Long and Winding Saga of the Great Plains Black History Museum Takes a New Turn
In some ways, the Great Plains Black History Museum in Omaha,Neb. is a symbol for the African-American experience in this place. African-Americans have had a presence in Omaha for generations now and their accomplishments are legion. Unfortunately, a disproportionate number of African-Americans here, as in the America overall, live in poverty and are unemployed or underemployed and struggle with all manner of health issues. The museum owns a much shorter history but it too can point to a fine record of accomplishment that unfortunately is blemished by a long litany of issues that have kept if from fully reaching its potential. The following story appeared in an abridged version in The Reader (www.thereader.com) in early 2010, but I am posting here in its entirety. Four years before I wrote a similarly epic piece about the museum and its travails for the same newspaper. I will be posting that earlier story soon. In the coming months I will also be writing anew about the museum, whose story of struggles and aspirations continues.
NOTE: My blog also features a story I did in 1996 on the museum’s founder, Bertha Calloway. I called it, Bertha’s Battle.
Long and Winding Saga of the Great Plains Black History Museum Takes a New Turn
©by Leo Adam Biga
A version of this story appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
In a tumultous decade for the Great Plains Black History Museum, its doors closed and its funding ceased. After years of turmoil, however, the organization may be taking tentative steps toward a sustainable future.
Its leaky, unsound, 103-year-old building at 2213 Lake St. has been off-limits to the public. Even before city code inspectors deemed it uninhabitable, executive director Jim Calloway moved the museum collections into storage to avoid damage. The Reader confirmed boxed archives have been in a rented metal storage container in back of the building, with artifacts and display items in remote warehouses.
The son of founder Bertha Calloway, he’s struggled keeping the family nonprofit afloat after illness forced his mother to step down some eight years ago. With few exceptions, the museum’s estimated 100,000 documents and hundreds of artifacts and educational materials have been unavailable to scholars and the public. The fallout of all this? The museum has lost face in the community and a building of architectural-historical significance has further deteriorated through inaction.
This once proud organization has become the object of disappointment and skepticism, its National Register of Historic Places home reduced to a shell and its mission unrealized. The archival collection comprising it’s greatest glory — the seldom seen black history Bertha Calloway compiled — has languished under benign neglect.
Yet recent developments are providing new hope for the beleagured museum and its endangered holdings. The building’s and the archives’ ultimate fate remain clouded, but a clear vision may be coming into focus. The question is how to attain it.
On February 23, 180-plus archival boxes containing voluminous research documents, letters, photographs and other materials were removed from the storage bin and onto a truck for transport to the Nebraska State Historical Society in Lincoln. The transfer’s part of a one-year custodial agreement between the society and museum. The NSHS will provide a secure, environmentally-regulated space for inventorying and indexing the archives. Some minimal conservation work will be done as well.
“We conducted a site visit of the property,” said Laurie Richards, Eastern Field Representative with Heritage Nebraska, an affiliate of the Trust. “The building is in immediate need of stabilization. We are interested in the historical significance of the Thomas Kimball building — a very significant building for the neighborhood and entire community of Omaha. There may be some funding through the Trust to assist with some of the organization’s needs, but we have to do further research. We will also help them explore other possible avenues of financial assistance.”
Earlier, a team of Omaha architects and engineers led by Michael Alley did an extensive analysis of the building’s most pressing needs. A master plan for renovation and new construction is on the drawing board.
Additionally, the museum has reorganized what’s widely been considered an ineffectual board to include new blood from the African-American and majority communities. “Some of the names are very influential people and they will do a great job. We also have a new board of advisers,” said Jim Calloway. “The next step to get things rolling,” he said, is a capital campaign.
“I feel better right now about things than I have in a long time,” he said. “The thing I’m most happy about is when senior officials from the State Historical Society pulled out a few of those archival boxes and were just blown away by what was in there. They were extremely impressed and pleased to see everything was still intact, because rumors of its disappearance had floated throughout the community. They were a bit surprised, too, at the condition of everything considering it wasn’t in a climate-controlled environment.”
