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Photo by Isaac Harrell
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Roice D. Luke (left), a board member of the Black History Museum and Virginia Cultural Center, and Stacy L. Burrs, the board’s chairman, are helping to steer themuseum’s planned renovations and move to the brick armory building on Leigh Street. Photo by Isaac Harrell
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Photo by Isaac Harrell
After years of being the center of conflict between neighborhood factions, the city administration and preservationists, the turreted brick armory building at Leigh and St. Peter streets — built in 1895 for the African-American First Battalion, Virginia Volunteers — is slated to become the new home of the Black History Museum and Virginia Cultural Center.
Stacy L. Burrs, chairman of the museum's board of directors, says the museum will occupy the new space in 2013, but between now and then, it will close its 00 Clay St. location, perhaps as early as July. This will allow the Black History Museum to prepare its biggest expansion since its 1991 founding, according to Burrs.
The upfit of the armory by Richmond's BAM architects will include a green-roofed addition and a total of 22,000 square feet. A small plaza along St. Peter Street will allow for outdoor receptions and other events. The annual budget should double to $600,000 a year, Burrs says, allowing the staff to grow from three to at least seven. Burrs intends for the armory alone to open in 2013. Since it already stands, even as a shell, the initial cost of $2.2 million is less than new construction. It's not yet clear what might become of the current center on Clay Street.
The First Battalion Armory's original purpose was eclipsed after a mere four years by race-based Jim Crow regulations. The imposing building, among Jackson Ward's most notable, was variously used as a school and a USO for black soldiers during World War II. An additional gymnasium provided courts for neighborhood youth. In the 1990s, the Black History Museum expressed some interest in getting the space, but this capital effort didn't materialize.
In 2000, a Richmond-raised black e-commerce entrepreneur sought to satisfy a childhood ambition and move his family into the 12,360-square-foot armory. Some community leaders balked at re-zoning by citing a lack of consultation between the city and the neighborhood. Councilman Sa'ad El-Amin declared in public session that the city was "selling off our patrimony."
That patrimony thereafter went to ruin.
Preservationists and nearby residents alike sat powerless on the sidelines, appalled and frustrated, as the armory's roof collapsed and the gym addition fell apart. The city — goaded by activist preservationists like Selden Richardson — secured a $700,000 federal grant in 2003 combined with community-block development grants and capital-improvement funding to stabilize the walls and install a roof.
Burrs became the chairman of the Black History Museum's board about five years ago. Before long, he says, then-Richmond City Councilman William Pantele urged him to get the museum into the armory. A natural fit perhaps — but neither easy nor simple.
Niche nonprofits usually arise from the personal passion of their founders. Maintaining them, however, takes a brand of rigor and endurance that might cause others to flee. Burrs didn't run. Instead, he set to work.
"We have not historically had the capacity or wherewithal to do the things that most people thought a black history museum of Virginia should do," Burrs says. "We started thinking about what a grand vision would be."
A larger building — and more parking — was but one part of that aspiration. The motivation was to follow the arc of the Virginia African-American experience, from the 1619 arrival at Jamestown of blacks kidnapped by Dutch merchantmen from a Spanish ship, through the founding struggles to resolve the issue of slavery that compromised the Constitution and set the course for war to the struggles of civil rights and into the present.
"You can't tell the story if where you start is Emancipation and after," says board member Roice D. Luke.
A totality of experience is called for, through media, programming, even a future Freedom Trail. The many facets, among them politics, business, the military and health care, are part of the telling. The motivation to give the big picture guided the hiring as executive director African-American scholar Maureen Elgersman Lee, originally from Toronto, Canada, formerly a faculty scholar at the University of Southern Maine, and an adjunct professor at Old Dominion University.
Luke says, "This isn't just an African-American story, but an American story. Everybody always says that, but this is what we have: The whole flow of the development of the Constitution ties into race relations all the way up to the Civil War. We've got that [in Richmond]."
Burrs approached both the city and the neighborhood about the museum moving into the armory. Both gave their firm approval. "And then it became a question of trying to figure out how much it'd cost, who we could get influential in town who'd be supportive of the effort, and really, just how you go about building an organization that could accomplish that."
Burrs brought corporate representation onto the board and made its composition more racially diverse. He asked Luke, a Virginia Commonwealth University professor emeritus, to serve on the board. Luke made Virginia Freedmen's Bureau records accessible through indexing and digitizing. This vital information about blacks following the end of slavery wasn't readily accessible before to either historians or family history researchers.
The national financial collapse in 2008 delayed fundraising but not planning. A steering committee for the museum's future included University of Richmond president and historian Ed Ayers, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts director Alex Nyerges, former Cadmus Communications executive and business educator Wallace Stettinius, and Jean Boone, vice president and advertising director of the Richmond Free Press. A feasibility study in the summer of 2011 indicated that the time was right and that money was available. Burrs was encouraged by consultants Charles Bryan and Dan Jordan, presidents emeritus respectively of the Virginia Historical Society and the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, which operates Monticello.
"They said, ‘We think you guys have placed the bar too low. There's more than $5 million in this community for this project. You have a larger natural constituency than you think you have. We feel this budget should be more like $8 million, and you need to think about site control of the whole block,' " Burrs says, laughing. "About then, my head exploded."
Considering the sheer size of other projects — the $158 million Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine Education or the National Museum of African American History in Washington, D.C., costing a proposed $250 million — what Burrs and his board seek is not nearly as dizzying a figure. "That said, $5 million for building and $3 million for an endowment is a huge lift for an organization our size."
Burrs says that the museum has $1.9 million for the project that is eligible for historic-tax credit funding. Additional financial support should come from preservation organizations, while there are larger national groups, such as the Kresge and W.K. Kellogg foundations, that will be approached.
"But it's not just these big donors that we'll want to be putting on a wall," Burrs says. "It's the individual contributor. This is their story. It's all of our stories."