What do you do if there is no place for you? Make one. This approach became popular amongst Black separatists during the time of the Black Power Movement. Black separatism was a movement to create separate institutions for people of African descent. Mainstream views amongst black separatists held that blacks can never fully advance within the larger, white-dominated American society, which had historically been hostile towards incorporating blacks. Malcolm X, a black separatist, once said:
When you go to a church and you see the pastor of that church with a philosophy and a program that’s designed to bring black people together and elevate black people, join that church! If you see where the NAACP is preaching and practicing that which is designed to make Black Nationalism materialize, join the NAACP. Join any kind of organization–civic, religious, fraternal, political or otherwise–that’s based on lifting… the black man up and making him master of his own community.
Malcolm X touched on the need for institutions that are made for and by blacks to empower themselves. Black separatists felt that African Americans should physically separate themselves and make independent efforts towards success without the fear of white oppression. Instead of supporting inclusion, black separatist advocated voluntary exclusion.
When reading Andrea A. Burns’ Storefront to Monument: Tracing the Public History of the Black Museum Movement, I was reminded of the ideas of Black separatism. Burns recognizes the influences of the Black Power Movement on the “Black Museum Movement.” Mainstream museums failed to represent African Americans, making them an invisible part of the historical narrative of the country. Even as museums run by white professionals made attempts at inclusivity, they were shallow gestures that reinforced black stereotypes. By not making room for black history and culture in our mainstream museums, the response was the “Black Museum Movement” to challenge and reinterpret the traditional representations of African Americans.
The African American Museum of Philadelphia was one of a growing number of museums neighborhood museums that functioned as a free space. A theme throughout Storefront to Monument is the power of place. The creation of this museum as its own place served as a symbol to the elevation of African American history and culture and affirmed their identity. The power of place meant that site of AAMP was subject to extreme political scrutiny.
When selecting a site, the Afro-American Historical ’76 Bicentennial Corporation aimed for an area which possess “an income and racial mix so that people of various income groups and racial background would feel comfortable approaching the museum. In other words, the area should not be solely poor, middle class, or wealthy, nor should it be a ghetto, white or black.” The preferred location for the museum was originally in a neighborhood called “Society Hill.” A historically black neighborhood, it was at the time populated with upper-middle class white residents. Meeting a large amount of resistance and restrictions imposed by the surrounding residential community, the museum’s design by architect Theodore Cam would have to be severely compromised to stay at that site.
Museum advocates ultimately decided to pick another location in order to open in time for the Bicentennial. The new location was at the corner of 7th and Arch streets. While it was just a block from Independence Mall, the area was congested with office buildings near the edge of Chinatown. It lacked the heritage sites, such as the Mother Bethel AME Church, that Society Hill featured. Physically removed from the Avenue of the Arts and African American heritage sites as well as the communities where African Americans currently lived and worked, the new location left much to be desired.
While the power of place is evident in the conceptualization of a separate African American museum, practical compromises were made in the case of the AAMP. After all of the politics that went into choosing where to build this museum, the African American community was left to wonder whether this was really their “neighborhood” museum. How do we effectively strike a compromise between being a “neighborhood” museum for the people that we represents while not separating ourselves and remain welcoming to a larger audience?
 Catherine Ellis and Stephen Drury Smith, Say it Loud: Great Speeches on Civil Rights and African American Identity, (New York: The New Press, 2010), 18.
 Andrea A. Burns, Storefront to Monument: Tracing the Public History of the Black Museum Movement, (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2013), 3.
 Storefront to Monument, 60.