A center for culture, a home for history: New museum lifts voices of GR's African American community

The Grand Rapids African American Museum & Archives is making an indelible mark on the city by showcasing and honoring the rich history and incredible contributions of the African American community in West Michigan.
The Grand Rapids Public Museum. The Grand Rapids Art Museum. The Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library & Museum. The Urban Institute of Contemporary Arts. Grand Rapids is home to a bevy of museums that cover the gambit of culture, from history to modern art, from nature to the 38th president of the United States. What GR was missing, however, was a center that celebrated the history, culture and diversity of the city's African American community.

Opening just before ArtPrize Eight and hosting a grand opening ceremony just after Christmas, the Grand Rapids African American Museum & Archives (GRAAMA) aims to do just that, showcasing more than 30 years of community building and art collecting by a group of individuals dedicated to African American history and culture. At the helm of the project is George Bayard, an art gallery owner and collector whose personal mission fueled the museum. With the ribbon cut at a temporary location and an eye on a future build, GRAAMA aims to make an indelible mark on Grand Rapids and showcase the incredible legacy of the African American community in West Michigan.

Cutting the ribbon

On Dec. 26, 2016, 87 Monroe Center St. NW was bustling with activity. About 100 people gathered around tables with handmade jewelry, historic artifacts, books, photos, and literature. Journalists, community members, musicians, photographers, and artists were anxiously awaiting the ribbon cutting ceremony of GRAAMA. African drumming and chanting could soon be heard by the West Michigan Jewels of Africa (WMJOA) Traditional African Drum and Dance Troop, along with chanting of "Umoja" or "Unity," celebrating the first day of Kwanzaa. Second Ward Commissioner Joseph D. Jones and Third Ward Commissioner Senita Lenear then took their places with the performers to address the importance of the celebration.

Lenear read aloud Mayor Bliss's proclamation of the museum and her desire for the organization to showcase the "shared story of the people of this community. Our people." Jones personally called the museum "a stepping stone for greater things to come." Together, the group then sang "Lift Every Voice and Sing," known as the "Black American National Anthem," led by George Bayard's wife and partner, Deborah Pryor-Bayard, a consultant for Grand Rapids Public Schools who works with the superintendent to ensure GRAAMA's educational information aligns with the schools' curriculum. In unity, the group celebrated the opening of a museum many years in the making.

A person and a place

For Bayard, it all started with a person and a place. The person at the center of his passion for collecting was his grandmother. When she became ill, Bayard took over the running of her household, and soon found himself discovering "tons of things," he says, including photos, furniture and clothing all related to African American history. "That kind of got my whistle wet as far as collecting things," says Bayard, who found himself inspired by the cultural history contained in the thousands of objects he found in his grandmother's home.

The place at the center of his inspiration was his hometown, Dunleith Estates, a suburb of Wilmington, Delaware. Described by Bayard as 99 percent African American and a home to returning veterans, the town was "rich in arts and culture" and laid the foundation for his later career in the arts. Bayard went on to major in art education at the University of Delaware, after which he ran a slew of art galleries in Philadelphia and founded the Bayard Gallery in Grand Rapids following his move to the area in 1988. Despite initial opposition and the commonly held opinion that "black art will never sell in this town," says Bayard, his gallery, and friendships, continued to grow.

Forming community

Making connections and working with local organizations like Frederick Meijer Gardens to curate an African exhibit, Bayard began exploring the idea of opening a local museum for African American history and culture. Talking to others in the community, collecting items and even serving on the board of the Grand Rapids Public Museum for further education on artifact curation, Bayard spent years laying the foundation for his museum.

Eventually, Bayard met and consulted with Margaret Burroughs, founder of the DuSable Museum of African American History on Chicago’s South Side. "We were really blessed to have her expertise," says Bayard, who worked with her and others to establish the James Jackson Museum of African American History in Muskegon.

