Progress Report: The First Major African American Museum

From Storefront to Monument: Tracing the Public History of the Black Museum Movement by Andrea Burns, among other things, shares the story behind the creation of the African American Museum of Philadelphia. When books talk about details leading up to an important event they risk overwhelming readers with details, names and acronyms. Here is a brief overview regarding the establishment of the African American Museum of Philadelphia, starting with background influences in Philadelphia society.

Philadelphia’s Bicentennial was scheduled to be celebrated for the year 1976. In 1965, the group responsible for initiating Bicentennial projects (Philadelphia ’76) decided that the theme of the event would be “human values.” [1] They outlined the three primary purposes of the Bicentennial program in a document called “Detroit Bicentennial: Catalyst for Progress.” Within the document they decided to redirect the people to pursue the unrealized ideals of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. They also sought to celebrate the city’s diverse ethnic heritages, and regenerate the city into something more beautiful. [2] A man named William Rafsky suggested recruiting more members of the Black community into the group to help execute an exhibition that reflects an accurate portrayal of the role Black people played in developing the city, state, and Nation. He gathered support to secure the success of his idea. [3]

From the beginning it was decided that the museum would be planned and executed by black groups and organizations. Philadelphia’s black community wanted to control the presentation of their history. Who better to accurately portray African American history than members within that group? White Philadelphians seemed to have a more hands off approach regarding the topic. Caroline Golab, a white woman, wrote “if the exhibit never materializes, it is thus their fault not ours.” [4]

Philadelphia Mayor Rizzo was warned that white working class voters would not reelect a mayor who funded an African American museum. He informed Clarence Farmer—one of the first African American members of the original Bicentennial planning group (Philadelphia ’76)—that the funding for the history museum had been killed. Instead, $8.5 million would go toward a Living History Museum that dealt with American history without singling out any specific ethnic group. [5] Plans were made for a temporary African American history exhibit to appease people during the Bicentennial. Surprisingly, people who were originally opposed to the construction of a permanent black museum protested. City Council president George X. Schwartz spoke out against scrapping the idea to avoid embarrassment and violence during the Bicentennial. [6] After that, Mayor Rizzo publicly pledged his solid support for the permanent African American museum. Some called it “political pandering to powerful black activists.” [7] Regardless, $2.5 million was approved for construction of the museum.

Theodore V. Cam, an African American architect was hired to create an architectural study for the location of the permanent black history museum. His study was published in 1974. Criteria for the site considered: available building space, cost, pedestrian access, public transit access, the physical character of the neighborhood surrounding the museum, the presence/work of neighborhood organizations, and accessibility to diverse groups of people—rich and poor as well as black and white. [8] Society Hill was deemed most suitable for the construction site, but the Society Hill Civic Association (SHCA) immediately opposed the decision. They argued the museum would violate zoning ordinances, create parking problems, and that the museum was too big to fit into the area. Mayor Rizzo echoed African American sentiments when he stated that “many are opposed to it because it involves blacks” but the SHCA stayed careful to avoid signs of racism. They eventually agreed that the museum could be made provided that it followed resolutions which limited operating hours, the number of visitors to the museum, food sales in or around the museum, and the use of interior space within the museum. [9] Proponents of the museum were faced with a choice: compromise the design of the museum to keep it located at Society Hill and not have it open by the Bicentennial, or keep the design but choose a new location.

It was decided that the museum should open for the Bicentennial celebration. A mock funeral was held to recognize the loss of Society Hill as a site. Museum construction broke ground on the corner of 7th and Arch street, a business district at the edge of Philadelpha Chinatown that was isolated from where African Americans in Philadelphia live and work. The museum stands there to this day.

Stephenie Walker


[1] Andrea A. Burns, From Storefront to Monument: Tracing the Public History of the Black Museum Movement, (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2013), 43.

[2] Storefront to Monument, 44.

[3] Storefront to Monument, 47.

[4] Storefront to Monument, 48.

