Sacred Sites Detroit: Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History

Riverwise Editorial Staff | Photo Alexandre DaVeiga 

With its massive, circular architecture and other representative emblems of African design and philosophy throughout, the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History serves as a sacred place for remembering the contributions of ancestral heroes and community builders.  The tiles that pave the floor of the grand atrium bear their names. Voices echo in the expanse of the rotunda with its very high, vaulted glass ceiling. Here beloved leaders have lain in state, honored by admirers from near and far – the Honorable Coleman A. Young, the Honorable Erma Henderson, Mrs. Rosa Parks, and just weeks ago, Ms. Aretha Franklin.

Soft foot falls, the click of heels. People moving in silence, offering last respects for those whose courage and creativity challenged and changed our city, our country, and the world.

Explosive rhythms of African drums, master artists bringing ancient sounds to life, entrusting them to young hands.

Echoes of the Duke, Count, and the Queen of Soul, mixed with Miles and Motown, punctuated with the beats of hip-hop and the voices of poets.

Words of scholars, artists, actors and activists weaving new ideas, remembering old promises and passions.

Laughter, as children delight in learning.

Images of our past — who we used to be.  

Visions of who we can yet become.


For this issue of Riverwise, we recognize the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History for our ‘sacred sites’ feature. The museum’s ground-breaking mission was to give greater visibility to the historic strivings and achievements of Africans in the United States, and to ensure that our children’s self-esteem could grow, firmly rooted in the knowledge of our ancestral heritage. Since its founding by Dr. Charles H. Wright in 1965, the Museum has been a community centerpiece, a symbol of our collective strength and resilience. There were setbacks in the early development of the Museum– given it was the first of its kind. Finding appropriate staff and leadership posed a problem, as there were very few African-American professionals in the field. In addition, early directors struggled to find their footing in the Detroit community, often failing to recognize the historical assets and sophistication of the community they had been called to serve.


Over the last decade, such problems have been solved. The exhibits, concerts, lectures and other programs have achieved a level of excellence that has won the community’s enthusiastic support. We have been reminded of the significant contributions of our heroes— Mandela, Walter Rodney, Vincent Harding, for example,  —as we celebrated their birthdays; we have savored lectures from brilliant scholars in the fields of political economics and medical research; we have been restored by Detroit’s world-class musicians; we have been inspired by our most highly esteemed literary artists. Some programs reminded us of the beauty and profundity of our culture; others urged us to deeper analysis of contemporary political developments, both positive and negative, that impact our lives as African Americans.  


Moreover, the Museum is now firmly rooted in the community. It serves as gathering base for numerous organizations and educational efforts, such as the General Baker Institute and Detroit Independent Freedom Schools; offers internships to advance the development of young leaders; reaches out to young men in prison to help them find their way; and sponsors the exuberant events of African Liberation Day and the African World Festival, to which thousands look forward each year. By all assessments, the Museum is exemplary for its realization of “best practices” in the field.


However, given the abrupt departure of the former CEO and President, there is community concern about the direction the Museum Board will take. A group of  twenty community organizations have already collected over 15,000 signatures on social media outlets to oppose an exhibit on Thomas Jefferson that the interim COO, Mr. George Hamilton, plans to bring to the Museum.  Many African Americans are aware that Jefferson made an enslaved child his mistress and bearer of his children. To assume that such an exhibit would be well received by African Americans in 2018, when we are daily mourning the police murders of our young people, reveals a shocking degree of racial insensitivity as well as professional incompetence.  


So what will become of our beloved Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History? Who has called for the recent uprooting of the successful leadership of the last 12 years? What does the Board propose to do, and in whose interest are they making plans? Let’s remain watchful!


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