As ABHM reopens, $10M commitment from Foundation donor sets course for future

For the first time in 14 years, the doors of America’s Black Holocaust Museum are open to the public, a monumental achievement made possible by the remarkable legacy of its founder Dr. James Cameron, the visionary leadership of president and CEO Dr. Robert (Bert) Davis, the passion and persistence of volunteers and staff, and recently, a $10 million commitment from an anonymous Greater Milwaukee Foundation donor.

ABHM is dedicated to the legacy of Cameron, one of only a few known survivors of a lynching in American history. He founded the museum to explore under-told stories of the African American experience; the harmful, long-term impacts of slavery and Jim Crow; as well to promote racial repair, reconciliation and healing.

After 20 years serving this mission, ABHM had to close its doors in 2008 due to Cameron’s passing and the country’s economic downtown, though the museum continued its education of others by launching a virtual museum in 2012. Now, ABHM has returned to its rightful home at the corner of Vel R. Phillips and North avenues in the heart of the historic Bronzeville district of Milwaukee in an era where truth, understanding and healing around race are needed more than ever.

“At a time of hyperpolarization, we are in dire need of safe spaces and opportunities created to bring us together to explore difficult issues, to learn and to celebrate our history,” Davis said. “The reemergence of the museum is critical at this time for Bronzeville, Milwaukee and nationally, and I am honored and humbled to continue the work and the legacy of our founder, Dr. Cameron, as a result of this generous commitment.”

Generosity in action

Confidence in Davis – owing to his track record of community leadership as well as his national experience and perspective – was a key factor in the anonymous donor’s support. The commitment made through the Foundation is being carried out in two phases – an initial grant of $5 million and a future commitment of an additional $5 million.

Phase one’s main objective has been to open and expand the museum for public use. In addition to the grand reopening – held during Black History Month on Feb. 25, Dr. Cameron’s birthday – the funds are supporting the expansion and enhancement of exhibits throughout the new building. The commitment is also supporting critical operations, such as the addition of key staff and community programming. The expansion includes the museum’s recent acquisition of an adjacent building at 324 W. North Ave. for academic programming.

Phase two will support long-term goals of sustainability and development to ensure the mission and vision of the museum can be carried out in perpetuity.

“With this new investment, America’s Black Holocaust Museum is poised for growth as an unparalleled destination for knowledge and connection – a jewel in our city that enhances the surrounding neighborhoods and serves as a beacon for racial justice everywhere,” said Ellen Gilligan, Foundation president and CEO. “The generational work of ABHM aligns with the Foundation’s vision of a Milwaukee for all, and on behalf of our anonymous donor, we hope this commitment inspires others to support and sustain the museum in its vital mission.”

A lasting partnership

ABHM and the Foundation have enjoyed a strong partnership in the years leading up to the museum’s re-emergence.

In January 2020, the museum received a signature work of art created by acclaimed artist Sanford Biggers. Named BAM (Seated Warrior), the sculpture was acquired from Sculpture Milwaukee and gifted to the museum from the Foundation on behalf of an anonymous donor. It now has a prominent and permanent place on the ABHM exhibit floor.

ABHM also received a $1 million grant at that time from the Foundation on behalf of an anonymous donor, while the Foundation awarded an additional grant of $120,000 through its responsive grantmaking program, building on past support. These funds have contributed to the ongoing development and support of ABHM for building staff capacity and programming. ABHM is further part of the Foundation family, having established the Dr. James Cameron Legacy Fund in 2020.