Inside America’s Black Holocaust Museum

Milwaukee’s showcase of a nation’s repressed history and one remarkable man opens in its new location this week.

“Strange Fruit,” a display about lynching; Photo by Jarvis Lawson

After more than a decade of hope, anticipation and community support, America’s Black Holocaust Museum will celebrate its grand reopening this month, on the birthday of its beloved late founder. 

“The outpouring of support was not just from the African American community, but the community at large, especially churches and religious organizations,” says Ralph Hollmon, ABHM board president.

It’s been three years of waiting since the ABHM sign went up on the glass-and-wood ground floor of The Griot, an affordable housing development on the corner of North and Vel R. Phillips avenues. The new building is on the same block as the original ABHM, which for more than 20 years was one of the first museums of its kind, bringing America’s dark history of lynching to light. The museum welcomed thousands of visitors until losing its driving force in 2006 upon the death of James Cameron, social activist, lynching survivor and founder. The Great Recession followed, and the museum closed in 2008.

Finally, on Feb. 25 – the 108th anniversary of his birth – ABHM will put the public’s minds at ease with a two-day celebration, making the long-awaited reboot a reality.

A map of patterns during the mid-20th century Great Migration of African Americans to the northern statues; Photo by Jarvis Lawson

In December, the museum and the Greater Milwaukee Foundation announced a $10 million grant from an anonymous donor that the museum’s president and CEO, Robert “Bert” Davis, says will ensure its future. The donation will be disbursed in two phases. Half will go toward the museum’s reopening, exhibit enhancements and public uses like community programming, as well as hiring staff to improve operations and acquiring a 37,000-square-foot building (324 W. North Ave.) near the museum for academic programming and other uses. The plans for the remaining $5 million are currently less detailed but will be used for the museum’s sustainability plan, such as establishing an endowment fund. 

“We already know where and how we’re going to expand the museum’s footprint,” Davis says. “And we won’t ever talk about the museum closing again because we will have resources.”

Robert “Bert” Davis, president and CEO of America’s Black Holocaust Museum; Photo by Jarvis Lawson

WHEN I ASKED PEOPLE around the museum the biggest difference between the new and old versions, one answer was resounding and unanimous: Cameron’s absence. In keeping the founder’s presence alive, visitors entering the new ABHM gallery will be greeted with an installation on his life’s work. The museum also has been modernized, with technological enhancements and interactive displays throughout. 

“We spent a lot of time thinking about the visitor’s experience; we include spaces for breaks, also for educators’ talks,” says Brad Pruitt, an award-winning filmmaker, writer, producer and director who’s been a creative visionary, resource and driving force through the museum’s reboot. That thoughtfulness includes sitting rooms with tissue boxes for those overcome by the difficult content. “It was born out of giving people time to rest and reflect,” says Pruitt.

The gallery is a chronological loop, with more than 500 years of history squeezed into 4,000 square feet, interweaving linear and thematic exhibits throughout. It starts in Africa, before slavery, and travels through time – the Middle Passage to the Great Migration to Fair Housing and Mass Incarceration – ending with hope, citing Barack Obama’s slogan, “Yes We Can,” alongside some Milwaukee notables.

“Sewing the relationship between past and present, understanding that past is present – that juxtaposition is absolutely intentional,” says Pruitt. 

The most striking display I experienced was “Strange Fruit.” The exhibit features the most-recognized photo of a lynching and draws its name from a poem written by teacher Abel Meeropol, “Bitter Fruit,” later made famous by singer Billie Holiday as the song “Strange Fruit.”

Southern trees bear a strange fruit

Blood on the leaves and blood at the root

Black bodies swingin’ in the Southern breeze

Often mistaken for a lynching in the South, this image was actually from the Midwest – central Indiana – and has extra resonance inside these walls, as it is the same terrifying event that Cameron survived. Unlike his two friends murdered that night, his life was spared. 

I examined the photo. A contrast of black and white, visually and figuratively, the aged, grainy image captures a crowd’s blank gaze into the camera’s lens and their casual disposition amid two corpses suspended from tree branches. Turning away from the haunting image, my eyes traced the lines of thin white panels clustered together, elongated from floor to ceiling – an abstract sculpture depicting a lifeless tree that instantly sent a wave of loss and sadness through me.  

Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck

For the rain to gather

For the wind to suck

For the sun to rot

For the tree to drop

Here is a strange and bitter crop

WHAT HAS PERSEVERED since the museum’s doors closed in 2008 is an unbreakable spirit carried on in those who had a powerful connection to ABHM’s founder. “Once you get on the Dr. Cameron train, you never get off,” says Reggie Jackson, the museum’s educational programming consultant and a longtime champion of ABHM. They understood how meaningful the museum was to the Milwaukee community and used that passion to keep the cultural gem going.

