Watching too many television reports and reading numerous newspaper stories on the latest round of Prince George’s County homicides — many involving African-American youth — during the 1990s had taken its toll on town officials of North Brentwood, the first African-American municipality in the county, said former mayor Lillian K. Beverly.
“Frankly I was tired. We were tired of hearing about the murders of our young people and the police arresting our children,” said Beverly, who served as mayor from 1995 to 2007. “It’s very difficult to move ahead when you have an identification problem.”
One of the main stumbling blocks for youth was that they had no sense of perspective of their past and the struggles of their ancestors, Beverly said, so officials began working toward sharing that history with the creation of a museum that would highlight the contributions of African-Americans in North Brentwood and the county in general.
Sixteen years after the initial planning began in 1996, town officials are preparing to launch a massive fundraising campaign to help pay for the $20 million Prince George’s African American Museum & Cultural Center at North Brentwood, which they hope to establish as a new county destination spot. The expected opening is in 2016. From 2003 to 2009, the group raised nearly $9 million in grants from the federal government, county redevelopment authority and state board of public works that was used to acquire the property, hire staff, purchase/renovate administrative buildings and rent a portion of Brentwood’s Gateway Arts Center to create Gallery 110, a mini exhibit space to showcase artists and galleries.
“The museum offers a multi-faceted opportunity for people to share the different aspects of African-American history and culture as it has impacted Prince George’s County in a positive manner and in many ways a shaping manner,” said Jacqueline Brown, the museum’s executive director .
When completed, the 55,000-square-foot facility will feature a 200-seat theater, open courtyard for performances, a digital recording studio, gift shop, café and restaurant, and rooftop terrace. To accommodate senior citizens, schools and large groups, parking has been set up for buses in addition to more than 100 parking spaces, Brown said.
“It has moved right along, slowly but surely,” Beverly said. “We are very excited to see that we have been so well received by so many young people. We really wanted to connect with the young people because if you don’t know your roots you cannot move ahead.”
The town received a $350,000 state grant in 1996 to build an addition to the Town Hall to be used to explore and showcase African-American contributions in the county, Beverly said. North Brentwood, the first African-American municipality in the county, was founded in 1887 and incorporated in 1924.
After architects surveyed the Town Hall site and determined the building was too dilapidated to make an addition, officials and community members, who formed the “Friends of North Brentwood,” sought a new location.
Then-County Councilman Peter Shapiro, a strong proponent of the developing Gateway arts district that encompassed Brentwood, Hyattsville, Mount Rainier and North Brentwood, suggested moving the proposed museum to a more prominent site along the district’s main thoroughfare — U.S. Route 1.
“I was a very strong supporter of the museum and was of the very, very strong opinion that it should happen in concert with the arts district revitalization,” Shapiro said, referring to the Gateway Arts District. “I thought it was important for the town, the arts district and the corridor that it be on Route 1 for more visibility to give them the opportunity to have a bigger, more prominent site.”
Progress on the project stalled as the Friends of North Brentwood worked from 2003 to 2009 to secure funding to purchase property on the corner of Webster Street and Rhode Island Avenue. The project’s original plan was to establish the museum on 20,000 square feet with a 150-seat theater and performance center, but expanded as the vision increased, Beverly said.
Shapiro said the museum has been a long time in coming and that the renewed momentum is wonderful.
“There’s a lot of folks who poured their hearts into this, and I couldn’t be more excited,” Shapiro said.
Dan Moore Sr., founder/president of the Atlanta-based APEX Museum, which has shared since 1978 the story of African American history dating back to Africa before slavery, said the timing is ideal for museums that share the African-American experience.
“People are still responding to the fact that we have the first black president,” Moore said. “It’s definitely needed. There is a certain disconnect with our young people.”
Moore said it’s important for the PGCAAMCC to properly promote the museum to let people know what it’s about and have a greater understanding what is coming to the area.
As the fundraising effort gets under way, the group has already received commitments to provide financial contributions in fiscal 2013 from the County Council as several members encouraged Brown in January to increase the group’s $1 million funding request to at least $2 million, stating the project is a worthwhile investment.
“We need to know the history of where we come from to appreciate our culture and to appreciate the struggles that African Americans have had historically,” said County Councilman Will Campos (D-Dist. 2) of Hyattsville, whose district includes the museum. “We have a county now that’s one of the most affluent African-American counties in the country, and we need to showcase what makes Prince George’s County beautiful and that’s part of our heritage.”
Although Baltimore has The Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African-American History & Culture and the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture is just a few miles away in Washington, D.C., Brown said she is not concerned about competition as each museum offers a different perspective.
“It’s a good thing,” she said. “The mission is different as our museum tells the story of African Americans in Prince George’s County from pre-Colonial times on, while the Baltimore museum tells the state perspective, and the Smithsonian covers the national scope. I see it as a beautiful triangle, and people can make a day of it.”
Brown, who was a board member on the Reginald F. Lewis museum, said PGCAAMCC has already partnered with both museums in helping get the word out about North Brentwood’s project and envisions more collaborations in the future.
“The African American Cultural Center and Museum represents an excellent opportunity for everyone to learn about the historic contributions of the African-American community to Prince George's County and the state of Maryland,” County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D) wrote in an email to The Gazette. “This venue will provide another anchor along the Route 1 Arts Corridor that will draw residents and visitors alike from across the region.”
Brown said the group would continue being an invested community partner and is optimistic the efforts will pay off in four more years.
“We would like when it’s finished for our community partners and collaborators to feel like it’s their home,” Brown said. “God willing, when we have that opening night in 2016, we’ll be able to say to people, ‘Welcome home.’”