[5] Storefront to Monument, 54.

[6] Storefront to Monument, 56.

[7] Storefront to Monument, 57.

[8] Storefront to Monument, 59.

[9] Storefront to Monument, 69.



17 thoughts on “Progress Report: The First Major African American Museum

  1. The story behind the African American Museum of Philadelphia left me a bit disappointed. I was excited to read the history of the first BIG museum dedicated to the contributions African Americans made in society. However, I couldn’t shake the sense that this building would never have been built if white leaders at the time had their way. I feel like they were coerced into permitting the construction of the museum. If the political climate had been slightly different, would this building be here today? Could someone argue that coerced progress is actually a lack of progress?

    1. Good question. I think that sometimes coerced progress could be seen as a lack of progress, but I also think it is unfortunately sometimes necessary. It almost seems like big things have to happen, and then people will get used to the idea, and enough time will pass that eventually it will be be the new norm. It’s sad that that seems to be the only way things change, that people aren’t making the conscious decision to change their way of thinking and their policies.

      1. Very good point Megan. Regarding this situation, people do not change their thinking, over time they forget about something and move on. I find it very sad that such a fit was put up to establish a museum that celebrated African American history- which is after all an American story. Was the truth too ugly for Americans to own up to? Did they not want to see successful African Americans in history because it was a threat towards their way of thinking? Were they just too racist and bigoted to want an African American museum? I think all of the above.

  2. I am glad that you noted that “A mock funeral was held to recognize the loss of Society Hill as a site.” I think it is very symbolic. Do you think that the museum’s placement made the museum worthless as a community center? Clearly it was placed outside of an area frequented by African Americans, making it difficult to draw those groups in.

    1. I never considered that question before, Michelle. I wouldn’t go as far as labeling the museum “worthless” as a community center. It is technically nestled within a community, after all. I think its placement does cause struggle for the African American community to use it as a community center, but the community members the museum is built near–like Chinatown–can still use it, provided the institution welcomes them.

    2. I think the museums location hinders its ability to serve as a community center. However, thinking of other institutions such as the Barnes Foundation and the National American Museum of History and Culture, I think it says something that the museum is right in Center City. African American history and the objects on display in this museum are important enough to place right in the center of our city, showing it is an integral part of this city’s history as a whole. I don’t think you got the proper sense of this from the reading, but AAMP is just blocks from Independence Mall, the National Constitution Center, and Independence Hall. While it is sandwiched between Chinatown and the mall in a more business-y area, it makes it more accessible for tourists. So I think it can be less involved with African American communities because of the distance. It is not a place that you can just pop in everyday. You have to go out of your way to get there. Worthless? No. The location offers a different set of opportunities, but does limit its ability to directly engage the people it represents.

      1. I was thinking the same thing. AAMP may not be able to produce as much shared authority because of its location, but its placement near big heritage tourism sites has a potential all of its own. AAMP, the National Constitution Center, Independence National Park, and the National Museum of Jewish American History and all within a half mile of each other. I could almost imagine Philadelphia having a smaller version of the Smithsonian, where tour buses come in full of people ready to visit multiple museums in one day. Unfortunately, Philadelphia has a serious disadvantage on this front. Admission to all of those places would be $40.50 for an adult, more if they wanted to visit Independence Hall itself. That’s a huge investment. Maybe all of the museums in Center City had a pass available, AAMP and the others could all attract more tourists–and AAMP could reach more people with its message. There’s already a group of museums in the city that do something similar, so what’s stopping the museums in Center City?

      2. Emily, it’s interesting how you mention museums built in city centers and being a part of the city’s history as a whole. This makes me think of the City Beautiful movement popular at the turn of the century. Museums were built to be part of grand, ordered cities. I would say that these museums’ facades–planners’ and architects’ physical signatures on urban landscapes–functioned in a certain way. I think the same can be said about neighborhood museums. Though they may be much smaller than the monolithic Metropolitan or Carnegie Museums, their mere presence in cities is important (for communities and the museum field’s sustainability alike).

