The Northwest African American Museum: Empowering the Present and Honoring the Past
African American history is American history. It is the story of resilience, persistence and faith in democracy. It is a multi-dimensional, and a profoundly human response to oppression and opportunity. The Northwest African American Museum in Seattle, Washington is a living testament to all of this, and so much more.
Located in a Seattle’s predominantly African American Central District, the museum opened to the public in March 2008 in the Colman School building, a site with its own history. Originally built in 1909, the Seattle school district closed Colman in 1980. However, Seattle community activists occupied the building and claimed it as a future site for an African American museum. In 2003, the local Urban League chapter purchased the building, and a commission was established to plan the museum.
“The history of the Northwest African American Museum is a history of tension, struggle and overcoming [adversity] in the Northwest Pacific African American community,” says LaNesha DeBardelaben, who was named the museum’s President and CEO in 2018. “After the activists occupied the building there were many voices and perspectives that began to shape what the museum would look like,” she adds. Currently, the museum operates on the main level of the building; the upper two levels of the building are comprised of 36 low-income apartments owned and managed by the local Urban League chapter. To honor its history, the staff starts every tour with the unique backstory of the museum. “We firmly believe that having a deep understanding of history is a valuable tool in building a more empowered and more informed community,” says DeBardelaben.
As our community thrives, we thrive. If our community is fractured, we are hurting. We believe we are one with our community.
The museum tells the stories of the African American experience in the American Pacific Northwest through art, history, music, craft and culture. Over the years the museum has featured exhibitions on prominent African Americans with connections to the Northwest, like the artist Jacob Lawrence and musician Jimi Hendrix. The museum also strives to improve the quality of life for the people in the local community, including the more recent African immigrants arriving in Seattle from places like Ethiopia, Sudan and Somalia. “We want people to know who they are and who they can be,” says DeBardelaben, adding, “As our community thrives, we thrive. If our community is fractured, we are hurting. We believe we are one with our community.”
Building that community means a variety of notable events all year long, from their Martin Luther King Day experience in January to their descendants’ series in August, which highlights the legacies of influential African Americans like Ida B. Wells, Dred Scott, W.E.B. Dubois, Madame C.J. Walker and Solomon Northup. The museum also hosts jazz and poetry events in April, a summer youth writing camp in July and a Black Santa event in December, among other noteworthy affairs.
DeBardelaben says that there are “no limits” when it comes to what the museum currently does, and what it can do, for the community. Other NAAM offerings include readings and performances, a Black opera program, a genealogy center for visitors and a COVID-19 vaccination clinic.
The pandemic presented both challenges and opportunities for the museum. While they initially went virtual at the beginning of the pandemic, DeBardelaben says engagement with the community actually increased, thanks to programs like their museum-led choir and partnerships with the NAACP chapters of Spokane, WA, Anchorage, AK and Portland, OR.
Of course, another key factor to keeping the museum thriving was the support of donors and their spirit of giving. Donor-advised funds are one of the things that have helped make the many programs provided by Northwest African American Museum possible.
The gifts provided by donors go to something so much greater than themselves, but the community as a whole. “The Northwest African American Museum is a vital and vibrant essential organization,” says DeBardelaban. We make our regional community more equitable. We tell the often untold and important stories of African Americans who believe in justice and inclusion in the American dream. We help people to become more complete persons. We complete the important work of education often missing from traditional educational settings.”
“I firmly believe that an investment in the Northwest African American Museum is an investment in Black excellence. It is an investment in Black wellness. It is an investment in Black leadership.”
David Alexander Bullock is a graduate of Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia. He has an MA in Philosophy and an MSW from the University of Michigan School of Social Work. He is a storyteller, researcher, and organic intellectual. He recently completed the Oral Histories project celebrating the Centennial Celebration of the University of Michigan School of Social Work. Currently, he is a consultant for the National Philanthropic Trust’s Grant Stories project.
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Photo courtesy of The Northwest African American Museum.