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African American History Museum and Library

on November 23, 2015

When you walk into Oakland’s African American History Museum and Library, it feels as if you’ve transported back into 1965 – when the organization started off as the East Bay Negro Historical Society.

Frederick Douglass, an African American leader of the abolitionist movement, greets each visitor that enters into the museum. His sculpture mimics Mount Rushmore, but is no taller than 3 feet, and only his head has been carved into the granite monument.

The building is quiet, and you can count the total number of occupants on both hands and a few toes. It’s disconnected from the outside world. People walk by without even glancing at the antique structure, even though it’s decorated with embellished flags.

A grand staircase is situated in the center of the building’s foyer. The walls are plastered with wooden panels and golden plaques commemorating the organization’s founding members. The library is in the left wing, administration is to the right, and the museum is located upstairs. A very tall and easygoing doorman dressed in a blue suit greets you, then gives a quick tour by pointing his finger in different directions. He emphasizes that the bathrooms are located in the back, and then leaves you to explore. You’re allowed to take pictures of everything in the building except the large mural over the wooden staircase. A century of Oakland’s African American culture is depicted in the painting: Black sailors, artists, teachers, and philosophers. The painting is framed by gold crown moldings.

The museum room looks like a banquet hall, just with fewer people. The ceiling is high and checkered with gold plates that are embroidered and framed in green. A dozen enlarged photos of African American families from the late 1800’s to the mid 1940’s dangle from marble pillars. Each wall display tells a different story about residents who paved the way for minorities in Oakland.

The city’s history begins with the Ohlone tribe that inhabited the East Bay over 4,000 years ago. Adjacent displays bring you back to the 19th and 20th century, where you’re introduced to Mary Ellen Pleasant who was the wealthiest African American in Oakland. She bought a house in the Fruitvale district after first arriving in San Francisco during 1852. The first African American radio stations in the East Bay formed in the 1940’s and 50’s because other stations wouldn’t play music by black artists.

The museum is a time capsule that Director Rick Moss says is neglected by the community. “I see people walk by this building everyday. Over the past decade of working here, I’ve watched the cars change, the people change, and the buildings change, but for some reason not many people come into the museum,” he says.

Ironically enough, Moss says that he has seen more white residents than black enter into the African American Museum and Library. According to Moss, Oakland’s black community hasn’t showed much interest in the organization.

The founders of the museum and library wanted the African American community to have access to information; that’s why the organization was formed. “It was especially hard for African Americans to get hold of information in the 40’s and 50’s,” said Moss. “So we try to hold onto to that legacy in as many ways as we can. We host as many public programs as possible on a variety of subjects, so that the [African American] community can be well informed.”

Moss continues on to say that even their programs lack the presence of the black community, which makes up almost 30 percent of Oakland’s population. “Where are our folks?” he asks.

Moss received a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services to do a two-year pilot program that trains the next batch of museum professionals. The program will select five 8th grade students from history classes, and teach them about the history of Oakland and careers options for museums and libraries. Since Moss plans to retire soon, he wants to form the next generation of historians that will sustain intuitions like the African American History Museum and Library. “That’s what we’re doing. That’s what we need to do. And these things are free, but we just can’t reach the folks we want to,” said Moss. “On the other hand, we reach those who come, and they understand and appreciate [what we’re doing], and hopefully they take that back to their communities, families and friends.”

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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