At its 1997 opening, the Charles H. Wright
Museum of African American History promised to be one of few bright
spots for the city of Detroit. Planners and city officials
envisioned the museum becoming a major tourist attraction and
cultural center. But sagging attendance and poor membership sales
have threatened the future of the facility. Dedicated to preserving
the history, traditions and culture of the black community, the
museum is an important part of the city’s cultural vibrancy.
Every effort should be made to ensure its survival.
Three weeks ago, museum director Christy Coleman reported to the
Detroit City Council that the museum was in financial difficulty.
Coleman made it clear that without emergency funding, the cultural
attraction would have to close. U.S. 6th District Circuit Court of
Appeals Judge Judge Damon Keith has spearheaded efforts to save the
museum, and Harvard University recently named him one of
America’s most famous black citizens. Keith gathered two
dozen of Detroit’s top black businesspeople and raised more
than $1 million dollars in pledges. In addition to these donations,
many promised to rally support within their respective spheres of
influence and to help seek out active advocates for the museum.
Money, however, is not all the museum needs in order to remain
an integral part of Detroit. The institution currently lacks
— on top of donations — memberships and annual support
from the community. While the museum receives $1.8 million from the
city each year, it still relies on contributions for the rest of
its operating budget. Since its opening, paid attendance has fallen
from a peak of 202,754 to 37,793 last year. This year the museum
fell short of funds three months before its fiscal year ended.
While Keith’s efforts in the past few months are expected
to get the museum through the next budget year, it is not out of
the woods yet. Rod Gillum, chairman of the museum board, said that
to secure the history of the museum, the community must make it a
priority to contribute to the museum annually. Detroiters and
nonDetroiters need to work together to ensure the long-term success
of the facility. Hopefully, in the years to come, members of the
community will step up and continue to ensure the future prosperity
of the museum. The city can ill afford to lose one of its
pre-eminent cultural centers. A Detroit renaissance that only
focuses on improving the city’s economy will not succeed; a
vibrant cultural experience is essential.