A Museum Decades in the Making
The idea of a National Afro-American Museum located in the State of Ohio originated among the residents of
Greene County and Southwest Ohio. A major step was taken towards turning this idea into reality when, in 1970, Congressman Clarence Brown (R-Ohio) first introduced legislation to establish, by an act of the United States Congress, such a museum to be located in Wilberforce, Ohio. Though these efforts were being made on a national level, the State of Ohio felt that it must exemplify its commitment to the concept of a national museum, its belief in Ohio as the appropriate location, and its determination to be a leader and full partner with the federal government, not merely a dependent recipient. Consequently, in 1972, the Ohio General Assembly passed a bill introduced by State Representative C.J. McLin, which authorized the establishment of a National Afro-American Museum at Wilberforce and the creation of the National Museum of Afro-American History and Culture Planning Council. The Planning Council’s primary function was to advise the Ohio Historical Society on the development of the museum (Section 149.302 and 149.303 of the Ohio Revised Code). The Planning Council held its first meeting in Wilberforce, Ohio in 1973. After two years of study and planning, the Ohio General Assembly appropriated $80,000 (to the Ohio Historical Society) to develop broad public support for the proposed museum and to support the efforts of the Planning Council.
In 1976, through the continued efforts of Congressman Clarence Brown, now joined by Senator John Glenn (D-Ohio), Congress passed legislation (Public Law 94-518) directing the Secretary of the Interior to prepare a feasibility study for a National Museum of Afro-American History and Culture at or near Wilberforce, Ohio. The National Park Service was the agency within the Department of Interior that was assigned the task. It began its study in the Spring of 1977. During this period, the State of Ohio continued to push to realize its dream. In 1978, the Ohio General Assembly appropriated $3.5 million for the construction of the Afro-American Museum. On August 25, 1978, the old campus of Wilberforce University, the first institution of higher education for Afro-Americans in the United States, was selected as the site for the museum. The National Park Service issued a final report in 1979 indicating that Wilberforce, Ohio was indeed suitable as the site for the national museum. Excitement over this report encouraged the State to move with even more enthusiasm about the project. The Ohio Historical Society was the state agency assigned to oversee the project, advised by the Planning Council. Consequently, these three entities entered into a tripartite agreement to develop plans for the Afro-American Museum. $450,000 of the original $3.5 million allocated for the project was released to the Ohio Historical Society to hire a project team to develop exhibit plans for the museum over a two year period. Consultants were hired to provide the research base for the project, and senior consultants were employed to review the written materials and advise the project staff on the historical accuracy of the manuscripts.
On October 10, 1980, President Jimmy Carter signed into law Public Law 96-430, entitled the National Center for the Study of Afro-American History and Culture Act (Title II). The Act established the National Afro-American History and Culture Commission, which was charged with the responsibility for determining the role of the federal government in establishing the National Center at Wilberforce, Ohio. Plans developed by the Commission were to be submitted, together with any recommendations for additional legislation, to the President of the United States and the Congress. The (Title II) Act established Wilberforce, Ohio as the headquarters for the Commission, and gave the Commission the power to raise funds for its own activities as well as for the National Center. On January 19, 1981, President Jimmy Carter appointed nine members of the Commission.
Unfortunately, the Commission did not meet for the first four years of its existence due to a lack of operating funds. Nevertheless, the project staff established in Ohio continued on with its plans. In January of 1982, Wilson and Associates (Cincinnati, OH) in joint venture with Wright, Porteous and Lowe (Indianapolis, IN) were selected as the architects to design the museum.
In February, 1982, the first draft of the research base for the museum script was completed. In that same year, the State of Ohio purchased the 88-acre old Wilberforce University campus for $667,000 as the site for the National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center. The purchased property was, in turn, leased back to Wilberforce University for one dollar per year and the maintenance of the building and grounds. By Fall of 1982, the architectural team had completed a master plan for the facility, which called for the development of a 240,000 sq. ft. building at a cost of $40 million to be constructed in four phases. In November of 1982, groundbreaking ceremonies were held at Wilberforce for the construction of the museum. 1982 was also the year that the Ohio legislature provided an additional one million dollars for construction of Phase One of the museum (H.B. 291).
During the 1983 summer session of the Ohio General Assembly, H.B. 225 amending sections 149.302 and 149.303 of the Ohio Revised Code passed. The amendments expanded the National Museum of Afro-American History and Culture Planning Council, changed the method of appointing Council members, and provided for a national, private, non-profit organization to operate the National Afro-American Museum after construction of the Center. The staff of the museum was increased to meet its many needs, and the Planning Council developed long-range plans for the development of the museum in phases. Those plans included:
Phase I: Multi purpose lobby area, Gift Shop; Galleries and Public Space (35,000 sq. ft.)
