Ohio History Connection
Ohio History Connection

Nation’s African American History on Display in Wilberforce

By Rich Warren

Get an up-close look at history at the National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center. All photos by Matthew Allen unless otherwise noted.

Pay a visit to the National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center (NAAMCC) in Wilberforce today or over the next few months. You'll see astonishing items that reflect the rich history of Black America. Just some of the highlights: a program from the 1963 March on Washington at the Lincoln Memorial, a suit Count Basie wore on stage, manumission papers proving their holder's freedom, a colorful collection of black dolls, and many more objects that illustrate the stories of Black Ohioans.

Come back in six months to a year, and you will see a brand new array of exhibits created from the vast holdings of the NAAMCC. The museum's collections include 9,000 artifacts, nearly 700 linear feet of documents, and tens of thousands of historical photographs. Among those holdings are Alex Haley's typewriter and notes from his travels to Africa, Gregory Hines' tap shoes, and a buffalo hide coat worn by a Buffalo Soldier. The ever-changing array of exhibits at the NAAMCC benefit from the vast number of materials in its collections.

The museum opened its doors in 1988 after years of discussion in the Ohio legislature about opening a national educational institution focusing on African American history. Wilberforce was chosen as the site since the town was a significant stop on the Underground Railroad and is the home of Wilberforce University, the first Black-owned and operated institution of higher learning in the country. Opened in 1858 by the African Methodist Church, Wilberforce University educated future leaders who brought a wealth of activism and culture to the nation.

The mission of the museum and cultural center, housed in a Modernist structure of glass and steel adjacent to Central State University, is to chronicle the rich experience of African Americans from their arrival in 1619 to the present day. The NAAMCC is a part of the array of statewide historical attractions under the auspices of the Ohio History Connection (OHC). The NAAMCC has welcomed thousands of visitors over the years. The museum has also hosted many dignitaries, such as former President George H.W. Bush, Muhammed Ali, and Wynton Marsalis.

Detailed exhibits are conversation starters.

Learn the Ohio Connection to History

When the Smithsonian Institution opened its National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., in 2016, the NAAMCC pivoted, choosing to work alongside the new facility in the nation's capital to complement its mission. "We're now more focused on how Ohio feeds into the national narrative of African American history," says Dr. Charles Wash, director of the NAAMCC. "But since we started our collection long before anyone else, we have things here that the rest of the museum world is envious of. It's our job to let the public know what they can find here and nowhere else."

NAAMCC's 10,000 square feet of exhibit space can only display a small fraction of the institution's overall collection at any one time. But that doesn't mean the public doesn't have access to other materials. Additional artifacts, documents, and photos can be viewed by anyone who makes an advance appointment specifying what they want to see. And because of an ongoing program of digitizing its materials, a treasure trove of images can be viewed in the comfort of the researcher's home by searching on the OHC's website, ohiomemory.org.

Three exhibits on display through the remainder of 2023 include "Queens of the Heartland," which tells the stories of 30 Ohio women influential in the Suffrage and Civil Rights movements. The Queens exhibit features forgotten "she-roes" like Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, who established the National Association of Colored Women, to prominent, well-known figures like Toni Morrison, Nikki Giovanni, and Ruby Dee. The exhibit "Rhythm of Revolution: The Transformative Power of Black Art, 1619 to the Present" looks at the convergence of the arts, religion, and the Civil Rights Movement from 1619 until now. The fascinating exhibit "African Americans Fighting for a Double Victory" looks at Black involvement in America's conflicts from the American Revolution to the present day, with a particular emphasis on World War II. It also tells the story of the Tuskegee Airmen, and how Black veterans played a role in the Civil Rights movement. A series of paintings show African Americans training for the military alongside patriotic posters of the era.

"Sharing our collections is an important part of our mission," Charles Wash explains. "What good is a museum if it hoards its materials and doesn't provide access to the general public?"

Ever-changing Exhibits and Special Events

Exhibits ending in February include the "Art of Soul," a juried exhibition of artwork on the theme of "Black Love," as well as "Behind the Mask: Black Power in the Comics," which tells the history of Black comic book characters, including such icons as the Black Panther, who surprisingly made his debut as long ago as 1966. The comic exhibition will return in an expanded format in 2024.

Coming later in 2023 are two new exhibitions: "African Art: Form, Function, and Fraught Histories," which opens in April, and "Prophets of a Dream: The AME Church and the Fight for Freedom," making its debut in October.

Thoughtful exhibits cover topics happening today.

Items from the NAAMCC's collections also travel the world. A piece called "Freedom Now!" by Black artist Reginald Gammon is currently on display at the New York Jewish Museum through March. Past exhibits featuring loaned materials have traveled not only to the Smithsonian but also to the Tate Museum in London and the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris. The NAAMCC staff recently completed "Paul Laurence Dunbar: Diamond of the Gem City." The exhibit highlights the multi-faceted writer's life, work, and legacy through text panels, archival materials, and three-dimensional objects. The NAAMCC created the exhibit in collaboration with National Park Service's Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park (DAAV).

The museum also offers a wide variety of programming at its Wilberforce location and around the state, including programs on both Martin Luther King Day and Juneteenth in collaboration with OHC. Events scheduled for Black History Month include a webinar entitled "Who Needs Black History Month?" part of the NAAMCC's Black History Lecture Series. For more information on the NAAMCC exhibits, events and hours, go to ohiohistory.org/naamcc.