More than 3,400 Black people were lynched during the Jim Crow era, and 16-year-old James Cameron should have been one of them. But during his 1930 spectacle lynching, which included two of his friends, Cameron miraculously survived. The other two did not.
That terrifying experience was memorialized in a photo depicting his two friends hanging from the expansive lynching tree, surrounded by thousands of gleeful white people. And that photo eventually became one of the most recognizable lynching shots in the world, inspiring an educator to pen a haunting poem that became the song "Strange Fruit," made famous by Billie Holiday.
With such a tragic past, Cameron could easily have become an embittered man. Instead, his near-lynching prompted him to become a lifelong civil rights scholar and activist. His proudest achievement came in 1988, when he founded America's Black Holocaust Museum (ABHM) in his hometown of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, after visiting Israel's Yad Vashem: The World Holocaust Remembrance Center.
The 2008 Closure and 2022 Reopening
In 2008, after a 20-year run, Cameron's beloved museum was forced to close, a victim of the recession and his death two years prior. But supporters refused to let Cameron's dream die. In 2012, a virtual museum emerged as a temporary replacement. And in February 2022, a new physical facility once again began welcoming visitors.
"It's very, very, very rare that a museum of color that closes reopens," says Dr. Robert "Bert" Davis, museum president and CEO. "Once they close, they're closed." But thanks in large part to an anonymous $10 million donation, ABHM is back.
The new museum, rebirthed on the original facility's footprint, shares the unadulterated history of the Black experience in America, from pre-enslavement days to the present. The all-encompassing dive into this portion of U.S. history makes it unique among Black-centric museums, which tend to be more tightly focused, says Chauntel McKenzie, chief operating officer of ABHM.
"We're trying to show the full journey of Blacks in America, and how this is America's history, too," she says. "This is not a slavery museum."
Indeed, its mission is not only to educate people on the harmful legacies of slavery, but also to promote racial reconciliation and healing.
"Everyone is welcome in this space to discuss these very complex issues," says Brad Pruitt, ABHM's executive consultant.
That includes use of the term "holocaust" in the museum's name, which occasionally raises eyebrows and elicits calls for a name change.
According to the museum's website, the word "holocaust" comes from a Greek word meaning "burnt offering," and was first used to describe the Armenian massacres in the 1890s. It was used again in the 1940s to describe the Nazis' mass extermination of European Jewish communities. Over time, "holocaust" to many has become a word signifying a series of barbarisms organized by one social group against another. With this understanding, the Black Holocaust, then, began in the 1600s when early Virginia settlements enacted legislation making Blacks — and only Blacks — slaves for life.
During Cameron's visit to Yad Vashem, he recognized many similarities between the Jewish and Black experiences. And when he returned home, he felt led to create a museum with this particular name.
The carefully designed and curated museum masterfully packs more than 400 years of history into less than 4,000 square feet (371 square meters) of space, distilling a wealth of information into concise narratives that are easy to understand and digest.
The visitor experience begins in the pre-captivity gallery, which showcases the highly developed and civilized African communities that existed before slavery — communities much like those in which their future captors were residing. A timeline juxtaposes major events in African history with those occurring elsewhere in the world.
The decision to incorporate pre-captivity days into the museum was Cameron's. African history tends to be segregated from the rest of the world's history, Pruitt says, as if Africa existed in a parallel universe. But its civilizations made many often-overlooked contributions to the world in fields as varied as mathematics, architecture and agriculture. In fact, the trans-Atlantic slave trade was strategically configured to enslave both highly skilled people and common laborers in the quest to build new societies.
"We typically think of the people brought over as people who just picked cotton," says Davis. "But slave traders went to certain parts of the west coast of Africa and specifically chose certain groups to bring into captivity because they had skills in metalworking, agriculture, craftsmanship and more." Pruitt likens this strategy to the modern-day equivalent of kidnapping coders or structural engineers.
From there, the story of the Black holocaust unfolds through six more galleries depicting major eras in its history: the Middle Passage, three centuries of enslavement, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, the Civil Rights movement and the present. Much of the information is mind-boggling and horrifying:
- More than 12.5 million Africans were taken from their homes and distributed around the globe in the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
- One-third of those people perished between their capture and shortly after their arrival in their new homes.
- It wasn't uncommon for enslaved people to be brutally whipped, tortured, dismembered or burned.
- Lynchings such as Cameron's were often festive affairs, with spectators bringing picnic lunches, snapping photos and even taking the victims' body parts or clothing as memorabilia.
Because the museum's contents are so powerful, two reflection rooms provide space where people can take a break to debrief. One semiprivate space comes after the Middle Passage exhibit, while a second fully enclosed space is near the exit. Here, visitors can create a video talking about the impact of their experience, which they can then email to themselves and/or share with the museum.
But the museum's intent is not to overwhelm visitors or leave them feeling hopeless, says Davis. ABHM also tells uplifting stories of Black resistance and redemption, and inspiring Black achievements such as Barack Obama's presidency and Oprah Winfrey's dominance in the entertainment industry.
"The doom and gloom of our history should not be the culmination of your experience," Davis says. "There are lots of celebrations, too, but there are also lots of truths."
Truths that must be faced if we are to heal as a nation, Cameron believed.
"Part of Dr. Cameron's vision was to reexamine this history, so we all start with a better understanding of what it is," Pruitt says. "As we better understand our collective history, we can reframe and better understand our present, and move forward into a future that's more inclusive and healing."
Although ABHM just reopened, plans are already in place for a 30,000-square-foot (2,787-square-meter) expansion across the street in a building that was part of the $10 million anonymous donation. The space mainly will be dedicated to educational programming.
ABHM is quite an impressive legacy for someone who was supposed to have been lynched. And just how did Cameron manage to escape, anyway? His son, Virgil Cameron, says his father told the story this way: After being severely beaten, then dragged from the local jail to the lynching tree, the mob put a noose around his neck. Suddenly Cameron heard a voice say, "Let this boy go, for he is innocent." The crowd immediately fell silent and released him, whereupon Cameron crawled back to the jail, unable to walk due to his injuries.
"A lot of witnesses later said, 'Well, we didn't hear anything,'" says Virgil Cameron. "But then how did he survive? Whatever it was, I'm grateful."