At least 4,000 Black men, women, and children have been documented victims of public lynchings in the past century, and the number that went undocumented during slavery, the Civil War and Reconstruction will never be known. Often erroneously considered a social malady of the Deep South, racially motivated hate crimes were just as common in America's Heartland and as far north as Minneapolis. America?s BlackHolocaustMuseum is a memorial to them all, according to its founder James Cameron.
When Cameron founded America's BlackHolocaustMuseum in 1988, it wasn't because he wanted to relive the moment he entered infamy as the only person known to survive a lynching. The night his two friends died at the hands of a mob numbering 15,000 in Marion, Indiana, is immortalized on the cover of Cameron's book, "A Time of Terror: A Survivors Story." The photo is one of America's most recognized lynchings -- an observer in the foreground smiling eerily intro the camera, pointing at the two dead black men swinging from ropes in nearby trees. Cameron, then 16, was beaten and also had a noose placed around his neck, but survived. Falsely accused of being a party to the murder a white man, he was jailed for four years.  
After his release, Cameron would continue to risk his life to establish NAACP Chapters and serving as a high-profile civil rights advocate, including his appointment as Indiana's State Director of Civil Liberties from 1942-1950. In 1993, the state of Indiana pardoned Cameron and issued a public apology. On June 13, 2005, the U.S. Senate   apologized to Cameron for failing to enact federal anti-lynching legislation decades ago.  
Now 92 years old, Cameron wishes the phenomenon were an anomaly of a bygone era. But just across from that historic image from 1930, is a photograph of another young man strung by his neck to a tree, his Converse sport shoes askew at odd angles on limp feet.  The picture was taken in 1982 in Mobile, Alabama.
"We're still not integrated," Cameron says in the introductory tape visitors view before touring the museum. "We're just being tolerated." 
By Valeria Davis
     The low limestone profile of the single-story corner building on Milwaukee's North Avenue at North Fourth Street is iconic in a way -- unassuming, understated and well-blended into its surroundings; a fixture in its urban neighborhood.
     Inside, visitors learn more about an aspect of history that belongs to all America, but is deeply personal to each individual who enters. Any fear potential visitors may have is in their heads and hearts, said America's Black Holocaust Museum Administrator Corry Joe Biddle.
     "Many people are reluctant to visit because they don't know what they're going to experience here," she said. "This is not a place to commiserate about the past. It's an opportunity to learn from it and enrich one's life regardless and inclusive of race."
     Milwaukee Journal Sentinel columnist Jim Stingl last year wrote about this unexpected welcome to the museum where everyone expects to be uncomfortable.
     "My first surprise at America's BlackHolocaustMuseum was waiting right inside the front door," wrote Stingl, who is White. "The tour guide that day was a White guy."
     HibbieHayslett, a former Air Force officer and government analyst in California, who retired along with his wife in Wisconsin to be closer to their grandchildren, is one of the museum's seven griots. Hayslett, who is White, said he's been welcomed as a museum volunteer for who he is and race has never been an issue.
     "From the very beginning, I felt very comfortable and accepted," Hayslett said. "People have opened up, taught me and been very honest about what they feel without anger, intimidation, or recrimination and this is what we need to move toward healing. But the more I know, the more I feel need to learn. I'm by far the one who's benefiting."     
     About half of the museum's visitors are of European decent and, to the surprise of many,  there's a 50 percent chance their tour guide, or griot, a West African word that means "storyteller," will also be White, too. The museum chose the word because in Africa, history is passed orally by griots, who are trained and trusted to tell and retell the history with great accuracy, Biddle explained.
     Milwaukee is proud to have this specialty museum among its world-class museums and galleries.
     "Milwaukee is an excellent place for this museum because of our rich ethnic and racial history," said Sheree Dallas Branch, Wisconsin's Deputy Secretary of Tourism and an African American Milwaukee native. "We've played an important role in national history and we're still dealing with some issues. But this museum is important to the entire country because this is America's history and a uniquely American issue that we can't sweep under the rug."  