For Calloway, it’s vindication of sorts. “I think it’s a good time to get straight with the public because rumors were floating that things were sold on eBay. It’s given me a little relief, too, because I’ve had to walk around for five or six years with this thing hanging over my head about me selling off the collection. It hasn’t been comfortable at all.”
With the building and collections inaccessible, speculation ran rampant about the state of the historical archives. One-of-kind memoirs and letters, for example, relate to black homesteading families. Historian Tekla Agbala “Ali” Johnson of Lincoln, Neb. is working with the collection in association with the NSHS. She said it is a prized cache.
“Strictly dealing with the history of African-Americans in the West, the collection is the largest dedicated to African-American people, period, I’ve worked with. Just in terms of size, it’s important,” said Johnson. “This is a fabulous and valuable collection and it has the potential to be a world-class archive.”
Johnson, an Omaha native who was an intern under Bertha Calloway, is impressed by how many families “came forward and deposited” personal remnants of history with Bertha. “Overwhelmingly she had their trust and people gave her things they wouldn’t give anybody else. She collected very,very private stories, oral histories, all the way to documenting the African-American cowboys in her own family. I cannot tell you how thrilled and honored I am to be able to process this collection.”
She said the “extremely well-documented” archives hold the potential for new insights into many aspects of African-American life in Omaha and greater Nebraska.
In terms of relevance, she said, “It has implications for a deeper understanding of the civil rights movement, the black music industry and black social clubs and organizations in the Midwest.” Johnson, who’s combed through but a fraction of the boxes, said she makes discoveries each work session. “In the very near future we’ll know exactly what we have. I’m making very good progress.” “I’m sure we’re going to come across a lot of really good information we didn’t have, so it’s very exciting from that standpoint,” said NSHS associate director of library archives, Andrea Faling.
Tekla Ali Johnson
Although Bertha was not a degreed historian, Johnson said she was nonetheless a “scholar and researcher. She truly put her life’s work in this. It is truly amazing.”
The archives were gotten to just in time. “They were beginning to erode,” said Johnson. More than 200 archival boxes, many overstuffed and broken, were stacked like cord wood in the container. Not everything was taken by the NSHS.
Calloway tried assuring the public of the collections’ integrity, but many questioned if they’d been compromised. Fueling the fires were assertions made by his sister and an attorney, who sought to wrest control of the building and collections from him.
With the archives now in the temporary care of a reputable organization, concerns about the materials may be alleviated. Faling said on a scale of 1 to 10 the mostly paper materials are in “slightly below average” condition — “maybe in the 4 to 5 range, but that’s just a subjective appraisal.” She said the lack of climate controls resulted in detrimental, not devastating temperature and humidity fluctuations and some mold. “I have definitely seen worse,” she said. “We’ve been in places where there were things that were not salvageable — I didn’t see anything like that, where we just have to get rid of stuff. That’s a good sign.”
Nebraska State Historical Society
Materials are variously being reboxed and treated for mold. She said the container housing the archives was free of other problems. “We didn’t really see evidence of animals, which is a good thing. We’ve run into conditions where we had to wear masks, so this wasn’t as bad as something like that.”
Calloway said “the collection is in absolutely the best of hands with the State Historical Society. I feel very comfortable with it being there. It’s in a safe environment with its own professional support staff and a historian on board.” Not everything’s quite sewn up with the NSHS and the archives. Faling said state law prohibits the agency from spending money on an outside collection. Thus, the museum, perhaps with the Society’s aid, must find dollars to underwrite the work and any needed archival-conservation supplies.
The archives ended up in Lincoln via a circutious route. Calloway spoke with several different entities to take them on. An agreement brokered with the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s College of Arts and Sciences and Department of Black Studies eventually fell through. More recently, he considered granting the Hastings, Neb.-based African-American Preservation Organization trusteeship over the collection. Independent scholar Rick Wallace, a longtime friend of the Calloways, heads the group. He’s also on the Heritage Nebraska board and a State Historical Society associate.
Word of the archives needing a safe home reached the Society. Its president, Michael Smith, said upon visiting the museum site and inspecting the archives in storage he and his staff determined there was a need they could fill.
“It’s simply a matter of being of service,” he said. “As a state archives we have people that are knowledgable in archival management and we have space to house the collection for Dr. Johnson to do an inventory of what’s there.”
