Group calls for changes at Charles H. Wright museum

Charles E. Ramirez
The Detroit News
Tahira Ahmad and Abdul Musawwir Aquil, both members of the Black Legacy Coalition, express their concerns about the direction of the museum during the press conference. The Black Legacy Coalition held a press to ask the Board Trustees for the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History to respond to community concerns about the direction of the museum on Thursday, November, 29, 2018 in Detroit.

Detroit — A group on Thursday called on the trustees of the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History to add new board members and cancel an exhibit featuring Thomas Jefferson's plantation. 

It also demanded the museum include more community representatives on the committee responsible for finding a new CEO for the institution.

Tahira Ahmad, a member of the coalition, said the group has submitted the proposed changes to museum officials, but they have rejected them. 

"We ask, whose museum is this?" she said. "Who is making policy for the museum and in whose interests are they working?" 

Ahmad was among about a dozen members of the group, called the Black Legacy Coalition, that's calling on the museum's board to make the changes. She said the entire coalition is made up of about 20 smaller groups. 

A woman holds a sign opposing the proposed Thomas Jefferson exhibit at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History.

She made the remarks during a news conference the coalition held at the First Unitarian Universalist Church on the corner of Cass and Forest in Detroit's Midtown district.

The museum responded Thursday to the group's claims. 

"The mission of the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History remains the same — open minds and change lives through the exploration of African American history and culture," museum spokeswoman Delisha Upshaw said in a statement.

"We value feedback, perspectives and input from the community and have taken steps to address concerns from this particular part of the community. We are also considering how a broader representation of the community can be included and represented." 

The coalition said it demands the museum add to its board of trustees a list the group has of 11 community representatives. The board has a nine-member executive committee and a total of 32 members. 

"The current board includes more than 30 persons, many of whom are tied to major corporations, elite law firms and other businesses in the Metro Detroit area," said Abdul-Musawwir Aquil, another member of the coalition.  "None of them may be said to represent the Detroit African-American community at large."

Abdul Musawwir Aquil, a member of the Black Legacy Coalition, expresses his concerns about the direction of the museum.

Ahmad and Aquil also said the group demands the museum cancel an exhibit featuring  Jefferson's plantation that's scheduled to be installed next year.

On its website, the museum said it plans to bring in an exhibit called "Seating Sally Hemings at the Table." Hemings was one of Thomas Jefferson's slaves at his Monticello plantation and bore him at least six children. Historians believed Jefferson began a sexual relationship with her when she was about 16-years-old. 

"It's a powerful exhibit that tells the story of Sally Hemings and other families who were enslaved at the Monticello Plantation — from their perspective," Upshaw said. "We're proud to work with Gayle Jessup White, a Hemings and Jefferson family descendant, to tell the important, often forgotten stories about these families, their tremendous contributions to our country, and their legacies that live on today."

The same exhibit opened in September at the African American Museum of Dallas as “Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello: Paradox of Liberty.” It examines the dual nature of Jefferson, a man who could so eloquently opine that “all men are created equal” while enslaving human beings, according to museum officials.

Also, the coalition requested the museum include community members on the committee leading the search for a new CEO. The museum's previous CEO, Juanita Moore, announced in June she was retiring from the post July 1. Moore had served as its administrator for 12 years.

ReadWright Museum's Juanita Moore to retire

The group urged Detroiters to buy museum memberships and to call and email its interim COO, George Hamilton. 

Located on the corner of East Warren Avenue and Brush Street in Detroit's Cultural Center, the museum has been housed in its current building since 1997. The museum itself, however, was founded in 1965 by Dr. Charles H. Wright in a small building on West Grand Boulevard. Wright died in 2002.

Twitter: @CharlesERamirez