Phase II: Orientation theater; Children’s mini-museum, staff offices, exhibit space, storage space,
other support and facilities (85,000 sq. ft.)
Phase III: Art Gallery, Library/Manuscript facility, Administrative offices, Cafeteria,
Exhibit Space (75,000 sq. ft.)
Phase IV: Educational Wing (45,000 sq. ft.)
In 1984, the architect completed the construction documents for Phase I of the museum. These plans were submitted to and approved by the Ohio State Architect. The staff and architects of the project had spent a great deal of time working together to insure that the museum space was practical, functional, and aesthetically pleasing for museum work and viewing. During the spring and summer months, short and long-range goals were established for the museum. The staff proposed that the first permanent exhibit (From Victory to Freedom: Afro-American Life in the Fifties) would be on Black American Life since World War II. During the Fall of 1984, all construction documents for the museum were approved and the site preparation began. Actual construction of Phase I of the museum began in the Spring of 1985.
Meanwhile, the National Commission still had not convened. Monies had not been raised to carry on its activities, and because new members had not been appointed as the terms of original members expired, the Commission did not have a quorum necessary to conduct business. Consequently, in January, 1985, the White House announced the appointment of six new Commission members. This, of course, gave the Commission the quorum it needed to move forward, and the Commission met in Wilberforce on February 15, 1985.
In January, 1986, the museum project opened a transition office in Shorter Hall on the old campus of Wilberforce University, and the presidentially-appointed Commission had appropriated $200,000 from Congress to continue its efforts to support the development of the Center in the Wilberforce, Ohio area. The Executive Committee of the Commission met for two days in January, 1986, at the Historical Society in Columbus, Ohio to outline its short and long-range goals. The full Commission met in March, 1986, in Washington, D.C.
In April of 1987, the Chair of the Planning Council (Dr. Yvonne Walker-Taylor), the museum Director (Dr. John E. Fleming), and the Director of the Ohio Historical Society (Dr. Gary C. Ness), testified before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services and Education in support of $12.5 million capital appropriation for Phase II construction.
When construction of Phase I was completed in September, 1987, the building was dedicated by Governor Richard Celeste and President Abdou Diouf of Senegal. Participating in the ribbon-cutting ceremonies were President Diouf; Governor Celeste; Senator William Bowen; Representative C.J. McLin; Dr. Arthur Thomas, President of Central State University; Dr. Hollaway C. Sells, Chairman of the Board of Trustees of Central State; and Dr. John E. Fleming, Director of the National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center.
Renovation of the Carnegie Library Building was completed in the Fall of 1987. At this time, the project office was moved from the Ohio Historical Center to its new headquarters in Wilberforce. The Carnegie Library Building currently houses the administrative offices of the museum and serves as a temporary storage area for museum collections.
The National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center opened to the public in April, 1988. Grand Opening festivities included: Elected Officials Reception for State Representative C.J. McLin, Jr., and a Black Tie (Corporate) Gala on Friday, April 15, 1988; Press Breakfast, Opening/Ribbon Cutting Ceremonies and Concert (An Evening with Nancy Wilson and the World Famous Count Basie Orchestra, featuring Frank Foster) on Saturday, April 16, 1988; and a Donor/Volunteer Breakfast and museum Open House on Sunday, April 17, 1988. With the public opening of the museum, staff unveiled the museum’s first permanent exhibit, From Victory to Freedom: Afro-American Life in the Fifties. Since that time, thousands of visitors have enjoyed the museum and its exhibits including: former President George Bush, former heavyweight boxing champion Muhammed Ali, historian and Ebony Editor Lerone Bennett, Jr., acclaimed artist Benny Andrews, fight promoter Don King, musician Winton Marsalis, noted actor William Marshall, Hall of Fame basketball coach John McLendon, educator Dr. Alvin Poussaint, Hall of Fame basketball player Oscar Robertson, His Excellency President of Mali Moussa Traore, among numerous Congressman, Senators, and others.
Still a young institution, the museum has already received the enthusiastic support of hundreds of individuals throughout the nation who have donated family treasures to the center. In less than two years, the museum had developed one of the nation’s largest collections of Afro-American materials, including over 9,000 artifacts, 350 manuscript collections, and thousands of photographs. Staff continues to collect artifacts from people throughout the nation who are anxious to have their family history preserved in the first national museum dedicated to Afro-American history and culture… The National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center in Wilberforce, Ohio.