before it expanded to a stand-alone building in 1994. But when the economic crisis hit, the museum was forced to close its doors.
But then along came Dr. Fran Kaplan – who offered her dining room table as a place for Cameron, Jackson and others to meet and plot the museum’s next move.
“We were there for months on end trying to figure it out,” Cameron said. “Then, all of sudden, Dr. Kaplan came up with the idea of a virtual museum.”
The virtual version of America’s Black Holocaust Museum launched in 2012 on the birthdate of Dr. James Cameron and a decade later, the physical museum itself reopened.
“Looking back, I know it was 14 years, but it seems like six months,” Cameron said. “Because of all the work that was involved and the village that got involved. And like they say, it takes a village, and we did it.”
While the museum experienced several delays and pushbacks on its journey to reopening, the vision remained. In 2019, Davis became the president and chief executive officer of the museum.
“The great thing about today is that we’re here,” Davis said during the reopening celebration. “We are here because of the special man who has been referenced throughout the program – Dr. James Cameron.”
This museum is needed now more than ever, Davis said, adding that it’s important that it is located in Milwaukee specifically in Bronzeville.
During his remarks, Davis thanked several individuals who helped make the museum’s rebirth a possibility. Among them, he included former County Executive Chris Abele, who gave a sizable donation to the museum and then encouraged the team to match it, and Brad Pruitt, a filmmaker and executive consultant at the museum.
He also thanked the Milwaukee Urban League and Dr. Eve Hall for their support throughout the years. The Milwaukee Urban League provided space for the museum’s team to hold board meetings.
While the museum has just reopened, it is already making moves to grow. Thanks to an anonymous doner, the museum has purchased a building across the street, which will quadruple the museum’s size.
“We’ve only just begun,” Davis said. “The vision of Dr. Cameron, I am going to extend that vision. That museum is always going to be a museum. A museum is a collection of experiences. We don’t create history, we interpret history, we educate about our history, about our culture and about our art.”
He continued, “My vision for the museum is to make it and create an academic center of excellence around the study of race. That we will have scholars around the country and the world, that will come and share their knowledge with all of us and around the world.”
Another prominent leader in the fight to reopen the museum was Ald. Milele Coggs. While Coggs could not be present at the celebration, Ald. Russell Stamper II spoke on her behalf.
Stamper explained that when he was younger, his mom worked at the museum and would take him through the holocaust section of the museum.
“For Black people, when you go through the holocaust part, you feel Dr. Cameron and you feel the resurgence and you feel a little bit of what slavery could have been,” he said.
Stamper also read a citation on behalf of the Common Council.
“History museums study, exhibit and interpret objects of historical value and memorial museums dedicated to contextualizing and commemorating past events of mass suffering now therefore be it resolved that the Common Council of the City of Milwaukee here as congratulates America’s Black Holocaust Museum on the birthday anniversary of Dr. James Cameron and wishes for its continued success and prosperity.”
Other leaders made remarks including Congresswoman Gwen Moore, Sen. Tammy Baldwin and Gov. Tony Evers. Lonnie Bunch III, the 14th secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, and Vedet Coleman-Robinson, the executive director of the Association of African American Museums, also made appearances via pre-recorded videos.
The museum is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and on Sunday from noon to 5 p.m. Tickets are $5 for children ages 3 to 17 and $7 for adults ages 18 and older.
For more information on the museum, go to www.abhmuseum.org.