     America's Black Holocaust Museum is not designed to blame, punish, or convict anyone of anything. It is an uncensored account of African American history from the capture and enslavement of millions of Africans to modern-day injustices. The museum's founder, James Cameron, wanted the museum to be a tribute to the more than 4,000 men, women, and children who have been the victims of racial violence through lynching and the countless others who suffered and died in slavery and its after effects.
     Since it opened in an abandoned amateur boxing facility not far from Milwaukee's historic downtown in 1988, the goal has moved toward putting hate crimes, discrimination and racism into their proper historic context, Biddle said. The growing collection of exhibits are less jarring than Cameron's original full-blown display of lynchings photographed across the country, but no less disturbing because of what it reveals about hidden racial attitudes and troubled race relations in America, Biddle said.  
     African Americans are the only racial or ethnic group that had to have their full rights as humans written into America's laws to reverse legal definitions in some states.  
     "No matter what color you are, if you live in this country you are affected by all of this," Biddle said. "The underlying tension, fear, and anger we can't quite explain is very real. To not examine where this hate comes from does everyone a disservice. You have to understand where the unspoken attitudes come from and what they are based on."
     Along with its unusual topic, America's Black Holocaust Museum is rare in having rules, Biddle said.
     "The museum is a non-threatening place for people to have important discussions they wouldn't get to have anywhere else," she said. "People can express their thoughts and ask questions. One of our rules is that visitors cannot judge anyone else here. Judging really impedes the learning process and we hope to ensure an eye-opening experience for all of our visitors."    
     The museum's journey begins in a hallway painted with images of life in a West African village. Native African visitors attest to the accuracy of the scenes, Biddle said. School groups spend quite a while discussing West  Africa's agrarian society because for them, life on that continent is the unknown.  
     But at the door ahead, where wooden planks and rails simulate the hold of a slave ship, defines where Africans and African Americans  parted ways, she added.
     "It's the middle passage that differentiates Africans from African Americans," Biddle said. " It is part of the tragedy of this holocaust -- Black Americans have to relearn who they are and where we come from. In the same way, our African brothers and sisters are seeking to understand what we have endured."
     Africans were not strangers to slavery, Biddle instructs. Africans had been traded as slaves for centuries -- reaching Europe through the trans-Saharan trade routes run by Muslims. Slaves obtained from these North African coastal routes often proved to be well educated and could not be trusted as they had a tendency to rebellion.
     Between 1450 and the end of the 19th Century, slaves were captured from along the west coast of Africa, often with the cooperation of African kings and merchants. For participating, kings and merchants received various trade goods including beads, cowrie shells textiles, brandy, horses and guns. 
     As a result of the transatlantic slave trade, five times as many Africans arrived in the Americas than Europeans. Slaves were needed on plantations and for mines and the majority were sold to Brazil, the Caribbean, and the Spanish Empire. Less than 5 percent traveled to the Northern American states formally held by the British.      
     The transatlantic slave trade, though not the sole system of enslavement for profit, is unique in that it systematically stripped a race of  its culture in a way that reduced its subjects to sub-human status and perpetuated that status based on the color of their skin. People enslaved under this system could not integrate into the societies they were sold into. "One could not marry the king's daughter in these new lands," Biddle said.
     "Our story is very unique," Biddle said. "Many people don't think of the journey of African Americans in this country as a holocaust. But what else can you call taking a people's language, culture, freedom to form families, and calling them three-fifths of a person?  America has to face and address this history."
     It was the long-term effects of slavery that prompted Mr. Cameron to name his museum a parallel of the Jewish Holocaust. Six million Jews perished during World War II, Biddle said. Estimates vary from a low of at least 10 million to as many as 100 million Africans endured the cruel middle passage to America. But in a strange social and psychological twist, many African Americans are ashamed of their past  -- and would rather forget this instead of being proud of having survived, she said.
     "There is dignity that comes with remembering and honoring the strength and survival or our ancestors," Biddle said. "It's a testament to the human spirit and sense of right. We're doing ourselves a disservice on many levels to view it as something to be ignored. We're leaving our children confused and not paying homage to our past. This history belongs to all of us and it effects all of us today." 
