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

A young visitor reads a welcome message from the late ABHM founder, James Cameron.

American Black Holocaust Museum officially reopened in the Bronzeville neighborhood of Milwaukee.

Huddled in a heated tent on Friday morning, community leaders, elected officials and local residents honored the return of a cultural and educational asset that had been closed for 14 years.

The reopening celebration and ribbon cutting began with remarks from U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin, U.S. Representative Gwen Moore, Governor 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, president and CEO of the museum. Everyone recognized the ABHM’s important role in sharing and honoring “the unvarnished history of black people in America,” Johnson said.

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

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

The museum closed in 2008 following the Great Recession and has offered 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. At one point, the ABHM planned to reopen during the Democratic National Convention, but the COVID-19 pandemic made the convention a largely virtual event and the museum put its reopening plans on hold.

At the end of 2021, an anonymous donor engaged $10 million to finance the reopening of the ABHM and maintain its operations in the future. The commitment is being made in two phases: an initial donation of $5 million and a future commitment of an additional $5 million. The first phase will support the expansion and enhancement of the building’s exhibits, as well as the addition of key staff positions and community programming.

The expansion will include ABHM’s recent acquisition of the adjacent former building of Community Warehouse Inc. 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 offices, classrooms, exhibits, a small auditorium and parking.

Admission to the ABHM is free to the public today until 5 p.m., thanks to sponsorship from 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 the present day.

“Can you imagine in a time like this, when we need a museum like this more than ever, that we would have it here in Bronzeville? And in Milwaukee? And in our state?” said Bert Davis, President and CEO of ABHS “’As the great late Dr. King said, ‘Now is the time.’ Now is the time for us to reappear and reinvent this museum because if not us, then who?

The revival of the ABHM is at the heart of the ongoing revitalization of Bronzeville, which was once a premier African-American business and cultural center. The neighborhood is bordered by North Avenue to the north, State Street to the south, Third Street to the east, and 12th Street to the west. The commercial district grew 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 neighborhood reinvestment plan was first introduced in the early 2000s, centered on the development of an entertainment district anchored by America’s Black Holocaust Museum, according to the city’s website. Several new developments have sprung up in recent years, such as Pete’s Fruit Market and the redevelopment of Garfield Avenue Elementary School in the Griot building.

Earlier this month, the Bronzeville Arts Center announcement plans to develop a 50,000 square foot cultural campus offering exhibits, education and arts programming at 2312 N. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive. The arts and culture center would be the second project planned by BCA 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 adjacent vacant land.

ABHM will operate Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday, 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.

James C. Tibbs