The first time Ray Hill visited the America’s Black Holocaust Museum she was just 7 years old, probably in first or second grade on a class field trip. The Historic King Drive Business Improvement District No. 8 executive director had the opportunity to tour the museum and listen to its founder James Cameron, known by many with respect as “Dr. Cameron.”
“As a child and seeing that, it really brought the importance of Black history. It wasn’t just Martin Luther King or Frederick Douglass or Harriet Tubman. It was individuals that resided right in our own city that could tell the stories of how they overcame. I do remember visiting the museum and hearing Dr. Cameron share his story at 7 years old how powerful that was for me,” she said.
The first time Reggie Jackson visited the museum was in 1994. He had just moved back to Milwaukee from California and was driving on North Avenue when he spotted the museum.
“I said that looks like an interesting place. I went up to the door. I either knocked or rang the bell. I don’t even remember, and Mr. Cameron opened the door for me,” Jackson said.
Cameron invited Jackson to peruse the exhibits and told him to come back when he was finished and the two would have a chat.
“I sat with him for about four hours just mostly listening … to him, sharing his story and his fascination with that part of our history and why he thought it was important. When I left that day, I said I’m going to have to come back and help this man in some capacity,” he said.
Jackson did return in 2002 and worked for the museum until it closed in 2008.
America’s Black Holocaust Museum: First Edition
Cameron is the only known survivor of a public lynching.
He opened the America’s Black Holocaust Museum in 1984 on the same footprint of the new museum at 401 W. North Ave. Cameron died in 2006, and the museum closed its doors two years later in September 2008 citing financial concerns from the recession.
And on Feb. 25, 2022, the birthday of Cameron, the America’s Black Holocaust Museum will again reopen its doors in Milwaukee’s Bronzeville neighborhood after being closed for over 10 years.
Jackson called it one of the saddest days he could remember. He stuck around in the final year before it closed. Jackson was the museum’s head Griot, which is a Western African word for “storyteller.” The America’s Black Holocaust Museum “griots” were like museum docents.
“Everybody else had pretty much abandoned the museum. The board members had all quit,” Jackson said. “We didn’t have money to pay the employees anymore. I did everything I could to try to keep the museum alive. Of course, we ran out of money.”
Following the museum’s closure, a group of dedicated museum patrons worked to continue Cameron’s legacy. Community organizer Brad Pruitt met with museum patron Fran Kaplan to consider producing a film about Cameron. Though a script was written and the two had meetings with producers, the film never came to fruition.
“Then it was the summer of 2010, Dr. Kaplan and I had a conversation. I said why don’t we take a break from the film and let’s see if we can begin reimagining the museum again. Little did we know it would be over a decade in the making,” Pruitt said.
Pruitt and Kaplan began identifying people to join in this process. Cameron’s son Virgil was among the first calls, along with a call to Jackson.
Kaplan recalls a conversation with Virgil and Jackson one day in 2010.
“We were sitting around trying to talk about what do we do. This was in 2010. What do we do about the museum? How do we bring it back? I said to him, ‘I wonder if it could be put online?’” Kaplan said.
The museum’s virtual space opened Feb. 25, 2015, on Cameron’s birthday. The over 3,300-page virtual museum serves millions of annual visitors in over 200 countries.
“We basically took Dr. Cameron’s vision and mission and conception to how the museum should be laid out and should look and how to tell the stories, took our cues from him and kind of recreated the museum that he had had online,” Kaplan said.
In addition to the virtual museum program, Jackson and Kaplan also took the museum’s Griot program into the community since there was no physical space for the museum.
Building a new home
Milwaukee developer and founder of Maures Development Group Melissa Allen was first introduced to Pruitt over a decade ago through Milwaukee Ald. Milele Coggs with what Allen called “the sole intent for appreciating the work and the vision and possibilities of Bronzeville and to really talk about the role of cultural institutions and specifically what it would take for the Holocaust Museum to have a home, a reemergence.”
Allen developed the physical space for the America’s Black Holocaust Museum, aptly named “The Griot.” It was set up like a campus experience to include the building where the museum sits as well as the Historic Garfield School, which was transformed into affordable apartments.
“The idea was how do you create some residential critical mass, create a campus, which then also creates an experience for the museum, too. It’s not a stand-alone building. It’s part of a community within a community,” Allen said.
The Griot opened in February 2018.
“As a mother of two African American sons in the city of Milwaukee, statistically when you look at incarceration rates, unemployment rates, when you look at disparities in education and those sorts of things, statistically, this is not a place for them,” Allen said. “To me, the opening of the museum represents a validation of their existence even beyond my own.”
Financing the museum’s reemergence
“How many organizations do you know that seem to die and get resurrected, especially Black-led organizations because of all the reasons that we understand about systemic and institutional racism?” Kaplan said.
She said a key challenge is Black-led institutions do not receive the same support and historically do not have the same kinds of endowments as other institutions.
“I can honestly say that for many years when we were doing all of this, we never really thought about the prospect of having a physical museum again,” Jackson said. “We figured that it would be exceptionally expensive.”
Jackson recalls people offering physical spaces for the museum, which he said was wonderful, but the museum still could not financially sustain itself.
