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Calling on a New Generation to Save Black Museum

ED GORDON, host:

Those belonging to the civil rights generation have often criticized the younger generation as being apathetic and complacent. Commentator Lester Spence says the post-civil rights generation is proving them wrong by coming to the aid of one popular but controversial Detroit museum.


Detroit's Charles H. Wright Museum of African-American History is the largest museum of its kind in the country. It attracts tens of thousands of visitors every year. One recent exhibit on lynching drew more than 60,000. But the institution has fallen on hard times. Some argue that many of the core aspects of African-American history, such as slavery and state-sponsored terrorism, don't sit well with potential funders. The city of Detroit, facing its own budget crisis, wants to cut its contributions to the museum. An organization of young African-American professionals is helping to close the funding gap.

The Contemporary Friends of the Charles Wright Museum has networked in metro Detroit and beyond, generating new museum memberships and aiming towards more than $100,000 in contributions. One of their more innovative ideas was to hold a series of events in New York City, Los Angeles and Chicago, specifically geared to Detroit expatriates. I, and other former Detroiters, were more than happy to attend the Charles Wright fund-raiser in Chicago. By writing checks, we were able to thank Dr. Wright, who passed away in 2002.

As one of the earliest black gynecologists in the Motor City, he delivered over 5,000 babies, including myself. But further we were able to show our support for the city we love. Our generation is thriving because trailblazers like Dr. Wright and dozens of other Detroiters helped to pave the way for us. But it's taken a long time for museum executives and other institutional leaders to recognize the untapped potential of the under-45 set. There's a widespread assumption that the post-civil rights generation is neither willing nor interested in supporting black institutions. As a 36-year-old scholar of black life, I contend that the pessimists are wrong. The values of group cooperation, group initiative and group loyalty are very strong within my cohorts. It's crucial to recognize, though, that raising money from young black professionals is only the first step. The phrase `passing the torch' has often been used. I'm talking about something markedly different.

The Charles H. Wright Museum is devoted to preserving, maintaining and transmitting black history. What I'm talking about is using the talent of black men and women under 45 to actually envision, nurture and develop a black future, using our skills to replace old outmoded ways of thinking and working and to revitalize old tactics of organizing. Perhaps no other group is better situated to take black America, and the rest of America with it, into the future, kicking and screaming, if need be.

GORDON: Lester K. Spence is an assistant professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University.

This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lester K. Spence