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Half a century of heritage: the Dallas African American Museum celebrates 50th anniversary

sculpture of a large raised fist
Anja Schlein
/
The Dallas Morning News
The African American Museum at Fair Park in Dallas, Texas, Friday June 7, 2024. The museum is celebrating its 50th anniversary.

Every part of the Dallas African American Museum tells a story. From the uniquely shaped floor tiling that visitors constantly walk on, to the colorful paintings made by African-American artists that decorate every wall. Every aspect of the museum enriches visitors on the great impact African- Americans have had on the world.

Originally the museum was called the, “Southwest Research Center and the Museum of African- American Life and Culture.” Dr. Harry Robinson Jr., 82, has been the president and CEO of the museum since the beginning.

“I thought it was going to last but I thought it was going to last at Bishop College as a part of the library,” Robinson said. “ I didn’t think it was going to be what it is now.”

Dr. Harry Robinson, president and CEO of the African American Museum at Fair Park in Dallas.
Anja Schlein, The Dallas Morning News
Dr. Harry Robinson, president and CEO of the African American Museum at Fair Park in Dallas. The museum is celebrating its 50th anniversary.

In 1974, the museum was opened in Oak Cliff at Bishop College’s Zale library inside of a 30- by- 30 foot room on the second floor with limited exhibition space until the college closed. Fifteen years after the opening , the museum moved into the 38,000 square foot building in Dallas Fair Park where it stands today.

Hundreds of exhibitions

This year the museum celebrates half a century of inspiring the community with lectures, educational programs and hundreds of exhibitions. Some of the previous exhibitions include “Wade in the Water,” a showcase of African American sacred music traditions from the Smithsonian Museum; “The History of Negro Spirituals,” a collection of religious folk songs created by enslaved Africans; “A Hundred Years of Decorative Arts,” which was a collection of objects from the early 18th century; and “ Black Cowboys: An American Story” which showed the impact that Black cowboys had on Texas and American history.

“One of my favorite exhibitions was African Zion, which was a collection of Ethiopian manuscripts that dated back to 3 and 4 A.D.,” Robinson said. “It was the first major exhibition we had, and it cost us a fortune.”

Exhibitions that are on display today include one on the importance of musical traditions developed in Dallas’ Freedman’s Town titled, “Central Track: Crossroads of Deep Ellum”; “African Americans and the Arts,” a celebration of African-American influence in visual and performing arts; and “Seeing a World that Blind Lemon Jefferson Never Saw,” a collection of 34 photos of East Texas and early Dallas neighborhoods. Hundreds of people of all ages visit the museum to learn more about the contributions African-American people had on history.

Funding challenges

Throughout the five decades the museum has dealt with many challenges, the biggest one being fundraising according to Robinson. He says it is due to having a limited marketing team and not being able to spread the word to the community.

Helen Giddings has been volunteering and fundraising for the museum for over 30 years. She’s behind the museum’s Fifty for Fifty campaign, which is the main fundraiser for the museum’s anniversary.

“We are asking 50 people to commit to donating $50,000 to help reset and reimagine what we are going to look like and be about for the next fifty years,” she said.

With the money raised from the campaign, the museum can continue producing dynamic exhibitions and programs that continue to inspire future generations.

Celebrations ahead

Robinson said that today more people are going to the museum for more serious visits and wanting to learn more about the lectures, programs and gallery talks.

“This museum is incredible,” said Dallas native Renee Harris, who visited the museum for the first time on June 4. “I’ve been to quite a few African American museums throughout the country, and this one is pretty cool because of the architecture and the story behind it. I’m happy that a place like this exists.”

To celebrate the half century of art and inspiration, the museum will be hosting many events throughout the year.

The main events of the year will be the Founder’s Ball happening Nov. 16 and the 50 x 50 Gala Nov. 9.

“The mission of the museum is more important today than it’s ever been,” Giddings said, “because in many cases we know that what is being printed in our textbooks is not an accurate view of history as it relates to African Ameicans.”

To learn more about the museum and the 50th anniversary events visit aamdallas.org. The museum is open Tuesday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. It is located at 3536 Grand Ave. and admission is free. 

Arts Access is an arts journalism collaboration powered by The Dallas Morning News and KERA.

This community-funded journalism initiative is funded by the Better Together Fund, Carol & Don Glendenning, City of Dallas OAC, The University of Texas at Dallas, Communities Foundation of Texas, The Dallas Foundation, Eugene McDermott Foundation, James & Gayle Halperin Foundation, Jennifer & Peter Altabef and The Meadows Foundation. The News and KERA retain full editorial control of Arts Access’ journalism.

Corrected: June 18, 2024 at 3:23 PM CDT
An earlier version of this story incorrectly said Bishop College was in South Dallas. It was in Oak Cliff. It also incorrectly said Harry Robinson Jr. is 83. He is 82.