New Kid's View

Family lured Jerrianne and her husband to South Milwaukee in 2002 from Southern California where she worked as, first, a journalist, then, as a court information officer. She now stays busy with media-relations consulting, playing with her three grandchildren (part of the lure), writing, discovering her new environs, and hoping her garden will produce before the first fall frost.

A Community Loss

1930, African-American, Bethany Criss, Community, Cory Joe Biddle, griot, James Cameron, lynch, Marion IN, Martin Stein, Middle Passage, Milwaukee, race relations, Reggie Jackson, treasure

I found America's Black Holocaust Museum soon after moving to the Milwaukee area six years ago. I was driving north on Interstate 43 when I saw a sign for it just before the North Avenue exit. The museum was indeed an eye opener--the exhibits, the story of museum founder Dr. James Cameron, the museum staff, the spirit of acceptance, understanding and reconciliation. I was taken by it all and joined on the spot. The employees and volunteers welcomed me into their community and they became part of my community.

My husband went with me on my next visit. He not only joined, he became a volunteer--a griot, which is a West African word for story teller. In doing so, he became a student, learning as much from the groups of students and adults who visited the museum as he hoped they learned from the exhibits and the stories of Africans, the Middle Passage, African-American heroes, Wisconsin's African-American pioneers and of Dr. Cameron himself, the only known American to survive a lynching. An average of 25,000 people--black, white, brown, all hues--from this country and abroad visited the museum annually and learned about the need for and importance of racial understanding and respect.

My husband spent every Thursday there helping out, conducting tours and learning. We both attended educational meetings, academic lectures, Juneteenth celebrations, documentary screenings and many other events during the ensuing years. We also made modest monetary contributions, as did others. But sporadic donations wasn't enough.

As reported in Wednesday's Journal-Sentinel, the museum closed on Thursday, at least temporarily. My husband spent that last day helping to dismantle, pack up and prepare the exhibits for a move to a storage area UWM is providing.

We feel like a hole has been ripped in our lives. Like a dear friend has died. That's how we felt when Dr. Cameron died a little more than two years ago at age 92. That was 76 years after a hot August night in 1930 when two of 16-year-old James Cameron's acquaintances were hanged from a tree near the courthouse in Marion, Indiana, in retaliation for the shooting death of a town resident, and a noose had also been placed around Cameron's neck. It was a crime Cameron vowed he had nothing to do with. Years later he moved to Milwaukee and in 1988 founded the museum in the basement of his home as a memorial to lynching victims, and as an institution for race-relations enlightenment. The museum was more than a monument to what had happened to Cameron. It was unique, a community treasure. It offered an opportunity to explore the racial perceptions people of all ethnicities hold, and to advance healing and reconciliation.

The museum was always a hand-to-mouth operation. A major benefactor, Marty Stein, died just a few months before Dr. Cameron's passing and the museum never regained even the shaky financial footing it had previously had. It wasn't for the lack of heroic efforts of at least three people: Reggie Jackson, who coordinated and educated the griots for the past few years and took over as board of directors' chair late last year; Cory Joe Biddle, the director from August 2005 to last October, and Bethany Criss, who assumed Biddle's duties when Biddle resigned. Each shouldered the duties almost single-handedly, doing yeoman's work, devoting countless hours, writing grants, searching for funding and struggling to keep the doors open. But it was more than a one-person job. It takes the dedication of a community to keep the spirit, mission and day-to-day operation of such an institution going. It also takes funding. A reliable, ongoing source of funding like an endowment provides. And it needs the oversight, commitment and active participation of motivated directors who can and will use their connections to support and enable such a vital element of the community to thrive.

The community of which I speak isn't just Milwaukee's north side around 4th Street and North Avenue where Cameron moved the museum to in 1994. It isn't just the city of Milwaukee or the greater Milwaukee area. It is the community of humankind, people from all over Wisconsin, from other states and from other countries for whom Cameron established the museum and who visited it, and who will visit it again if the community will rally and rescue it just as Dr. Cameron himself was saved from the noose on that August night 78 years ago.

If that happens, then the sign on I-43 won't have to be taken down and can again direct visitors to the museum.


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