Who’s Responsible?: Black Museums in Financial Trouble
Taking children to the local museum is a great way to get them interested in their history. For parents and teachers in Greenville, South Carolina, the chance visit to their black history museum may not be possible due to financial difficulty. In Greenville, though black history month brings visitors the traffic takes a hit throughout the year making it difficult to operate. Black history is such an unpleasant story that some forget how important it is to American history, making it difficult to convince local and state government to help keep these black museums open. Greenville is not the only city dealing with this struggle.
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GREENVILLE, S.C. — As another Black History Month begins, things are quiet around the Greenville Cultural Exchange, this city’s black history museum.
Rooms full of artifacts depicting Greenville’s role in the civil rights movement stand ready for visitors but get none. Images of blacks who played key roles in Greenville’s history gaze fearlessly out into the vacant museum.
It’s not that there’s nothing going on here. Ruth Ann Butler, founder of the center, is busy, as always, researching and collecting photos and documents that tell the story of Greenville from the African-American perspective.
But it’s a challenge to keep going.
Black history gets its share of attention each February, but the places where people can go year-round to come face to face with the excruciating truth about slavery and to learn about the milestones of the civil rights movement often find it difficult to survive.
Even some of the most notable have had financial difficulties.
The Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati, which a few years ago faced budget shortfalls in the millions, combined with other museums in the city and adjusted its mission to include modern-day slavery, to avoid having to close down.
As recently as December 2011, the center’s leaders told The Cincinnati Enquirer that the institution had only a year to live if a stubborn $1.5 million budget shortfall could not be closed. After several major donations, the museum balanced its budget in 2012-13, and attendance revenue had risen 35% by 2013, the newspaper reported.
The International Civil Rights Museum in Greensboro, N.C., built around the Woolworth lunch counter at the center of the “sit-in” desegregation movement in 1960, borrowed $1.5 million from the city to maintain its operations. However, Earl Jones, co-founder and vice chairman of the board, says the museum has raised $600,000 since then and had 71,000 visitors last year.
And to get approval for a civil rights museum in Mississippi, supporters combined it with a general museum on Mississippi history.
“We had to get legislators to buy into it, because some didn’t see it as a very wise use of state tax dollars,” says state Sen. Hillman Terome Frazier, a black Democrat from Jackson who led a study committee for the project. “But we were able to convince them that this is part of our history, and it puts us in a position to tell our story and show how much progress we’ve made.”
The state put up $40 million for construction, and efforts are progressing to raise $12 million for exhibits and a $2 million endowment for each museum. The opening is scheduled for December 2017.
Museums of black history sometimes struggle because the story they tell is too painful for many people to want to bring to light, says the Rev. Jesse Jackson.
“Black history museums unearth the hidden American story, the story that is so full of shame that it’s difficult to become popular,” he says. “African Americans were enslaved, a commodity on the exchange, for 246 years. And the resistance to our citizenship continues unto this day.”
The solution, he says, is to convince mainstream America that black history should not be “hyphenated or marginalized,” and encourage investment in museums that shed light on that history. “The African-American story is the American story,” he says.
In Jackson’s boyhood hometown, the Greenville Cultural Exchange hangs on as an African-American history museum on the strength of its research resources — and the steadfast will of its founder.
Butler, who participated in lunch counter sit-ins in downtown Greenville as a teen, has kept the museum alive even after the city condemned the building and shut it down temporarily over what she believes were questionable concerns over safety
“Oh, we were rolling,” she says. “But all of a sudden they wanted another museum, and they did not want me involved. They wanted me to go somewhere and sit down, and that was it.”
She did not sit down. She raised $60,000 from foundations, businesses, churches and individuals to make repairs to the building and reopened the center.
That was 12 years ago. Since reopening, the center is but a shadow of its former self.
She used to offer workshops and after-school programs for kids. Not anymore. There’s just not the support for it, she says. Mostly what she does now is research, and continue to collect documents and artifacts about African Americans’ contributions to Greenville.
Butler has always seen her center as more than a museum where people come and see things and leave. She wants it to be a place of research and learning on an ongoing basis, as well as a showcase of historical artifacts.
Among her holdings is the wooden leg of black dancer Clayton “Peg Leg” Bates (who appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show dozens of times), materials from Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaigns in 1984 and 1988, photos from civil rights marches and protests, and displays on notable people of color who were involved in Greenville’s development.
“I could run one hell of a museum, but I just don’t have the support that I need,” says Butler, who turned 71 on Christmas. She survives on grants and private donations. But she plans to struggle on, living out what she says is her calling.
“The only way we are going to be closed,” she says, “is if I am 6 feet under.”
What can we do to help support our local museums? Should the state government step in to help funding?