In 2010, Fran Kaplan – a close associate of Cameron as well as a nonprofit and social justice advocate and consultant – proposed a virtual museum. She spearheaded the project, recruiting friends, family and ABHM advocates to donate their skills and resources, which resulted in a successful 2012 launch. A progressive endeavor for its time, the site has since attracted millions of visitors from 200 countries to its 3,400 web pages of exhibits. The virtual museum will continue, working in tandem with the new brick-and-mortar museum’s exhibits and programming.  

With the virtual museum a hit, the board and supporters continued to figure out how the physical museum could reopen without space or funding. Then, fate played its part. In 2013, Ald. Milele Coggs introduced the group to Melissa (Goins) Allen, who would partner with the museum for her Bronzeville development that became The Griot, named in the museum’s honor. “That’s when the process of reimagining it really began,” says Pruitt. “This whole journey has been a faith walk.”

An exhibit about the first arrival of slaves to the “new world” in 1502; Photo by Jarvis Lawson

After The Griot’s completion in 2018, the community’s enthusiasm was overwhelming, says Hollmon, with people seeking to rent the space for events. A celebration for the building’s completion generated a buzz that the museum would open that year even though no interior exhibit space had been developed yet. However, that false start allowed the museum planners to connect with community members in the interim and silence naysayers who didn’t think the new space would ever reopen. “By accommodating a few people before we were ready, people could say, ‘Even though they’re not open, they’re working on it and plans are being made,’” Hollmon says.

With the momentum of a physical space pushing them forward, the board and supporters continued spreading the work of the museum. Jackson, who did speaking engagements throughout the city to promote the museum during its virtual years, acknowledges other cultural institutions the city has lost and emphasizes ABHM’s importance to the Milwaukee community, “This is the only one that came back,” he says. “Particularly with African American institutions of this nature, once they’re gone, they’re just gone forever.”

AS RACIAL AND CULTURAL TENSIONS escalate nationwide, America’s Black Holocaust Museum’s taking its mission back to a physical space couldn’t be more timely – particularly in Milwaukee, a city with a long and painful legacy of racism that, Pruitt notes, has vacillated between the first and fifth most segregated city in the country for decades. Davis hopes the museum will serve as a convener on these difficult issues, promoting racial repair, reconciliation and healing.

“There’s nothing more important right now, for our country, than this work,” says Kaplan. “People can’t figure out how to reckon with the painful parts of our history and make amends. You gotta be able to make amends before you can reconcile.”


His Story: Terror. Truth. Love. Legacy.

Photo courtesy of the Black Holocaust Museum

THE UNSHAKABLE DEVOTION many have for America’s Black Holocaust Museum’s founder, James Cameron, comes from experiencing his genuine love for humanity. But his compassion came at a considerable price.

At 16 years old in 1930, Cameron watched as his two friends, charged with murder, were pulled from their cells, brutalized and hanged to death by a white mob. “I was to be the third man; they wanted all three of us hanging up on the tree that night,” an aging Cameron reflects on that night in Marion, Indiana, in the short film Sweet Messenger. 

His life spared after a rare appeal to reason and justice by the sheriffs who abetted the hangings, Cameron believed God’s will for him was to effect change through civil rights activism. But by age 38, after numerous death threats, he packed up his family for a new life in Canada. Along the way, he stopped in Milwaukee, and the rest is, yes, literally history.

Milwaukee is where Cameron (born in La Crosse) would live out his golden years; publish his autobiography, A Time of Terror: A Survivor’s Story; and, after an inspiring trip to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Museum in Jerusalem, birth an extraordinary idea to serve as a living testament to his life and the dark history of the United States. He called it America’s Black Holocaust Museum. 

At 70 years of age, Cameron opened the museum in 1984. Into his 90s, he’d share his shocking story with visitors, advocating for education, understanding, forgiveness and love.

“Dad’s idea was to communicate. We’ll always keep his ideas … at the forefront,” says Virgil Cameron, the founder’s son and a museum board member. “Everything we do, we do with him in mind.”


America’s Black Holocaust Museum

401 W. North Ave. 414-209-3640 virtual exhibits and visitor information at abhmuseum.org.

Admission: $7, $5 for children ages 4-17, free for children 3 and younger; memberships available in tiers from $30-$70. 

Grand Reopening: Events begin on Feb. 23 with a panel discussion that will also be livestreamed on Facebook. A ribbon-cutting featuring museum and local dignitaries will take place Friday, Feb. 25, along with an evening reception open to the public. (Museum officials are monitoring the COVID-19 situation.) More information and events will be posted to the museum’s social media.  


 

This story is part of Milwaukee Magazine‘s February issue.

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