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Imagine being 16 again, and simply hanging out with your friends, doing what most 16-year-olds did and you came across something troubling. You ran away only to be caught later and accused of the crime. You and your friends end up in jail, but an angry crowd of over 10,000 people comes to break you out and take justice into their own hands.
They hang you all.
Miraculously, you survive the incident.
Oh yeah – and you are a young black man in the 1930s in central Indiana.
The Beginning of America’s Black Holocaust Museum
The man we now know as Dr. James Herbert Cameron, Jr. escaped lynching only to spend the next 5 years in jail for “accessory” to that crime and today, is known to be the only survivor of a lynching.
It would become his mission to tell the story of his people and eventually lead to the incredible place we now know as America’s Black Holocaust Museum that is right here in Wisconsin – in downtown Milwaukee.
When working with Visit Milwaukee for a trip to see what Milwaukee gems should be included in my book 100 Things to do in Wisconsin Before You Die, Jake’s enthusiasm for the ABHM was so incredible that he literally gave me goosebumps through the phone. I knew I had to check this place out for myself and wanted to bring along two teenagers to see their impressions: my 15-year-old and their 16-year-old BFF who just happens to be African American.
I wanted to see it through their eyes and get their impressions as that generation is not only better at expressing themselves than we were at that age, but the history that they are learning through school is a vastly different than the white-washed version that this over 50 something woman learned back in the day.
Let’s take the lessons on westward expansion. I learned the accomplishment and drive of the white men who made it happen, down to the gold spike of the railroad. I heard of the Chinese laundries and how poor Custer lost his life to heathens. (sigh)
Today, they learned to do a report on it by writing an essay through the eyes of a Chinese railroad laborer (indentured servant), a recently freed black man from just after the Civil War (Jim Crow laws), or an Indian maiden/matron whose husband or son has just left to defend them against the invading white men.
History used to be written by the victors until recently, when, as Paul Harvey would say, “the rest of the story” has been brought out.
We got to America’s Black Holocaust Museum and had a lovely introduction to what we would soon read, see, and experience before we were left to explore on our own.
Your journey starts off with a more detailed introduction to Dr. Cameron than I gave you and then goes on to talk about what a holocaust is, how it came back to the discussion in the 1940s during the Nazi reign, and what has happened since. This is a great description:
“Holocaust” comes from a Greek word meaning “burnt offering.” The term was first used to describe the massacres of Armenians in the 1890s. It was used again in the 1940s to describe the mass destruction of European Jewish communities by the Nazis, also known by the Hebrew word “Shoah.”~America’s Black Holocaust Museum
Appallingly, in the last hundred years, the world has witnessed many similar atrocities, like the 1975-79 Cambodian Killing Fields, the 1994 Rwandan Genocide, and the 1995 Srebrenica Genocide.
For this reason, the word “holocaust” has come to signify “a series of atrocities organized by one social group against another.”
Yup, pretty apt.
After that, you go through history from what pre-slave trade African life was like, all the way up to President Obama. You learn slavery, brutality, oppression, underground railroad, “freedom”, Jim Crowe, racism, lynching, politics, red-lining, poverty, Juneteenth, hope, and so much more that I simply cannot put it all into words.
I saw two teenagers silent for over an hour.
They walked slowly through the displays reading, touching, and taking pictures.
They lay on the floor under the display of the ship deck and tried to imagine what it would be like as a slave on a passage ship where you were locked into one small space for that 6–12-week long journey.
Imagine what the days would be like with no break from the sun, occasional ocean water splashing over you if the ship encountered rough seas, the taunting from the crew who could see you, and more. The wooden barrels, the coiled ropes, and slats keep you from being out in that sunshine like you used to be.
(OK, I did that too, but they had to help me get back up)
Finally, they sat in the little video area where they caught the recorded Juneteenth performances from some incredible artists as they tried to process everything they saw.
I would ask them in the car, on the way home, what they thought.
I like how they shared and talked about the bad, but also how their struggles led to the accomplishments that became an important part of reclaiming their identity.
OK, I was sad, then happy, then sad. It was soooo hard to consume it all but really nice to see it.
They both loved the part about life pre-slave trade because it was never really touched on for them before it was kind of like: People lived in Africa and then “oh – suddenly slavery”.
I would hear how the BFF had spent a day conditioning their hair just right to be able to do a hairstyle that took almost 5 hours to do so they would look awesome at their choir concert, only to be told afterward by the teacher that “next time, try to look more professional, especially with your hairstyle. You never get a 2nd chance to make a first impression”.
That was recent – that blatant message to conform to white standards or be seen as “less than”.
–>Yes, this kind of shit still happens today.
Today, where President Biden signed a bill making it a federal offense to lynch people – that is so long overdue that this after-thought seems kind of insulting to many.
Such a long way to go yet, but at least there is progress. A now well-documented version of the journey of a proud race that is trying to reclaim its pride, tell its story, and through that education – help prevent history from repeating itself.
–>This is a place that everyone should check out- not just the school group field trips. It will certainly spark conversations, as it did with us. That means people are talking. People are thinking. Change is happening.
Plan your visit:
I hope I passed on to you the goosebumps Jake gave me – this place is important.
Don’t take my word for it, you can see America’s Black Holocaust Museum for yourself at: 401 W. North Avenue in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Phone: (414) 209-3640 abhmuseum.org