     But, American slavery wasn't universally embraced by Whites, Biddle added.
     "There were thousands and thousands of abolitionists who upheld the position that slavery -- especially the cruel form used in North America -- was wrong," Biddle said. "It took a lot of courage and a sense of inner spirituality for rich White abolitionists to say that everything that made their lives comfortable and privileged was built on something wrong. It cost those people plenty to speak up -- a huge portion of White privilege and often their lives, too. They paid dear to stand up for what was right. There is something very beautiful about that."    
     "It's not just Black people who advocate this call," Biddle said. "There are Whites, Asians, representatives of every racial and cultural group. It's not about individuals. The root of racism is the same everywhere. It's about misunderstanding, fear, and the power struggle that's usually based in economics."
     The museum's broadening historic context paints a timeline of how economics and social evolution has melded perceptions of race and the expression of racism. Displays include photos of old slave quarters on southern plantations, including cabins, barns, and shacks that were still standing well into the 1930s and 1940s. America's Black Holocaust embrace these images as an essential part of the African American journey won't be told on plantation tours explaining the opulent and privileged lifestyle of some southern Whites of the 19th Century.  
       For a race of people who had most of their individual cultural heritage erased, the memories some Americans want to hide or forget is all they have to place themselves in time, Biddle said. But for Blacks whose families survived slavery and the antebellum South, their history of survival and joy, new generations and rebirth, are rooted in those dirt-floored shacks.  
     "We want to give people an opportunity to rethink their assumptions about race and racism," Biddle said.
     "It's a conflicted history, but these dark chapters are just as much a part of American history and the collective social psyche as our shining moments from the American Revolution to landing on the moon, " Biddle said. And every society -- every culture --  has these bumps and conflicts.
     The exhibits also show Milwaukee's role in the National Civil Rights Movement, with prominent displays and videos of Father James Groppi and the thousands who marched the streets of Milwaukee not far from where the museum sits today to protest segregated facilities and discriminatory laws. The gallery of American lynchings is strategically placed to prepare visitors for the end result of clan activities and memorabilia.
     This summer the museum also will host a Ferris State University traveling  exhibit called "Hateful Things: Objects from the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia," a collection  consisting of "common, everyday" items such as ashtrays, advertisements, figurines, product packaging and board games. Aunt Jemima, Ghetto-opoly, Little Black Sambo and Aliigator Bate (a once popular post card depicting Black children about to be attacked by hungry alligators) are all material items featured in the exhibit.  The exhibit "Hateful Things" will be on display June 1-August 26.  
     For years, the museum has hosted other powerful exhibits that examine the fabric of African American culture, including The Henrietta Marie: A Slaveship Speaks, Reflections In Black: Smithsonian African American Photography, Cultural Landscape of the Plantation, Marching Toward Justice, Strange Fruit, The Color of Christmas: African American Holiday Traditions and Wisconsin Legends of the NAACP.  
     America's Holocaust Museum anchors the newly designated Bronzeville Cultural and Entertainment District and Milwaukee's Historic King Drive District, which is thriving under its latest social-ethnic evolutions. It enjoys strong support from the community, with about 70 percent of its visitors being from the Milwaukee region, Biddle said. The community feels a sense of ownership that dates back to how it embraced Dr. Cameron when he returned to Wisconsin for the safety of his family in the early 1950s.     
     The museum has been recognized by Good Morning America, Oprah Winfrey, Larry King Live, CBS News, BBC, ABC Nightline, Jet and Ebony magazines as a catalyst for education and media attention to the topic of race in America.    
General Information:
America's Black Holocaust Museum
2233 North   Fourth Street
Milwaukee,  WI  53212
(414) 264-2500
Hours: Tuesday-Saturday 9 a.m.-5 p.m.
Admission: $3 students; $4 seniors; $5 general
James Cameron
His legacy: The Black Holocaust Museum
James Cameron, founder of Milwaukee's Black Holocaust Museum reads his message at the State Martin Luther King Jr.'s Day celebration early this year. --Photo Credit: Asian Wisconzine
June 14, 2006 Issue