D.C. museum casts new light on Detroit’s Charles Wright

Bankole Thompson
The Detroit News

The Smithsonian’s new 400,000-square-foot National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., which opened last weekend with a ceremony keynoted by President Barack Obama, is now the largest depository of black history in the nation.

But before last week that designation belonged exclusively to Detroit’s Charles Wright Museum of African American History, which was founded in 1965 and remodeled in 1997.

The question now remains whether the new museum on the National Mall that captures so powerfully the struggles, pain and joy of the African-American experience will overshadow the 120,000-square-foot museum in Detroit that once enjoyed the stature of being regarded as the Taj Mahal of black museums.

“Anytime there is something of this magnitude, it is definitely going to impact how other African-American museums operate locally like the one in Detroit because there is only so much money available to go around,” said Greg Bowens, a public relations expert and president of the Grosse Pointe chapter of the NAACP.

Bowens said most corporations would be more drawn to write checks to the Washington-based museum “because it gives them more reach and a larger market.”

He added, “The museum in Washington, D.C., has already become somewhat of a mecca for the black experience because many African-Americans are now going to make a pilgrimage there.”

But Juanita Moore, president and CEO of the Charles Wright Museum of African American History, said she disagrees that the prominence of the city’s museum could be adversely affected in terms of funding and membership by the new Smithsonian edifice.

“I don’t think it takes away from our museum here at all. I think it adds to our story to have the museum in Washington, D.C., because that’s been really missing,” Moore said.

She said the new museum will house the nonprofit Association of African American Museums, which will help the Wright museum.

“It allows us to use the Smithsonian brand to promote African-American history. Actually, this will encourage more people to visit other museums around the country,” Moore said. “I think it will be positive.”

The Detroit museum has a $6.5 million annual operating budget with 45 staff members. Moore said volunteers at the museum are already planning a bus trip to Washington over the Oct. 15 weekend to visit the new museum as part of the partnership.

Detroit civil leader Betty Brooks, a veteran fundraiser and a member of the Wright museum board of directors, said if there is a competition between the two museums it is a matter of perspective.

“I never look at something as really being competitive because it is not the largest that matters so much but what is inside,” Brooks said. “We have great exhibits at the Charles Wright museum. I personally don’t think what we have in Washington will take away from the one in Detroit.”

Brooks said there is no need to panic about fundraising for the local museum.

Carolyn Cater and others at the Charles Wright museum view a telecast of the opening in D.C. of the now-largest U.S. black history venue.

“We are not the largest anymore. I believe our donors will continue to support the museum, including those who give grants. I don’t believe they will take away their money,” Brooks said. “Our focus now is on creating more programs for children and getting them to visit.”

Detroit lawyer Albert Nelson, who has observed the growth of the Wright museum, agrees.

“I don’t see any downside. The practical matter is one has far more resources that it can be a reference point for the other museums around the country,” Nelson said. “I think it is fantastic to have an overarching and encompassing museum like the one that just opened.”

Bowens said the Smithsonian museum has already captivated the minds of Detroiters.

“On social media last weekend, we saw tons of black folks from Detroit at the new museum. We never saw that kind of crowd here locally. It would be naive to not think that this would have an impact on the Charles Wright museum,” Bowens said.

Bankole Thompson is the host of “Redline with Bankole Thompson” on Super Station 910 AM Wednesdays and Fridays. His column appears Mondays and Thursdays.