The perfect spot

Waiting for the perfect timing and location, Bayard finally utilized years of education and collecting and set up shop at an empty spot in the Monroe Center retail space. "We were very thrilled when we heard we were going to move into here," he says. Though serving only as a temporary location while Bayard searches for property on which to construct a new building, he hopes that GRAAMA will soon be "a place that people go for information" on African American history and culture, he says.

Searching for a future property with enough space for 10,000 to 13,000 sq. ft., Bayard hopes that the permanent GRAAMA will serve as a performance hall, hosting plays, movies, lectures, performances and concerts. "We want to be the 'it' thing in the black community. The central place," says Bayard.

Diverse curation

By covering notable individuals such as Floyd Mayweather, Jr., the former professional boxer and Grand Rapids native; Lyman Parks, Sr., the first African American mayor of GR; and Catherine Borrow-Williams, the Detroit-born, Grand Rapids transplant who was a classically trained singer, arts activist and missionary; GRAAMA's collection covers the breadth of the African American community’s cultural significance to the area. Also showcasing local artisans and engaging in endeavors like the "Grandma's Voices Project," a taped oral history of aging African American community members, the museum showcases everyday life and the importance of intergenerational learning.

Even the name of the museum demonstrates Bayard and company's dedication to representing what can be unheard voices: the mothers and grandmothers who are so vital in the African American community, and the city at large. "Grandma always taught the children and grandchildren," says Bayard. To continue to explore this vital influence, GRAAMA will occasionally host grandmother-themed events, such as quilting circles.

Looking forward to showcasing a wide array of artifacts, GRAAMA will also partner with local institutions in African American history, art and culture. In 2017, the museum will work with the UICA to host "US IS THEM," an exhibition featuring 42 international artists with a special section of artists with African and Caribbean roots. Specifically, GRAAMA assisted the UICA in the promotion of the event and suggested programming to coordinate with the exhibit. Bayard will also host an artists’ dialogue on Saturday, Jan. 27 at their Monroe Court location with local artists of color who will rap about the exhibit. Later work this year will include taking part in Grand Valley State University's three-part "Riot, Race, and Reconciliation," focusing on the 1967 Grand Rapids “race riot.”

Most importantly, Bayard and GRAAMA hope to communicate that "African American history is part of American history." By carving out this unique museum space and showcasing the lives and contributions of African Americans in Grand Rapids, Bayard seeks to remind the community of this important fact. Though he and other GRAAMA contributors have already laid the foundation for a flourishing museum, they have much to look forward to as they seek a permanent location and continue to engage with a community has anxiously awaited their arrival.

Experiencing GRAAMA

The museum has a vast array of current and upcoming events. 
All events will be held at the museum, with the exception of the opening of "US IS THEM," which will be held at the UICA. These events include:

King Speaks Thru Relics
Jan. 11-Jan. 26
The museum presents its collection of relics and artifacts from the community related to Dr. Martin Luther King. Jr. These items include photographs, books, and mementos from his life, passing and memorial.

Friends of Martin Luther King Jr.
Jan. 14, 16 and 17
The museum will offer a video presentation based on the book series by GRAAMA board member Jackie James. The video gives a brief description of each of the eight Civil Rights figures portrayed in her books.

"US IS THEM" opening at the Urban Institute of Contemporary Art
Jan. 27 at the UICA.
Join the museum and the UICA as they celebrate the opening of "US IS THEM."

Artists forum
Jan. 28, 10am
Area artists discuss the exhibit, collectors and issues related to artists of color and what is happening at the local level.

As GRAAMA quotes on its website, author, civil rights activist, historian, and sociologist W.E.B. DuBois once said, "Throughout history, the powers of individual Black people flash like falling stars, and die sometimes before the world has rightly gauged their brightness." With its new building, extensive events, incredible collection, and more, the Grand Rapids African American Museum & Archives is making sure we recognize and honor this brightness.

The Grand Rapids African American Museum & Archives is located at 87 Monroe Center St. NW. For more information about the museum, you can visit its website and Facebook page, or call (616) 540-2943.
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