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Consider how far it's traveled in 50 years.

Detroit's first museum devoted to the black experience, the International Afro-American Museum, opened in 1965. Housed in Dr. Charles H. Wright's home office on West Grand Boulevard, it was just a few miles from the site of the dramatic $38.4 million museum that now bears the doctor's name, but worlds away in ambition, depth and prestige.

Celebrating its 50th anniversary all this year, the city-owned Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History has proved to be surprisingly resilient, prospering despite political friction and chronic fiscal crises. The museum pulled in 261,000 visitors last year — double the number just three years ago. The Wright now stands as a major tourist draw, an educational powerhouse, and a demonstrable source of pride.

"To the local community, it's the place where they see themselves, and tells their story," said President and CEO Juanita Moore, who adds that finding sustainable funding for the museum, which ended 2014 with a budget surplus, is one of her chief aims.

The 125,000-square-foot building at Warren and Brush is capped by a glass dome 55 feet high. The museum reflects the remarkable shift in the status of black history, a topic dismissed as unimportant by the broader culture in 1965.

"Black history is American history," said federal Judge Damon J. Keith, one of the museum's champions, and its savior when it nearly went bankrupt in 2004. "We've all been a part of that."

Ignorance was the initial catalyst. Wright, an obstetrician and gynecologist who died in 2002, was dismayed at how little black youngsters knew about their culture in the 1950s and '60s, despite growing up in the heady years of the civil rights movement.

"He didn't think young people knew anything about black history," said Dr. Roberta Wright, his widow. "They didn't have any pride, and didn't seem interested in learning about our background."


Museum on wheels

So Wright, who grew up in Alabama, set out to change that with his little museum. And when the city erupted in flames two years after it opened, he redoubled his efforts, organizing a museum on wheels that toured the city and its schools for 10 years until the mobile home that housed it wore out. It was a labor of love.

"In my next life," Wright told The Detroit News in 1997, "I'll be a historian, not a physician."

In 1987, the museum became the Museum of African American History, and moved across from the College for Creative Studies. The city committed to providing its annual operating and maintenance budgets.

But political conflict erupted when then-Mayor Coleman A. Young took control of the museum, stacking the board with his appointees. The mayor declared that the almost new, $3.5 million building in the Cultural Center was too small, and needed a grander facility.

That was enough for the good doctor. At the museum's 25th anniversary gala, Wright shocked the black-tie gathering by announcing his resignation from the museum he fathered, citing differences with the city. The mayor, of course, got his way. The groundbreaking for the third museum — the one we know today — took place in 1993. Shortly after it opened in 1997, the museum added its founder to its name.

'And still we rise'

Wright died before the heart and soul of the museum, its core exhibit "And Still We Rise," debuted in 2004. It replaced the exhibit "Of the People: The African American Experience" — a display widely regarded as thin and glib.

Indeed, the new facility's first president, Kimberly Camp, told The News in 1998 that nothing depressed museum staff more than visitors who asked, "Is that it?"

Nobody emerging from the 22,000 square feet comprising "And Still We Rise" is likely to ask that.

"It's a wonderful exhibit," said Nettie Seabrooks, who was deputy mayor during the Dennis Archer administration. "It's much better than the previous one."

But if visiting the Wright is more satisfying today, it hasn't shaken the fiscal instability that's dogged it for years. The first near-death experience came in 2004, which the museum survived only because Keith assembled the city's African-American elite in his chambers to say they couldn't let the museum fail.

That generated more than $1 million in short order.

A similar rescue had to be cobbled together last year, when museum officials warned that finances had deteriorated badly over the past several years. In part, that reflected sharp cuts in operating funds from Detroit, which dropped from a high of $2.7 million in 2009 to just under $1 million last year.

Raising money

In response, the museum has pulled in four new board members, including Mayor Mike Duggan's chief economic adviser, Tom Lewand. It also secured $200,000 in matching grants for a fundraising campaign and opened talks with the Black Chamber of Commerce to institutionalize annual contributions from local businesses.

All together, those interventions allowed the Wright, with a budget of $6.8 million, to close out the year in the black.

Those involved agree losing the museum would be a catastrophe.

"I don't think there's any question," said Archer. "When you're pitching the city, part of the pitch is that we've got the Wright Museum."

Said Seabrooks, "They have to succeed. It'd be an ugly mark not just for the city but the state if it doesn't become financially sustainable."

Moore, who notes the museum's donor base has jumped over the past year, said getting the institution on a sound economic footing is one of her chief ambitions. She wants "to make sure it's around for the next 50 years."

Robert Blackwell, president and CEO of Chicago's DuSable Museum of African American History, said such museums are important, given memories of the 20th century's epic struggles are already fading.

"You want your children to know who you are and where you came from," he said. "These museums help you remember that people died seeking to set you free."

A museum history

1965 Dr. Charles H. Wright opens International Afro-American Museum in a small building on West Grand Boulevard.

1967 Riots prompt Wright to also launch a mobile museum that traveled the city.

1987 Renamed Museum of African American History opens in new $3.5 million building near College for Creative Studies.

1990 Mayor Coleman A. Young declares new building too small, announces plans for larger facility.

1990 Wright resigns from the museum he created, citing differences with the city.

1993 Groundbreaking begins on museum's present site at Warren and Brush.

1997 New $38.4 million Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History opens, gets 30,000 visit in first three days.

2002 Wright dies on March 7.

2004 Judge Damon J. Keith rallies black elite to save museum, raising more than $1 million.

2004 After complaints about the original, a new core exhibit, "And Still We Rise," opens to wide acclaim.

2006 Juanita Moore becomes president and CEO; formerly headed American Jazz Museum in Kansas City.

2015 Museum celebrates its 50th anniversary all year.

Also a 50th: Selma march

Fifty years ago, Alabama State Police attacked peaceful marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma; it came to be known as "Bloody Sunday."

The brutal assault March 7 on the protesters, just starting a planned march from Selma to the state Capitol in Montgomery, was caught on TV and shocked the nation. It would become one of the defining moments of the civil rights movement, widely credited with helping to pass the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

President Barack Obama, with his wife and daughters, as well as former President George W. Bush, will be in Selma on Saturday; a march over the bridge is set for Sunday.

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