The museum first received a $750,000 gift from an anonymous donor managed by the Greater Milwaukee Foundation to really provide the funds needed to move the physical space forward.
“That really began the process of attracting other donors and individuals, groups, organizations that really moved us from basically folks investing in the museum with little or no resources, and it transformed the trajectory of the reemergence,” Pruitt said.
Then, as the museum was approaching an initial grand opening date, in January 2020, it received another anonymous gift, this time $1 million.
Former Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele also launched a $100,000 matching pledge, which Pruitt said helped raise over $400,000.
Navigating a new challenge: Covid-19
Robert Davis was hired as the new CEO of America’s Black Holocaust Museum in September 2019. Davis previously had deep nonprofit connections to Milwaukee, serving as the CEO of the Zoological Society of Wisconsin from 2005 to 2015.
His hiring sparked a new excitement in the final stepping stones to the museum’s reopening. At that point, the America’s Black Holocaust Museum planned for a soft opening in spring of 2020 followed by a grand opening before the Democratic National Convention, which Milwaukee was slated to host in July 2020.
The museum navigated a closure, a transition to a virtual platform, the building of a new museum space, but no one was prepared for the next hurdle — Covid-19.
“We started the new year 2020 with a bang. The momentum was progressing. We were on a roll,” Davis said. “Then February hit.”
Like other institutions, the museum transitioned to a work-from-home environment, halting some of the necessary finishing touches needed in the exhibit space. In September 2020, the museum said it planned for a 2021 opening dependent on Covid-19 safety restrictions.
A year later in September 2021, the museum locked in its new February 2022 reopening.
In that time, the museum again pivoted back to reengaging the virtual museum and expanding its social media presence. The America’s Black Holocaust Museum also worked to connect with other institutions, including forming a partnership with the Milwaukee Public Museum as it planned to host the traveling Nelson Mandela exhibit in 2021.
Davis said there is great pride as the Feb. 25, 2022 date approaches. Based on his research, Davis said the America’s Black Holocaust Museum is just one of three African American museums in the history of the U.S. to close and reopen its doors.
Virgil Cameron recalls a trip to Washington, D.C. with his father in 2005. The U.S. Senate welcomed James Cameron as a guest for a public apology regarding slavery and lynching that occurred throughout American history.
At the time, Virgil Cameron recalled being approached by some people who were building an African American museum in D.C. They asked James Cameron if he would be interested in bringing America’s Black Holocaust Museum to America’s capital.
“My father said absolutely not,” Virgil Cameron said. “He thought that Milwaukee deserved to have a museum like this, like we have now. That’s why he said ‘absolutely not son. Make sure the museum stays in Milwaukee.’”
The America’s Black Holocaust Museum has already received national recognition even before its grand opening. The New York Times referenced the museum in its 52 places for a changed world list. Milwaukee’s Bronzeville neighborhood, and the museum’s home, ranked No. 49 on that list.
Davis said there is a great sense of pride with the museum’s own work in bringing back Milwaukee’s Bronzeville neighborhood.
“Dr. Cameron was one of those kind of people where even if the museum was closed and you saw a light on and you knocked on the door or the window, he’d let you in. …That’s what we want to reinvigorate this community with,” Davis said. “We are a community asset. We are located in Bronzeville. We are a Bronzeville community asset. We are an asset to the city, to the state and to this region and, quite frankly, to America because we’re not Wisconsin’s. We’re not Milwaukee’s. We’re America’s Black Holocaust Museum.”
Ten years after the virtual museum was launched, the America’s Black Holocaust Museum will reopen its doors on Feb. 25.
The story of the museum, Jackson said, is a lot like the story of James Cameron.
“Dr. Cameron nearly died, and the museum nearly died,” Jackson said. “The last conversation that I had with Dr. Cameron was about the museum. He was pretty sure he wasn’t going to live much longer. He asked me if I was going to continue to work with the museum once he was gone. I was like ‘of course I will Dr. Cameron. This is a passion I have.’”
Virgil Cameron added that his father and mother, both now deceased, will be dancing for joy and waiting for Feb. 25.
“I think my father would be very pleased to see the progress that we’ve made and the dedication of so many people and the generosity of so many people,” Virgil Cameron said.
Beyond the Celebration
Davis said the one thing he wants to make sure of once the museum opens its doors is that the team cannot be assured of anything.
“We don’t presume to know how this is all supposed to work. The museum has not been open since 2008. A lot changed. We’re still technically in a pandemic. …The ebb and flow of the museum is something that we’re going to be paying strict attention to,” Davis said.
He is very clear not to call the America’s Black Holocaust Museum a project because as he says, “technically a project has a beginning and an end.” Instead, he calls this a “program.”
Davis said in year one of the museum’s reopening he and his staff will take the time to determine how the museum will be utilized by the public.
BLACK HOLOCAUST MUSEUM
- Founder: James Cameron
- Location: 401 W. North Ave., Milwaukee
GRANT AND DONOR FUNDING
- $750,000 — Gift from an anonymous donor managed by the Greater Milwaukee Foundation
- $1 million — Gift from an anonymous donor managed by the Greater Milwaukee Foundation
- $100,000 — Matching pledge from Chris Abele
- $100,000 — Gift from the Inaugural Legacy Circle