Reopening Nebraska's black history museum is an uphill struggle

Artist Wendel White talks with visitors at his recent exhibit at Carver Bank in north Omaha. The exhibit featured White's photography of objects with historical importance to black Nebraska. (Photo by Hilary Stohs-Krause, NET News)
A visitor peruses Wendel White's photography at an exhibit at Carver Bank in north Omaha. The exhibit featured White's photography of objects with historical importance to black Nebraska. (Photo by Hilary Stohs-Krause, NET News)
Board members speak to the public at a recent meeting about the future of the Great Plains Black History Museum in Omaha. (Photo by Hilary Stohs-Krause, NET News)
Board members speak to the public at a recent meeting about the future of the Great Plains Black History Museum in Omaha. (Photo by Hilary Stohs-Krause, NET News)
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November 14, 2013 - 6:30am

Nebraska has museums dedicated to Latin American culture and history, Jewish history, Czech history and even Welsh history – but none that focus on the experience of black Nebraskans. A group of dedicated Omahans is looking to change that, but it’s a tough road.

Photos of historical objects brought to life line the walls of Carver Bank in North Omaha: boxes containing FBI files on Malcolm X, a letter and lock of hair that belonged to a Nebraska relative of Frederick Douglass. One shows a tattered fragment of the Afro-American Sentinel, a black newspaper published in Omaha from 1893 to 1899.

The exhibit runs through January 3rd; Omahan Delores Oham was there on opening night.

“It’s an opportunity to learn, and to grow,” she said. “Not just about my culture, but about Omaha, in that how strong a part of Omaha the black community is.”

Wendel White: Manifest (Nebraska)

New Jersey photographer Wendel White's exhibit on Nebraska black history features items from Omaha, Lincoln and Grand Island, and runs through Jan. 3. He took the time to talk with NET News on opening night about the power of photography to document black history.

"The early photographs that we have from the 19th century of the treatment of slaves and the lives of slaves had an impact on the general social sense of moral outrage that started to develop over slavery that led to the Civil War.

"(During the time of lynching), they served sort of a dual purpose, because they were very widely collected and popular amongst some American citizens, and at the same time caused outrage among others. There were so many postcards they were so popular they were reproduced at numbers approaching 1,000,000 - of individual lynchings. They were just big money-making objects that got distributed all throughout the society in significant ways. But also ... their intended purpose became subverted by many people, and they started to serve for the anti-lynching movement in America. 

"And then certainly in the civil rights era, by the time we see and have that direct photographic evidence of the lives of people and their interactions, all the things that we saw on television news, etc., including still images, the great photojournalist photography of the time ... that had a big impact.

"So I think it does go the range of experiences. The image, in a sense, in general, serves both to further marginalize the marginalized populations, but at the same time, sometimes even those very same images are usurped and transformed in a way that makes them serve the opposite purpose.

"I'm trying to, in looking at the objects (for the exhibit), in looking at images, in looking at documents, I'm hoping to, in a sense, bring all those different pieces together."


Oham couldn’t help but stare at the images before her.

“It makes me feel like maybe I’ve been walking in a vacuum,” she said. “By coming here tonight, and looking at some of this, (it) makes me think, ‘Wow. I need to expand my own horizons.’”

She said she wished it were easier.

"The museum is open"

Enter Jim Beatty, the driving force behind efforts to re-open the Great Plains Black History Museum in Omaha, which has items featured in the Carver Bank exhibit. Beatty and his fellow board members will tell you the museum is open … it’s just the building that closed back in 1997, after years of neglect.

But it’s not like the general public can explore the museum’s collection of artifacts when they’re locked away in storage. At a recent public meeting about the museum’s future, Beatty highlighted some of those artifacts.

“I just found this a couple of weeks ago,” he says. “I couldn’t believe this.”

He clicks through a presentation of photographs.

“A white-only telephone booth,” he continues, eliciting murmurs from the crowd. “A white-only telephone booth in Lincoln, Nebraska. Interesting, right?”

After the meeting, the former chair of Omaha’s Durham Museum said he envisions an ambitious future for the Great Plains Black History Museum. 

“We want to show the connection, ideally, with every county in Nebraska and what the African-American experience and legacy has been in that county,” he said.

The big goal is a new building, but that’s still a ways off:  “I would say, conservatively, we are a good 24 months away from anything,” Beatty said. “There’s still a lot more that has to be done. We have to identify donors, benefactors, we’d have to select a location, all of that takes time.”

Added challenges

Museums nationwide are struggling to stay financially afloat, competing for smaller and smaller pots of funding. But for black museums, it’s an even greater struggle.

According to a report from George Washington University, “African-American museums are under-funded due to historical barriers, cultural preferences for charitable giving (and) institutional youth.”

It doesn’t help that Omaha is still a fairly segregated city, said Patrick Jones, a professor of history and ethnic studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

“We’re still divided in many ways, and there’s no doubt a museum that’s focused on race can often run into those kinds of issues, or that can limit the kind of support that it might get,” he said. “There are a whole lot of folks in the majority who are not interested in African-American history and don’t always see the value.”

Jones is active in several programs and organizations relating to black Nebraska history, including doing some cataloging work for the Great Plains Black History Museum.

“Small, historical museums and archives generally face a lot of challenge in terms of getting on people’s radar and the awareness that people have about them,” he said, “and also, most importantly, raising funds.

“You add in the added dynamic of race in our society, and it certainly amplifies some of those challenges.”

Jim Beatty says when he took over the Great Plains Black History Museum several years ago, the organization had $20.58 in its bank account. Now? They’ve raised $142,000. But despite the growth of the museum under Beatty’s leadership, concerns about credibility linger. He acknowledges that given the museum’s past troubles, transparency is key.

“We’ve got to continue to show this community – all community, black, white, brown, all people – that we are relevant, and that we are serious,” he said.

Peggy Jones agreed. The professor of black studies with the University of Nebraska at Omaha is working on an interactive performance art piece about Omaha’s black history; she also wrote a play about the first black artist to graduate from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

“We have a long, rich history,” she said. “There’s a strong sense I get sometimes from younger students - and when I say younger, I mean college students - that are like, ‘What do I need to know that for?’

“There really is a disconnect between, ‘You know that this happened in ’54 and this happened last year, does that not tell you something?’” Peggy Jones said. “History is not this isolated thing that happened long ago. It’s something that we live with.”

She said the lack of awareness about black history – what she calls “benign neglect” – from the community toward institutions like the Great Plains Black History Museum is almost more harmful than outright hostility.

Connecting to the community

Breaching that disconnect between museum and community is key, agreed Samuel Black, president of the Association of African-American Museums.

“Museums don’t operate outside of those communities,” he said. “So if you want to tell the story of black businesses in Nebraska (in the) early 20th century, you’re going to have to go to the black community to help you do that. So you have to build those types of relationships.”

One way Jim Beatty hopes to make those connections is by taking exhibits on the road across the state. At his recent presentation, he told the crowd Nebraska “deserves” to know the history of its black community. 

“We want black folks and white folks to walk through this building and understand that we are necessary, we are a part of this community, we are a part of the legacy of this state,” he said. “And we are going to show it, from the Conestoga wagons to the Tuskegee airmen to Michael Anderson, all of that will be displayed.

“But we’ve got a lot of work to do.”

When asked why he agreed to take over as chair of a destitute, homeless museum with an unsavory reputation, Beatty laughed.

His answer was simple: he loves history, he said. And someone had to do it.



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