    3. We keep talking about how the Philadelphia museum was not located within the African American community, so therefore was disconnected with the African American population of the city. But this idea is complicated with the Charles Wright Museum in Detroit case study. When the museum was established in the mid-1960s, the African American population in Detroit was about 40%. Today, the African American population in Detroit is over 80%, and yet the museum’s attendance is abysmal! If we are connecting location to interest, what do we think about this case?

      1. I think it is important to separate interest and location in this case. If the African American community is not attending the Charles Wright Museum, then location is not the problem. Perhaps the needs of the community are not being met. Perhaps residents cannot afford to attend if there is an admissions fee or perhaps there is not enough time in their schedules to visit the museum. I never been to this museum or to Detroit in general, so I really can’t comment much, but there could be a practical reason why visitation is low in this case.

  3. I think the trouble here was the Bicentennial. Of course the African American community rightly felt a need to be included in the celebrations, commemorations, and cultural growth, but government “ownership” of the event still leaned on a primarily white historical narrative. Had the museum been proposed after the Bicentennial, I wonder if the issue would have been as contentious as it was. Perhaps the city would not have been involved so quickly, causing the museum to move to another site.

    1. That’s an interesting thought. But also a very sad one. The Bicentennial should have been a time to celebrate people as Americans, but it was used in a plot to deny people inclusion in the American story. I think the Bicentennial could have been used to make the issue contentious, because it allowed opponents of the museum to say that we are all Americans so it is a one size fits all story. But any good story is multi-faceted, with many different characters and perspectives. I feel like the Bicentennial could have been used as a scapegoat to deny the construction.

    2. I agree, Patrick, that was a question I asked myself when reading this part of the book. I think the African American community felt a strong desire and need to have the museum open in time for the Bicentennial in order to tell a more inclusive history of Philadelphia’s founding. Ultimately, there was a hard choice -move or concede to a vision that the community didn’t want and limited access to the museum.

  4. The location of the building was a major component of the AAMP’s initial failure, but Clarence Farmer’s (head of the museum’s board of directors after its creation) control over the staff should also be mentioned. According to “From Storefront to Monument,” Farmer took much of the creative control away from the staff, which led to a series of unsuccessful and uninteresting exhibits in the museum’s early years. The AAMP’s first successful exhibit did not come until 1981 with the creation of the exhibit “Of Color, Humanitas, and Statehood: The Black Experience in Pennsylvania over Three Centuries, 1681-1981.” I wonder whether being located closer to the black community would have invited more critical commentary which might have increased the museum’s quality at a faster rate. I think this is a likely outcome, but maybe the location would have only had a small impact on the way the museum was run at the beginning.

    1. I think this is a really good point, Keith. The story is so complex and there are so many factors in play. I do think that having the museum based within the community would have at least brought more visitors, and in turn more criticism as you have suggested. I feel like if you reside in a neighborhood in which a museum is located, you are much more likely to have an interest in its success and how it is representing your community as a whole. Once it is geographically removed, it seems a bit more “out of sight, out of mind” to me.

    2. I think the original location for the museum would have made it easier for the museum be successful right out of the gate. It would have allowed the museum to start from a place of success instead of a place of defensiveness.

  5. I grew up in the Brewerytown section of Philly and Theo Cam was a close personal friend of mine. I re-united with him during the Bicentennial and later had some dealings with the Children’s Museum, Please Touch, also close to Society Hill. The location of the AAMP’s location was a mistake, due to bad political decisions and the ham-handeness of Farmer. I have since consulted with a number of national and regional museums, all good ones, and the AAMP is not a good museum. Go to the one in Birmingham or the Holacaust Museum in DC if you want to see a good one. The current AAMP is second tier at best, except for my friend Theo’s design of course. The best location would have been on the Parkway if they really wanted to do it right.

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