Nation's largest black history museum struggles to remain open

Civil Rights Activist Myrlie Evers-Williams remembers a bustling, thriving Detroit when she visited her father decades ago when he worked for the Ford Motor Company.

Today, she says the city’s woes are painfully visible, and its national image seems irrevocably tarnished.

Evers was honored Wednesday night at the 16th Annual Ford Freedom Award for her tireless, 30-year effort to bring to justice the murderer of her late husband, civil rights activist Medgar Evers, who was assassinated in 1963 in Jackson, Mississippi.

The Ford Motor Company, along with the Charles H. Wright Museum of African-American History, also posthumously honored the late former South African President Nelson Mandela and feted retired U.S. Lt. Col. Alexander Jefferson of the Tuskegee Airmen in the ceremony dedicated to celebrating the power of perseverance.

More than 700 people attended the celebration, which raised about $100,000 to benefit the City of Detroit-owned Wright Museum, the nation’s largest institution dedicated to African-American history. Like Detroit, the museum’s future is questionable in the wake of the city’s bankruptcy. The museum’s 30,000-piece collection of artifacts and archives, including documents associated with the Underground Railroad, the letters of Malcolm X and Rosa Parks and prototypes of inventions by Black scientists, such as the stoplight and gas mask, along with its 125,000 square foot building may be sold to help reduce the city’s $18 million debt.

“It’s the largest institution of its kind in the world,” says Evers-Williams, who serves as chairman of the Medgar and Myrlie Evers Institute in Jackson, Mississippi, and is chairman emeritus of the NAACP. “It certainly sends a ray of information and hope for other cities and towns to follow. The outreach to other parts of the world certainly is critical in the development and continued success of Detroit.”

To Detroiters, the Charles H. Wright Museum of African-American History is like a village green, a center for community gatherings, such as milestone birthday parties, receptions and 50th wedding anniversaries.

These days, Juanita Moore, the Wright’s president and CEO, finds herself toggling a fine line, serving as the 49-year-old museum’s chief cheerleader and leading the charge to secure additional financial support.

“The museum means a lot to Detroit,” she says. “It’s an institution that Detroit birthed. It birthed the largest African-American history museum in the world, and Detroit supported its beginning in a row house to this. While there hasn’t been a lot of discussion about it, we have been busy working with other organizations and community partners to ensure there is some sustainability for the museum.”

In the past three years, Moore acknowledges, the museum has lost more than $1.5 million in city funding, which previously contributed $2 million annually. To survive, half of its staff was released, executives took a 15 percent pay cut, and the museum heavily relies on volunteers and interns. But the museum, in its current headquarters since 1997, maintained its hours and programs. To help replace lost funding, the Wright has launched the “Give a Grand, Make a Million” fundraising campaign by identifying individuals to donate at least $1,000.

Supporters can help in a variety of ways, Moore says.

“You can do it at $83 a month to support the museum, become a member for $35, send a donation, or volunteer your time. We invite people to visit, where they will find a number of ways to make a contribution.”

Moore says in the past few years, the museum has taken other measures to keep its doors open. Currently operating with a $4.5 million budget, with a $900,000 contribution from the city, Moore hopes to restore the budget closer to $7 million. It heavily relies on funding from the auto industry. Ford continues to be a strong financial supporter. Although it does not offer numbers, it increased support when the museum lost funding during the auto industry’s economic collapse. GM continues its support, but not at previous levels. Chrysler has not yet resumed contribution.

Pamela G. Alexander, Director of Community Development for Ford Motor Company Fund, the philanthropic arm of Ford Motor Company, says the company will continue its partnership.

“The Charles H. Wright is really a treasure we have in Detroit and southeastern Michigan, and we’re very lucky to have it,” she says. “It has been a difficult time for our industry, and a difficult time for investment. Because of Ford’s long history with the museum, this is a long-term partnership for us, and it’s one we will continue to support. It’s important to be a good partner in difficult times.”

Evers-Williams suggests that Detroiters “never give up; keep your eyes on the prize.”

“I’m very hopeful, as I think most people are, that Detroit will become financially strong, well managed and will bring people back into the city, where there will be jobs, the housing will be much better than what it is now,” she said.

“It’s truly sad to see news reports on the city where it seems to be devastated to the point of no return. Perhaps positive stories will begin to come out. That’s mainly up to the press to shine a positive light on what is going on.”