A decade after its physical location was forced to close, America's Black Holocaust Museum has reopened in a new space.

The building was hot. Damp dress shirts and evaporating makeup hot, the mobile air conditioners and industrial fans no match for the blaze. But the 400 in attendance were (mostly) smiling, happy to see America’s Black Holocaust Museum restored to the Milwaukee corner it had long anchored, in a new home.

The museum is located at the site of the Griot Apartments (2235 N. Vel Phillips Ave.). Photo by Brock Kaplan.

ABHM was founded by a social justice organizer and the only known survivor of a lynching. In 1930, a 16-year-old James Cameron was nearly murdered in Marion, Indiana, for a crime he didn’t commit; he devoted his adult life to telling his story. He settled in Milwaukee in 1952. And in 1988, he bought an empty North Side boxing gym from the City of Milwaukee for a dollar to open the ABHM. That location closed in 2008, and in the decade since has existed as a virtual museum (abhmuseum.org), with more than 3.5 million people a year from over 200 countries visiting its six online galleries.

When ABHM reopens next month, it will be led by a board chaired by Ralph Hollman, and interim executive Brad Pruitt. The new museum will complement the online experience by continuing the late Cameron’s vision of illuminating the experience of black people, starting before slavery, through the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement, and into life today.

“We’ll also have community space, programs that initiate dialogue and partnerships with local entities,” says Pruitt.

Today, Cameron still draws a national lens to a conversation about race. He believed that truth would set Americans free and make racial reconciliation possible. Residents have welcomed a return of history and truth to North and Vel Phillips avenues. And on that morning in June, with all of us celebrating and sweltering together inside the hollow of a new promise, the city beamed back at the sun.

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In His Own Words…

An excerpt from the prologue of James Cameron’s 1982 autobiography,
A Time of Terror: A Survivor’s Story:

“I had heard of white people lynching black people all the days of my life. My mother, relatives, and friends used to tell me some hair-raising factual stories about this enigma … To me, it was a strange way of avenging real or imaginary wrongs committed by that lunatic fringe of our population who advocate white supremacy.

“Little did I dream that one day, one horrible night filled with stark terror, I, too, would fall into the hands of just such a merciless mob of fanatics; that they would be my judge, jury, and attempt to execute me to carry out their diabolical scheme of death because of the color of my skin. This whole way of life was and is still a heritage of black slavery in America. Every black person knows the routine, the ritual.”

“Beaming Back at the Sun” appears in the October 2018 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

Find it on newsstands beginning Oct. 1, or buy a copy at milwaukeemag.com/shop.

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