Black History Museum’s saga continues

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February 24th, 2011

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Omaha, NE – The Great Plains Black History Museum has been closed since 2004, and within the past year, leadership in the organization has also changed. So, will the community see this building known for its rich history re-open or will the building itself become part of Omaha’s history?

The Great Plains Black History Museum building in North Omaha is currently in a state of disrepair, and has been closed since 2004

As cars pass this stretch off 24th and Lake Street, drivers will see a two story brick building with all the first story windows boarded up. Its surroundings are unkempt and the sign on the door, with plastic in place of the door knob, reads “Closed for Renovation. African History: Know it, Respect it.”

The Great Plains Black History Museum was housed in this building, originally used by the Western Exchange Telephone company, and later as a meeting spot for the Urban League and several other community groups, in the near north side area of Omaha. In 1976, Bertha Calloway transformed the building into a museum, full of a variety of personally-collected items, including information about everything from black cowboys to black musicians.

“The Great Plains Black Museum…it was exciting from the beginning, but has had a pause. But now, like the Phoenix it is rising,” said Preston Love Junior, who attended a recent community meeting about the future of the museum. The museum hasn’t thrived in years. Bertha Calloway became ill many years ago and Jim Calloway, her son, took over operations. Jim Beatty is the current museum board chairman. Beatty says it’s a sin what happened to the museum.

“I got to tell you whether you want to hear it or not,” he said, “that it is clearly has been and was an oversight of the management staff and board of the museum to let that building to go the condition that it is in.”

In 2004, the city of Omaha declared the building uninhabitable and the doors were closed. As KVNO News reported last year, Jim Calloway stored the collection in an outdoor shed, citing a lack of funding. Today, the items are safely stored with the Nebraska State Historical Society in Lincoln. Andrea Faling is the Associate Director of Library Archives there. She says they’re storing the collection of about 170 boxes in an unoccupied office.

“We don’t feel that we own them,” she said, “We’re just protecting them so that when the organization does find the proper place for the collection, it can be transferred there.”

The state made an agreement with the museum to house the collection for one year, and that year is up. Faling said they hope the items can be moved back to Omaha soon.

“We have people that are going to be moving back to this building this spring, and I think the ultimate disposition of that office is to somebody else, and not for collection storage.”

Last year, the museum board underwent two changes in leadership. John McClain was the chairman of the board but he says after about five months, he resigned, and is no longer associated with the group.
“There was a real interest in being able to build a much more expansive museum,” he said. “We weren’t quite sure what the role of the present deteriorating structure would be… We ran into resistance, quite frankly from the Calloway family, and Jim Calloway specifically.”

McClain also said the museum is now a non-profit and belongs to the community, and said pointedly, it’s no longer a family business. Jim Beatty said Jim Calloway was very involved with the museum and did all he could to save it. He also accused McClain’s board of leaving the organization with about $29 dollars in its checking account. Now, he said, it’s under new leadership.

“We will operate as a museum without walls, which means simply this: the building does not dictate what the museum does, the museum board of directors dictates what the museum does.”

Beatty said the newly organized board will raise money and get museum memberships. In the meantime without a building, Beatty said they will offer programs, events and activities for the community.

However, with no major dollars raised, a closed building and collection stored miles away, only time may tell the future of the Great Plains Black History Museum.

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