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Black history museums witness surge in new visitors


In wake of of school restrictions

Marvin Dulaney can’t always field enough staff on Saturdays to serve the growing crowds visiting the African-American Museum of Dallas.

The number of visitors has nearly doubled in recent years and Dulaney expects it will continue to climb as more states try to limit some teachings of Black history and ban more books.

“When you say to people, ‘You can’t read these books or you can’t read this information.’ What are they going to do?’’ said Dulaney, the museum’s deputy director. “They’re going to defy you and read those books and also go learn that information that you don’t want them to know.’’

Dulaney and others who head museums that focus on the Black experience in the United States expect more people will turn to their institutions to learn more in the wake of efforts to restrict Black history teachings in public schools. Some say they are already seeing more visitors, while others point to anecdotal evidence that interest is on the rise.

“Across the country, we’re seeing this wave of people whose blinders have been on or their history lessons have been kind of watered down for them and they want the true story so they want to come into our museums,’’ said Vedet Coleman-Robinson, executive director of the Association of African-American Museums.

Black museums across the country – large and small – have provided a space for people to learn about Black history. That mission is even more important now, historians said.

“All this talk about history is making folks more curious about history,’’ said Tonya Matthews, president and chief executive officer of the new International African-American Museum in Charleston, SC.

At the African-American Museum in Dallas, the 100-person seat auditorium is often packed for Thursday night panels. In the past, only 25 visitors would be in the space.

Dulaney said initial eagerness to get out after COVID was the driving force behind the jump, but he believes renewed interest in Black history has been a major factor in surging attendance. None of the other museums in the city focus on the Black experience, he said.

“We always bragged that we’re not only the best game, but the only game in town in terms of being able to learn about Black history,’’ said Dulaney, also president of the Association for the Study of African-American Life and History, which held a panel on teaching Black history at its conference in Florida this summer.

Dulaney also attributes the increase in visitors to efforts to push back against a campaign by mostly conservative lawmakers to restrict teachings of Black history in public schools in some states, including Alabama, Florida and Texas. He said movements to ban some books mostly by Black authors have also spurred interest.

In response to growing interest, the museum plans to restart a community African-American history course this month.

Educators are looking to supplement history lessons and find ways for students to access more history, including through museums, said Neil A. Barclay, president and CEO of the Charles H. Wright Museum of African-American History in Detroit.

“We believe that there’s an interest in not only learning about African-American history, but also finding creative and innovative ways to teach that history to young people,’’ Barclay said.  

Interest in Black museums has been growing for years so it’s not surprising that more people turn to them as the battle over Black history continues, experts said. The National Museum for African-American History and Culture (NMAAHC) opened in Washington, D.C., in 2016 with much fanfare.

“That interest will always be there, regardless of whatever pushbacks there are,’’ said Lonnie Bunch, founding director of the NMAAHC and now Secretary of the Smithsonian. “You want to make sure that those museums are strong so when the pendulum swings and more and more people are coming to the subject they have good museums to explore.’’

Michael Morris, director of the Museum of Mississippi History and the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum, said he took notice one day when he saw a group of about 20 Black boys visiting from New Orleans. It didn’t appear to be a traditional school field trip. It was a weekend. The group spent hours exploring the museum.

“They wanted to make sure that they got the ‘real’ history,’’ said Morris.