After 14 years, America’s Black Holocaust Museum reopens in Bronzeville

A young visitor reads a welcome message from ABHM's late founder James Cameron.

Last updated on February 28th, 2022 at 11:38 am

America’s Black Holocaust Museum has officially reopened its doors in Milwaukee’s Bronzeville district.

Huddled inside a heated tent Friday morning, community leaders, elected officials and local residents honored the comeback of a cultural and educational asset that has been closed for the past 14 years.

The re-opening celebration and ribbon cutting began with remarks by U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, U.S. Rep. Gwen Moore, Gov. Tony Evers, and acting Mayor Cavalier Johnson, followed by Virgil Cameron, who is the son of the museum’s late founder James Cameron, and Bert Davis, museum president and chief executive officer. Each recognized the significant role of ABHM in sharing and honoring the “unvarnished history of Black people in America,” said Johnson.

“Today we officially reopen the doors and at the same time reopen eyes and reopen minds to the experiences of Dr. James Cameron and the experiences of so many who came before us,” he said.

Cameron, who survived a lynching in 1930 when he was 16 years old, founded the original America’s Black Holocaust Museum in Milwaukee in 1988. The goal was to explore under-told stories of the African American experience and the harmful legacy of slavery and to promote racial repair, reconciliation and healing. Cameron died in 2006 at the age of 92. Friday would have been his 108th birthday.

The museum closed its doors in 2008 as a result of the Great Recession and has provided virtual programming since 2012. Its new space was built as part of a larger mixed-use project at the corner of Vel R. Phillips and West North avenues. At one time, ABHM planned to reopen during the Democratic National Convention, but the COVID-19 pandemic rendered the convention a largely virtual event and the museum put its reopening plans on hold.

In late 2021, an anonymous donor committed $10 million to fund ABHM’s reopening and sustain its operations moving forward. The commitment is being carried out in two phases: an initial $5 million gift and a future commitment of another $5 million. The first phase will support expanding and enhancing the building’s exhibits, along with adding key staff positions and community programming.

The expansion will include ABHM’s recent acquisition of the adjacent former Community Warehouse Inc. building at 324 W. North Ave. for academic programming. State records show ABHM acquired the 36,900-square-foot building for $950,000. The building will provide office space, classrooms, exhibits, a small auditorium and parking.

Admission at ABHM is free to the public today until 5 p.m., thanks to sponsorship by Herb Kohl Philanthropies. New galleries in the 5,000-square-foot space take visitors on a chronological journey through nearly 500 years of African American history, from pre-captivity to present day.

“Can you imagine during a time like right now, when we need a museum like this more so than ever, that we would have it here in Bronzeville? And in Milwaukee? And in our state?,” said Bert Davis, ABHM president and CEO. “‘As the late great Dr. King said, ‘Now is the time.’ Now is the time for us to re-emerge and reimagine this museum because if not us, then who?”

The relaunch of ABHM is central to the ongoing revitalization of Bronzeville, which was once a premier African-American business and cultural hub. The district is bordered by North Avenue on the north, State Street on south, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive on the east and 12th Street on the west. The commercial district developed during the Great Migration of the first half of the 20th century, but residents were displaced in the 1960s as a result of urban renewal and the construction of I-43 directly through the neighborhood.

A plan to reinvest in the neighborhood was first introduced in the early 2000s, centered on developing an entertainment district anchored by America’s Black Holocaust Museum, according to the city’s website. Several new developments have emerged in recent years, such as Pete’s Fruit Market and the redevelopment of Garfield Avenue Elementary School into the Griot building.

Earlier this month, the Bronzeville Center for the Arts announced plans to develop a 50,000-square-foot cultural campus featuring exhibitions, education and artistic programming at 2312 N. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive. The arts and culture center would be BCA’s second planned project for Bronzeville. The organization is also planning a $1 million redevelopment of the duplex building at 507 W. North Ave. and construction of a 6,650-square-foot addition on an adjacent vacant lot.

ABHM will operate Tuesday through Saturday, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday from noon to 5 p.m. Admission is $7 for adults and $5 for children ages 3-17. Membership is $30 for one adult, $50 for two adults and $70 for families.

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Maredithe Meyer covers restaurants, retail, tourism, and sports and entertainment. She joined BizTimes in 2015, previously as an intern reporter. She earned a degree in journalism from Marquette University in 2017. When she's not on the job, Maredithe coaches field hockey and loves exploring her favorite city on earth, Milwaukee.

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