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EDITORIAL: Hidden gem: Richmond's Black History Museum
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EDITORIAL: Hidden gem: Richmond's Black History Museum

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The Black History Museum & Cultural Center of Virginia describes itself as Richmond’s “hidden gem.” In honor of Black History Month, we asked Andrea Wright, the museum’s director of development and communications, to talk about the museum’s history, its mission and the unique role it serves.

February is Black History Month, but how does the museum create a venue for Black history to be commemorated every day?

The mission of the Black History Museum is to preserve the stories of African Americans that inspire. Our museum is full of untold, undertold and often forgotten stories of the trials and triumphs of African Americans.

Our exhibitions, tours, programs and events all are components of the museum’s offerings, each providing members and visitors with opportunities to experience these stories in different ways. The museum also is a safe space for having open and honest conversations about the stories in our history that sometimes are difficult to hear and talk about.

What are the top attractions/exhibits at the museum?

The first floor of the museum consists of our permanent exhibition. It includes a 35-foot interactive timeline with key moments in Black history beginning from BCE up through 2015. Our permanent galleries feature displays on Emancipation, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, Segregation, Massive Resistance and Civil Rights.

In our second floor galleries, we feature rotating national exhibitions. Currently we are highlighting a locally curated exhibition, “Virginia JAZZ: The Early Years,” which traces the history of Virginia jazz from the early 1900s through the 1960s. Many people might not realize that there are a host of jazz greats from or with ties to Virginia, such as Ella Fitzgerald and Pearl Bailey.

One of the highlights of the exhibition is the piano owned by Joe Kennedy Jr., aka The Maestro. Musically inclined guests are welcome to play the piano. A pictorial exhibition featuring Richmond’s own Bill “Bojangles” Robinson will open the first week of March and the 2021 Richmond Community Makers mural soon will open as well.

What’s the brief history behind the founding of the museum? And can you discuss the significance of its location in historic Jackson Ward, nicknamed “Harlem of the South” because of its strong African American heritage and culture?

The museum was founded in 1981 under the leadership and direction of Carroll Anderson Sr. His dream of having a place that celebrates the rich history of Black Americans was realized when the Black History Museum opened its doors at 00 Clay Street in 1991.

The building once was the Rosa L. Dixon Bowser Branch of the Richmond Public Library system, the only branch open to Blacks at that time. Ms. Bowser was one of the first Black teachers hired by Richmond Public Schools. When the museum relocated in 2016, it only was fitting to move into another historically significant structure.

Our home at 122 West Leigh Street was constructed in 1894 as the Leigh Street Armory, the first in Virginia specifically for Black soldiers. At that time, Jackson Ward was a hub of commerce and entertainment for Blacks.

In addition to being referenced as “Harlem of the South” Jackson Ward was one of several communities in America known as “Black Wall Street” Maggie Walker’s residence is a short walk from the museum as is The Hippodrome Theater, one of the venues where Black entertainers performed as they traveled the Eastern and Southern states.

What have been the challenges of sharing your story during the pandemic, and how have you overcome them?

The No. 1 one challenge we have faced as a location that relies on in-person connection is the inability to welcome visitors during the time we were closed and now having to limit visitor capacity. We also have yet to resume our onsite programming and school tours indefinitely are postponed.

We often refer to the Black History Museum as a “hidden gem” in our community, and the past few years we have taken steps to be hidden no more! Before the pandemic, we had established a robust calendar of community events, children’s programs and other activities.

We have yet to completely overcome this challenge; however, we are moving forward with the development of virtual programs and exploring other ways of staying connected with our audience so we can continue to share our stories.

As history unfolded before us on Monument Avenue and along other Richmond streets this past year, what elements of the Black Lives Matter movement most struck you from a curation perspective? How do you see Richmond 2020’s story being told over the years to come?

One of the things that was most striking to me and continues to encourage me about the future is seeing the engagement and energy of our youth. It is reminiscent of the efforts of youth in our history such as Barbara Johns, who stood up against the “separate but equal” practices and policies of her time.

I see Richmond 2020’s story being told not only through the eyes of our young people but also told based on their actions. As history continues to unfold around social justice issues, public policy, health and wellness, and all other aspects of our society that historically have had negative impacts on Blacks, I am excited to see how our young people will continue to change our community for the better.

As technology continues to evolve, how does your institution see history being captured in the 21st century? What emerging tools, if any, help fulfill your mission of “we preserve stories that inspire”?

We see history being captured more in real time and more authentically. We already have witnessed this through the unfortunate murders of George Floyd and others. In the past, we know there have been many other transgressions against Blacks that either were not told or were told incorrectly.

Technology has provided a way for people to see, hear and influence change. With the use of technology such as virtual reality, and the immediacy and interactivity of social media, the museum is excited about the possibilities of using these tools and others to grow our audience and make what we have to offer more accessible to all.

The Richmond Times-Dispatch

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