Planning and Hope Ride on African American Hertiage Center

by ekramer on August 14, 2008

Since the 2003 groundbreaking for the Kentucky Center for African American Heritage in Louisville’s Russell neighborhood, the project has had funding problems, which halted construction in late 2005. This month, construction resumed and WFPL’s Elizabeth Kramer went to explore the center’s intent.

Where Muhammad Ali Boulevard meets 17th Street, there are hints of activity. White pick-up trucks come and go from the large brick buildings that long ago housed a repair shop for trolleys. Men in white hard hats work nearby. They won’t let me in for a peek, but Christie McCravy, who is charged with fundraising for the center, describes what will be there.

“You’ll walk into the rotunda, which is like a little theater,” McCravy says. “And you’ll see ocean blue under your feet and African skies over your head. And you’ll hear the drums, because the drums are the symbol of Africa. And when you step out of that, you’re going to step into an exhibit which was founded in the words of the Kentucky constitution.”

Those words — “Life, Liberty and Property” — are part of the story of African Americans who lived in this state and did not have liberty because they were considered property. But McCravey says the idea is to focus on education about the African American experience in Kentucky that goes beyond slavery.

“Many of our youth are unknowledgeable of the experience of their ancestors and with that brings lack of pride for who you are and what you are,” she says. “And we feel this center can turn around many aspects of our community.”

McCravy and local leaders want the center to tell the story about people’s accomplishments. They see the center as a tourist destination, a community center, and — with all that activity — an attraction for new businesses.

Many neighborhood residents say they want it to be source of inspiration for African Americans and others. That includes 89-year-old Lucile Leggett.

“It’s going to inspire the people who live in the neighborhood to have more pride in their neighborhood and in the city,” Leggett says. “And it will encourage other people in different localities in Louisville and outside of Louisville to come to what has been accomplished and developed there.”

To meet those expectations, McCravy has to still has to raise three million of a five million dollar goal to open the center, then another one and a half million dollars for the annual budget when the center is fully staffed in 2010.

By then, the center is expected to have 50,000 visitors per year. It is trying to meet these expectations by working with schools, churches and even the Smithsonian Institution.

Deborah Mack has worked with Chicago’s Field Museum and Cincinnati’s National Underground Freedom Center. She says these relationships are key. She says it’s just as important to be accountable to visitors and the community about programs and budgets. That way, the public will be ready to support fundraising efforts.

All this has to be built around the main attraction, of course, which is competing with so many other forms of entertainment these days. Many of the newer cultural museums are doing that by depicting history in a distinct way.

Deborah Mack.

“The newest wave of museums, and I think this is a trend that’s going to continue, sees now African-American heritage and culture as part of ‘the national story’,” she says. “And that in many ways we now feel that you cannot understand American history and culture in general without understanding the African American input into that story.”

Mack says successful centers include the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis.

Christie McCravy says one of the main lessons they’ve learned is that a cultural center needs an identity.

“In spite of the strides that we’ve made, racism is not completely dead,” McCravy says. “We have a long way to go. We still have one more river to cross.”

And “One More River to Cross” is the theme for the Kentucky Center for African American Heritage, tying the center to Louisville and its setting on the Ohio River.

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