Museum aims to fill gaps in local black history


George Bayard is operating the Grand Rapids African American Museum and Archives from a temporary location, as he organizes a $3.8-million campaign to fully implement a permanent museum. Photo by Johnny Quirin

For decades, a local art historian and collector has been working to find and share stories of the black experience in Grand Rapids.

And for the past several years, George Bayard has pursued a persistent dream: to open the Grand Rapids African American Museum and Archives.

He has assembled a board of directors; obtained grants; established relationships with collectors all over the region, state and nation; secured commitments from other museums in Lower Michigan to use their archives; and begun programming oral history projects that will be linchpins of the museum’s content.

This fall, Bayard opened a temporary location leased from the city of Grand Rapids at 87 Monroe Center St. NW, and he’s calling it the Museum Store and Donation Center. It’s a place where people can stop in and offer financial or collection-related donations. Bayard also is selling items to raise money for the museum’s permanent building, which the nonprofit hopes to open in 2018.

“There are African American centers in Big Rapids, Muskegon Heights, Idlewild, Detroit — it seems everywhere but Grand Rapids,” Bayard said. “For the second-largest city in Michigan not to have any representation devoted to African American history was something people took to heart.”

So, the board invited noted arts organizer Margaret Taylor-Burroughs, who established Ebony Museum in Chicago, to help them determine how to set up their museum.

Bayard said Burroughs, who died in 2010, “left us a blueprint of how you start a museum, and we followed it to the letter.”

After gaining 501(c)3 nonprofit status, Bayard began applying for and receiving grants. So far, funds have rolled in from the Dyer Ives Foundation, the Michigan Humanities Council, the Wege Foundation and the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs, as well as a number of smaller grants.

The Grand Rapids Public Museum has donated furniture and supplies, and the library and public museum both have pledged to share portions of their archives that aren’t being used.

Although the Museum Store and Donation Center technically opened during ArtPrize, displaying African American artwork and receiving donations, it will host its official grand opening Dec. 26-28.

According to Bayard, a big part of the festivities will be a three-day celebration of Kwanzaa, including “live drumming and dancing, spoken word, lighting of the first unity candle, naming of the ancestors, showing films and sharing food at the end.”

Bayard said the center currently has small exhibits set up that will give visitors a taste of what the museum will be like once it’s open.

He said the museum is all about capturing oral history and making it tangible for an audience.

Efforts underway include a project called Grandma’s Voices, which is a series of interviews with African American community members in their 80s, 90s and “even one who is 100.” In the interviews, participants share what it was like to be black in Grand Rapids during the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s.

An example of one such story, though it hasn’t yet been recorded, was a conversation Bayard had with a woman at a quilting show.

“She started talking about how they had to sit up in the balcony when they moved to Grand Rapids, because black people couldn’t sit on the main level. She said, ‘I remember sitting up there getting my news, and I remember the day they dropped the bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.’ Before she came back to Grand Rapids, she was working in Tennessee. And she didn’t know all that time that she was working in the plant that made the atom bomb. She said, ‘They told us every day: Whatever you see here stays here.’

“That’s the type of story that could easily be lost if no one knows it, and no one is repeating it.”

Another project focuses on the stories of people who live along the Grand River, called Voices of the Grand.

“They’re trying to put the rapids back into the river,” Bayard said. “But before it changes, we want to get stories of people who have fished the river. Our cameraman has already taken a series of photographs all up the river. We thought an oral history to go along with that would be great.”

Once the museum is open, the plan is to have a performance area that converts into a meeting space, an art gallery, two or three artifacts galleries, a library and research center, and a sports wing.

Starting in January, the Museum Store and Donation Center will host genealogy classes to help people trace their roots, a program that will continue once the museum has opened.

Bayard said the board currently is launching its capital campaign, with a goal of raising “$3.8 million to buy, build out and furnish a museum that’s between 10,000 to 13,000 square feet.” Anything beyond that amount will go toward the museum’s endowment.

Simultaneously, the museum is in the midst of a feasibility study on the location the board wants for the building, which Bayard said is near downtown but also in a neighborhood.

Bayard said he is looking forward to the finished product, having a vast collection that will zero in on the gaps in recorded black history in Grand Rapids.

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