The former armory building on Leigh Street is home to the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia (photo by Darryl Wingo/Digital Image House)
Long in the planning and joined with an iconic building neglected to the point of wreckage, the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia is opening to the public through three days of events, starting with a cocktail reception on Thursday.
The museum comes to life after years of to-ing and fro-ing between the city, which built the armory in 1895, the neighborhood of Jackson Ward, preservationists, hired and fired contractors, fire, roof collapse and walls tumbling. A 2000 attempt by Richmond-born technologist Cedric Hurte to acquire the place for his family residence was rebuffed by grumpy City Council members. This added to the decades of neglect, and then came the 2008 financial crash and several large institutions raising money at the same time for capital projects.
Director Tasha Chambers, a museum volunteer and events organizer while at ChildFund International, came into the position eight months ago and the completion tracked alongside her pregnancy. She gave interviews while in labor. “I started in August and it’s been the longest and hardest eight months of my life,” she said during a preview tour last week. “I had a baby three weeks ago today and here I stand.”
She’s motivated by an avowed passion for African-American history complemented by the excitement and anxiety of her role in the evolution of this institution. Chambers’ previous stints with nonprofits working in under-served communities is different from museums, and she credits mentorship by the Valentine’s Bill Martin and the American Civil War Museum’s Christy Coleman.
Chambers is all too aware that once the doors swing open for the public, her real work begins.
Practical programming matters need to be figured out, too. The museum is a few blocks off First Fridays Art Walk course and also near the Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site and the Hippodrome Theater, among others.
Part of the initial stability plan calls for the creation of after-hours programming to bolster the museum operations. “So there will be after-hours jazz nights, poetry nights,” Chambers says. The grand opening is to show hints of things to come. This Friday, from 7 to 9 p.m., the museum will feature live poetry and the jazz of Plunky and Oneness. On Saturday, the museum is open and free to the public, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Two shows are scheduled by a performing artist for the whole family, Culture Queen.
The admission-based world at large is invited on May 10, when the museum's regular schedule begins. The public won't have to be as well-dressed as are these ladies, however.
In this photograph displayed at the Black History Museum, a group of formally dressed young women are attending a 1953 event at the Mary V. Binga Community Center.
Ahead of the museum is the charge of raising an endowment fund to keep the place running. The ultimate goal is $5 million, but to start, $1 million. The museum’s home since 1991, a mansion built in 1832 for Adolph Dill at 00 Clay St., is to be retained for administrative and classroom uses.
Selden Richardson, a historian and author of “Built By Blacks,” was an often lonely advocate for the building. He completed the National Register of Historic Places nomination in 2009. He said then, weary and befuddled, “It’s the last card I can play, a feeble, feeble attempt to draw attention beyond that — chaining myself to the gate. I’m getting near the end. Every six months, I go down to City Council and do my lone nut job routine and their expressions are: ‘Here he is again, is it Christmastime?’ Nothing ever changes.”
And then change arrived.
Stacey L. Burrs, now with Venture Richmond, became the chairman of the Black History Museum’s board of directors. He and board member Roice D. Luke made the Leigh Street armory a mission. Then-Richmond City Councilman William Pantele supported getting the museum into the armory. A natural fit perhaps — but neither easy nor simple.
For last week’s media preview, visitor services manager Mary Lauderdale led reporters through the galleries that take visitors through the arc of history, from earliest slavery to the Civil War and Reconstruction, segregation and civil rights to now. The café is arranged as a Woolworth’s lunch counter, similar to the kind that caused the protest in February 1960 of 200 Virginia Union University students. They defied segregation rules to sit with whites and 34 were arrested. The store was desegregated by year’s end and the court appeals of the 34 went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which overturned their convictions.
The Black History Museum includes a Woolworth's-style diner for its cafe. The signage is original to the downtown counter where students held a sit-in against segregation. (photo by Darryl Wingo/Digital Image House)
A 25-foot touch screen timeline that can be used by 32 people at one time features imagery and quotes. The present-day panel — planned or not — is across from an exhibition box containing a slave collar.
Standing at the right angle reflects one onto the other. Richmond firm Seamless Integration installed the touch screen hardware while Riggs Ward pulled the pictures into focus and created the unfussy and elegant exhibition galleries. Reminders of the building’s past incarnation as a school include chalkboards installed where they were located, to satisfy historic site regulations, and they may come in handy for group participation. Chalk scratching will echo in those rooms, though.
The abstract sculptural element of the Emancipation Oak of Hampton University spreads above the first gallery with monitors describing the stories of anti-slavery activists. The building’s turrets offer curious spaces, created by Richmond’s 3DI Studio, for younger visitors to peer into the past, and view stories such as that of James Armistead Lafayette, “The Invisible Man,” a New Kent County slave who became a Revolutionary War spy.
Greeting visitors at the entrance is a 3DI Studio-produced video of courageous Richmond Planet publisher, banker and community leader John Mitchell Jr. (He’s well-represented by Richmond actor J. Ron Fleming.) Mitchell served on the city’s Board of Aldermen before Jim Crow laws restricted black political participation. His persuasion brought the 1895 appropriation: $4,000 for land and $7,000 for the building designed by white Confederate veteran and ingenious city engineer Wilfred Emory Cutshaw. His legacy projects include the design of Boulevard, the current layout of Monroe Park and the Pump House in Byrd Park. Armstead Walker (husband of bank president Maggie L. Walker) supplied the bricks and labor.
Lauderdale introduced the visitors, pointing out the separation line between the old armory and the new lobby. Where we stood had been the privies — appropriate, some might think, considering what we in the profession must sometimes wade through to get a story. But not in this case. The struggle for the building toward its renewal, however, is another matter.
The First Battalion Virginia Volunteers were formed in 1876, but until Mitchell came along, they lacked a gathering, storage and drilling place. The First Battalion armory equaled the four other armories for white organizations. The armory’s original purpose received a revocation by race-based regulations after a mere four years. The imposing building, among Jackson Ward’s most notable, was variously used by schools and civic groups and as a World War II USO for black soldiers. Then came various schools, followed by decades of neglect. Now, the building is revived, and large enough and with innovative uses of technology, to weave a multi-textured historical panorama.
One can read of Irene Morgan, who, during a Greyhound ride from Virginia to Maryland, refused to move into the segregated section.
A touch screen tells the story of Irene Morgan behind the headlines.
There is a section devoted to Danville race car diver Wendell Scott.
Here, too, is a colossal Arthur Ashe — about 13-feet high — a model for the Monument Avenue statue by Paul DiPasquale. The 600-pound figure required six men to carry, on its side, with the books and tennis racket removed.
The elevator contains the story of Henry "Box" Brown, who shipped himself in a crate from Richmond to Philadelphia to escape slavery.
Upstairs is a reception place and a gallery for rotating exhibitions. First up, “Funky Turns 40," which presents animation cells from late 1960s and 1970s TV shows like the "Jackson 5ive," "The Harlem Globetrotters," "Josie and the Pussycats" and "Fat Albert."
“It’s the evolution of black skin animation,” Lauderdale explains. “Adults will remember it, children will love it.”
Starting May 10, the museum will be open Tuesday to Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $10 for adults, $8 for seniors and students and $6 for children ages 3 to 12. Admission is free for infants. 122 W. Leigh St., 780-9093 or blackhistorymuseum.org.