“We’ve agree to provide custodial care so the materials would not get further damaged,” said Faling. “We want it to have the best home possible ultimately. We’re not making claim to this. We want to make clear we don’t own this collection. We’ve offered to house it for a year until the Great Plains board figures out what to do”
She said the archives in Lincoln will, at least for now, be accessible only by the Calloways, the museum board and persons so designated. “Were not trying to restrict this in anyway,” she said, “but we have work to do to it and to get it organized.”
An inventory alone would be major progress for the museum given its recent history. The low point may have been when City of Omaha code inspectors pronounced the Lake St. building uninhabitable in 2006, effectively making the museum homeless. The building’s been closed more than it’s been open during Jim Calloway’s tenure. Besides a temporary display at the Blue Lion Centre, the collections have been out of sight.
Calloway said the museum has debts of about $5,000 for outstanding storage fees, taxes and assorted other claims and liens. He said the Lake St. building’s utilities are turned off by choice. The museum has maintained its 501c3 status.
Board member Alice Station goes back to the 1950s with Bertha Calloway and the Negro Historical Society that preceded the museum. She collected photos and other materials related to the Buffalo Soldiers. She said it’s pained her to see the museum lay dormant and the archives unused. In a 2001 move that upset Station and brought criticism of Calloway, he rejected a $50,000 city allocation for roof repairs as inadequate. Even after the allocation was increased in 2003 to $100,000 he held out for more. When funding was made contingent on Calloway providing financial accountings he did not comply and the monies were withdrawn. The museum went from a guaranteed $50,000 to a probable $100,000 to nothing.
Similar noncompliance led Douglas County to withdraw allocations. The events may explain the GPBHM’s recent inability to obtain funds. “I admit I made a mistake,” said Calloway. “Work that needs doing now could have been fixed. Where I feel like I’ve accomplished my goal of saving the archives, I’ve failed to preserve the building.”
It didn’t help matters that Calloway and former Omaha City Councilman Frank Brown fueded. Bertha had her own run-ins with movers-and-shakers in the past. Intractability isolated the museum from funding sources. “It was always a survival mode really for them, and Mrs. Calloway was very, very protective of the collection,” said Loves Jazz & Arts Center executive director Neville Murray. “She thought it was important that as an African-American museum African-Americans should be running it. She was suspicious of folks from outside the community and their motives.”
Jim Calloway said neither he nor his mother have any use for “high falutin” folks.
Tekla Johnson offers another point of view. “People have complained in the past Ms. Calloway was a bit controlling, but she didn’t know who to trust and she tried to protect it.” Bottomline, said Andre Faling, “you have to say the Calloways did a great service to the community to have all this stuff. If they hadn’t been doing this, this history would not be there. They do deserve some thanks for sure.”
The museum seemed at an impasse until the recent turn of events. Now the archives are squared away, funding sources for the building’s renovation may be surfacing and a new board offers the potential for new ideas and energy. But what happens after the one-year custodial agreement concludes? Where do the archives go then? And what role, if any, will the Lake St. building play in the future?
Calloway said he’s exploring options to accomodate the archives beyond the one-year term. A refurbished Lake St. building is part of his vision. “The research documents have been the priority, but I don’t want to forget about the building,” he said. “That’s the next big venture.” He anticipates board members leading fund raising efforts for its rehab. Little more than bandaid fixes have been done. The result is that a Thomas Kimball-designed Jacobethan Revival Style edifice that survived the 1913 Easter tornado and housed the Webster Telephone Exchange and the Nebraska Urban League, sits vacant, vulnerable to the ravages of time and the elements.
Michael Alley of Alley Poyner Macchietto Architecture PC, echoes the sentiments of many in viewing the structure as an important piece of architecture and history.
“That’s such a significant building on so many different levels — because of Thomas Kimball and the tornado it survived. It was the nerve center for rescue-cleanup efforts in the wake of the deadly storm. When we lose buildings like this we really lose a sense of place. These physical markers reference points in our community’s history, so the loss isn’t just a building but it really is a loss of history. That’s why it’s so critical to protect these assets.
