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Wednesday, Dec. 17, 2008

A New Life for the Black Holocaust Museum?

The city offers financial aid

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Milwaukee lost an important historical and community resource on July 31, when America’s Black Holocaust Museum closed its doors for good, citing financial difficulties.

But the museum may get a lifeline from the city now that the Milwaukee Common Council has approved a committee’s recommendation to purchase the building and pay off some of its debt.

The museum, located at 2233 N. Fourth St., was founded in 1988 by author and civil rights advocate James Cameron with the mission to educate the public about racism against African Americans. Exhibits included a depiction of a typical West African village, the original home to many African-American slaves, and a reproduction of a slave ship. Cameron, who himself survived a 1930 lynching at the hands of a Ku Klux Klan mob, hoped through education to get people to re-examine their assumptions about race and racism. After Cameron died in 2006, the museum continued to play an active role in the community, hosting school tours, presenting guest lecturers and film screenings, and acting as a cornerstone for many local events.

Like many nonprofit institutions, the museum depended heavily on the support of charitable foundations, which have been cutting back on grants both locally and nationally. Lacking continued support, the museum was forced to suspend operations this summer.

Last week, however, the city took the first step to once again make the museum’s collections available to the public. The Common Council’s Zoning, Neighborhoods and Development Committee, which oversees matters relating to historic preservation, passed a proposal in which the city would purchase the building that housed the museum and pay North Shore Bank $250,000 for the mortgage, while North Shore Bank would write off additional debt owed by the museum.

On Tuesday, the full Milwaukee Common Council voted 13-2 to take over the building.

The proposal is no guarantee that the museum will be able to reopen, but it would clear major financial obstacles to that effort. Barring an additional new source of operating revenue, though, the museum likely will not reopen anytime soon. Also unresolved is whether the museum would stay at its current location at a low- or no-cost lease, or seek to house its artifacts, currently in storage, in a new space.

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