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America’s Black Holocaust Museum Leaves Visitors With a Sense of Hope and Possibility

A new museum honors the resilience of the African American community in the face of oppression.

Warning: This article includes descriptions of racial violence.

The people behind America’s Black Holocaust Museum in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, had every opportunity to quit on their vision of rebuilding the venue. Though dedicated to reestablishing an institution devoted to commemorating atrocities while pointing toward reconciliation, they could’ve let the death of the museum’s founder, an economic recession, and the pandemic’s shutdown destroy their shared dream.

Instead, the freshly reestablished physical home of the ABHM celebrated its first-anniversary last month, and it’s looking forward to establishing itself as a focal point for positive change within its community and across the United States.

Survivor of a Lynching

The original ABHM was the passionate pursuit of Dr. James Cameron, the survivor of a public lynching. In 1930, the 16-year-old Cameron accompanied two older African American youths on an attempted robbery of a white man who died during the incident. Though Cameron fled before the crime, he was arrested with the other two young men.

According to Cameron’s recollections, he barely escaped death when a lynch mob of more than 10,000 people beat the other two suspects to death before hanging them. There was a noose around Cameron’s neck before saner voices halted the riot and called for a fair trial. His throat carried the rope scars for the rest of his days.

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While on parole after serving four years in prison (on charges for which he’d eventually earn an official pardon), Cameron moved to Detroit and attended college. In the years to come, he would fight for civil rights nationwide, founding three chapters of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. His lifelong passion for racial equality found its greatest expression with the opening of America’s Black Holocaust Museum in 1989.

John Lewinski

Brad Pruitt, a filmmaker and executive consultant for the current ABHM, insists Cameron’s vision for the historic establishment’s mission and content remains intact from that 1989 founding to its current incarnation.

“All of the energy of America’s Black Holocaust Museum is born out of our founder’s vision,” Pruitt says. “He insisted the true understanding of African descendants in America had to begin in Africa thousands of years before slavery and continue to the present day.”

A Small Storefront in Milwaukee

Inspired by his wife, Virginia Hamilton, Cameron established the original ABHM in an abandoned Milwaukee store, filling it with artifacts and documents collected over his career championing civil rights. Though Cameron died in 2006, the museum remained open until 2008, when the national recession forced it to close.

“There was never a time in this country’s history when African Americans did not resist their oppression.”

“We lost the founder in 2006 and a major philanthropic source in 2008,” Pruitt adds. “From there, the museum’s content and displays migrated to storage while we began efforts to organize support for a rebirth. This work is essential because this museum is about more than just Black history. It’s about American history. That record determines how we confront the same issues of racism and oppression in the present day.”

With the supporters of Cameron’s vision hoping to find a new home for the museum, the ABHM built a massive online presence as a virtual archive. Continuing its growth to the present day, the institution’s Virtual Museum now includes more than 3,400 documents and images maintained by a small group of volunteers and students.

Educator and consultant Fran Kaplan, MSW and EdD, oversees the presentation and content of the online presence. She explains the ABHM’s scholars maintained a presence in the community after the original venue closed by offering public programming in libraries, community halls, colleges, bookstores, and churches.

“We called this programming ABHM’s Museum Beyond Walls,” Kaplan says. “Through this combination of in-person public appearances and online education, we carried out our founder’s wishes. We had faith that the work would bring the physical museum back in time.”

As Kaplan’s team built the Virtual Museum and kept Cameron’s quest in the public consciousness, other representatives worked to find the funds and support to rebuild the real-world museum.

Finding a New Home

Nancy Ketchman was a fundraising consultant for the ABHM from 2015 to 2019. She credits the museum’s successful reestablishment to foundational work done more than a decade ago.

“The original volunteers and consultants were eclectic, but all had a long history with the museum and its founder,” Ketchman explains, “Several personally worked alongside Dr. Cameron in the museum’s original development and opening in 1988. The dream of re-opening the physical museum in a newer and better space was always present.”

2-Interview With Directors at the Black Holocaust Museum-701A6097ModJHP
1-Interview With Directors at the Black Holocaust Museum-701A6098ModJHP
Photos: John Lewinski

Thanks to an anonymous supporter’s $10 million donation, the physical museum was close to rebirth when preparations faltered under the impact of COVID-19. Though the museum’s team found its real estate in Milwaukee’s revitalized Bronzeville neighborhood, the completion and opening of the museum waited out the virus.

“The background work included site selection, building construction, curatorial selection, design, and additional fundraising,” Ketchman adds. “The building was completed, and a majority of displays were already complete before the pandemic hit.”

A Victorious Reopening

Waiting out the hardships of the pandemic for more than two years, America’s Black Holocaust Museum opened its doors in its new home on February 25, 2022. Embracing Cameron’s original philosophy of “Remembrance, Resistance, Redemption, and Reconciliation,” the current ABHM includes seven history galleries, including African Peoples before Captivity; Kidnapped: The Middle Passage; Nearly Three Centuries of Enslavement; Reconstruction: A Brief Glimpse of Freedom; One Hundred Years of Jim Crow; I Am Somebody! The Struggle for Justice; and Now: Free at Last? (with special exhibits running concurrently).

With human rights atrocities composing much of African American history, it would be possible enough for any museum documenting that record to present past crimes and leave the experience there. In keeping with Cameron’s hope for redemption and reconciliation, the ABHM exhibits and presentations look toward a more positive potential future.

Dr. Russell Brooker, Ph.D., is a political sciences professor at Milwaukee’s Alverno College. While serving as the ABHM’s treasurer, he’s also writing a book assembling many of Cameron’s original pamphlets on the Black holocaust. The professor insists Cameron wanted to remember more than just the atrocities by commemorating and celebrating their resistance.

“There was never a time in this country’s history when African Americans did not resist their oppression,” Brooker says. “Even during slavery, they found ways to assert their strength and desire for independence. Dr. Cameron never wanted ABHM to be simply a victim’s museum, and I think the current presence supports that.”

Ketchman agrees that honoring Cameron’s original intentions means reaching for peace and justice in the years to come.

“While the museum marks past atrocities and the history of slavery in the U.S., several displays honor the role of African Americans in this country from contributions to science, art, and both social and economic justice,” she says. “While some new displays point out ongoing injustices and racial discrimination, visitors leave with a sense of what is possible and possible roadmaps of peace.”