What constitutes the true beginning of an idea, a dream, an
institution? Certainly it can be said that many people thought about
the possibility of creating an institution similar to the one we celebrate
in these pages long before the opportunity to do so arose. Changing times
and community spiritedness became the fertile ground into which the seed for
the California African American Museum fell.
In 1976 former Congresswoman Yvonne B. Burke called together
representatives from universities, museums, cultural centers,
community-based organizations and artists to discuss how to establish a
permanent African American museum. There were rumors that a major African
American collection might be leaving the country and if California
established a museum, the collection would serve as its foundation.
Following many meetings, the consensus was that the timing was right and a
state charter for the museum to include both a construction and an operating
budget should be the goal. The committee felt that governmental backing
would assist in validating the concept of the museum and therefore encourage
private citizens, corporations and foundations to participate in the
Assemblywoman Teresa Hughes, also intensely interested in
preserving African American heritage, introduced the bill which would
establish a state museum dedicated to the contributions and achievements
made by Black Americans to the state and nation. With strong backing from
Governor Edmund G. Brown, Jr., Lieutenant Governor Mervyn Dymally, Senator
Bill Greene and other key legislators, Assembly Bill 420 passed and the
museum was signed into law on September 2, 1977.
Funds for operating and constructing the museum, however,
were not appropriated for nearly four years. During that period, noted
artist Charles White became the first gubernatorial appointee to the
seven-member museum state board.
By virtue of the museum’s locating in Exposition Park,
centered within the district boundaries of Assemblywoman Teresa Hughes and
Senator Bill Greene, they too became members of the state advisory board.
Unfortunately, before the board had received its full component, Charles
White died — a tremendous loss to those who had known him, not only as an
outstanding artist but also as a leading advocate of the right of Black
artists to be included in the mainstream of the American art world. The
remaining members, with assistance from the original committee, developed
the mission statement and goals of the museum and continued to work for
annual state funding.
Alice Lytle, then Secretary of State and Consumer Services
Agency, learning of the funding stalemate which the museum faced, offered
the resources of her staff and much of her boundless energy towards the
establishment of a museum budget. She arranged training for the board to
assist them in a better understanding of the machinations of the state
government. She also introduced many state heads to the concept of the
museum and the necessity of moving it into an operating reality.
In January 1981 a small office within the Museum of Science
and Industry opened, thanks to the late Director William J. McCann. The sign
on the door read “The California Museum of Afro-American History and
Culture.” With a borrowed desk, chair and telephone, the board president and
a few committee volunteers created a miniscule operation in anticipation of
the passing of the 1981/1982 budget containing the museum’s funding. Six
months later, it did in fact pass. Between July 1 and October 1 of 1981, a
secretary was hired, a coordinator borrowed, a space planner contracted, an
architect selected and the first exhibition opened in temporary quarters.
“Ten California Artists,” the inaugural exhibition, previewed on October 2
to over 700 invited guests and during the following six weeks was visited by
hundreds of Californians from Sacramento to San Diego. The only state museum
of African American history and culture in the country had begun its
To say that everything has been smooth sailing from that
time to this would of course be untrue. There have been good times,
exasperating times and unbelievable times of dodging roadblocks, lack of
cooperation and differences of vision from the unsympathetic.
Within the Black community, there were those who cheered and
worked tirelessly as advocates, teachers and writers. There were others who
worried that a museum totally related to the Black experience might further
increase the separateness of the community.
Groundbreaking for the new facility in June 1983 was an
exhilarating and moving experience which helped to erase the memory of
previous trials and nagging doubts. Participation in museum planning
increased, new committees formed, volunteer councils flourished and the
walls of the museum began to rise.
Construction in any form, from a work of art to a museum,
however, can be a maturing experience for those involved. The tremendous
feelings of anticipation and pride became intermingled with pure
frustration. In the case of the new building, there became a growing sense
of building “Murphy’s” museum rather than the African American museum. Truly
anything that could happen, did, and any number of times. Yet the walls
continued to rise, the roof formed overhead, the galleries fleshed out.
At this writing, the small staff has moved into the new
administration wing and the exhibitions are being installed. Though the air
conditioning is not on as yet, the natural air conditioning through doors
(yet to be placed) seems quite adequate. Telephone lines hang limply on the
floor, waiting for an instrument, and so business is conducted in person.
The carpenters pound, the plumbers rattle their pipes and
painters swing their brushes in between the spaces where the last gallery
light was hung. There is a lot of laughter mixed with groans when the
eternal question pops up again and again, “Will the building be finished in
time?” Yes, the building will be finished in time. In time to encourage
those who walk through its doors to learn more about the African Americans
who helped to build this country — who gave birth to American jazz, who
toiled in the fields, who established schools where no schools had been, who
encouraged young writers, artists and scientists to pursue their goals. In
time to inspire those who have a similar dream of building a museum in their
state or city. In time to extend the network through all of the states and
all the cities, to reverse the tread of a history lost. And so now, a new
The museum facility opened its doors to the public during
the Olympic Games of July 1984. CAAM is currently in its 24th year of being
housed in its own facility.
The museum occupies a 44,000 square-foot facility that
includes three full-size exhibition galleries, a theater gallery, a 14,000
square-foot Sculpture Court, a conference center/special events room, an
archive and research library, administrative offices, exhibit design and
artifact storage areas.
The museum is located at 600 State Drive, Exposition Park, Los Angeles.
Phone 213-744-7432. Administration hours are Monday through Friday, 8:30
a.m. to 5 p.m. Museum galleries are open Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m.
to 5 p.m., and Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is free!
Information for this article was provided by Librarian Ann Shea of the
California African American Museum and from the museum’s website
which you can check for upcoming events.