“All the work I’ve done has been pro bono, just purely out of a passion and a desire to see this thing protected and ultimately restored. Our firm has done many, many projects in north Omaha and we just care deeply about the community. It’s a building I drive by and it just grieves me to see it in that condition.”
He said in a district like north Omaha that’s seen much of its historic building and housing stock razed, the loss would be compounded. If the building were restored, he added, it could anchor North 24th revitalization. North Omaha Development Project plans for aHeritage District mention an African-American museum. African-American Empowerment Network leaders also have the museum on their radar as the network-led North Omaha Arts Alliance takes shape.
For now though, the building’s a worn symbol of what once was. Even when it housed a fully operational institution from 1976 through the late ‘90s, the structure was in various states of disrepair. Years removed from any real work being done beyond roof patch jobs and broken window mends, the building is in dire straits.
The 2008 Alley-led needs analysis underlined the need for swift action. Conditions are worse two years later. “With the heavy snows we’ve had it’s honestly hanging on a razor’s edge,” Alley said. “The way that roof is framed, particularly the low pitched roof, the trusses are embedded into the wall, so if the roof does cave in or give way it will probably pull the walls in with it. I’ve talked to structural engineers and a contractor about putting temporary shoring underneath the roof structure. You’d have to start in the basement and go up through the floors, and put in some posts that would at least keep it from a catastrophic roof collapse.
“The other particularly precarious thing is an old brick flue or chimney in desperate need of tuck pointing. It needs to be dissembled and saved because that’s an important historic element we’d need to rebuild. But if that falls over in a big windstorm or somebody sneezes wrong it could take the whole thing in, too.”
Sub-zero temperatures take their own toll. Minus any heat inside the building, he said, “the freeze-thaw cycle just destroys buildings.”
Stabilizing the “most desperate needs,” Alley said, would take $19,000 to cover: temporary shoring floors and roofs; applying plywood on windows; installing and maintaining temporary heat and cooling; removing the flue stack. In his 2008 report he estimated $44,300 to more comprehensively address “immediate needs.” Much more would be required to retrofit the entire building’s mechanical, electrical systems and bring the structure up to code.
Daunting as it may be, Alley said the building is far from a lost cause, though time is not on its side. “I have no anxiety about the ability to restore the building, protect it and renovate it into a wonderful facility that will outlast our lifetimes. So, it’s not too far gone.” He said his firm’s salvaged buildings “in this bad of shape or worse,” including Omaha’s old Hill Hotel, now the Kensington Tower, and Astro Theater, now The Rose. “We’ve had some real tough projects,” he said. “The difference with this one is that unless the failure that’s occurring right now is dealt with, it will pull the whole building in on itself and there won’t be anything left to save.”
While he said historic status does not protect the site from potential razing it does open opportunities for historic preservation tax credits to facilitate renovation.
He said as beloved as the building is in preservation-architectural circles, certain things must happen before folks pony-up. “I know a bunch of people who would love to jump in on this project if the situation was right. I do think there’s a lack of confidence in the leadership or ownership…a great deal of anxiety about uses of funds and things like that. That’s what I keep running into.”If such concerns could be overcome, he said, “many methods could be used to restore the building.”
Jim Calloway is aware of people’s caution. “I can understand certain individuals reluctance to get involved because of the past issues,” he said. “I can understand people not wanting to really jump in and get involved because of questions and rumors that have been raised in the past, and I think that’s been a stumbling block.”
Some suggest that as long as Calloway is involved the museum will find no backing because his track record makes him too much a lightning rod figure. As a small community organization the museum’s always been controlled by a Calloway and a nominal board whose members have typically been elderly peers of Bertha Calloway’s. Age, illness and death have winnowed their ranks. At various times Jim Calloway’s been unable or unwilling to provide a museum board roster. A formally constituted, working board did not appear to be in place until the reorganization. Recent budgets, financial records and board meeting minutes are unavailable.
City officials and others have expressed concerns about not having a full understanding of who is responsible for the museum. From 2006 through 2008 Calloway installed two interim executive directors, first Matthew Stelly and then Kennan Wright. Each conducted business and made announcements on behalf of the museum, whose governance has been called into question many times.
Neb. State Sen. Brenda Council has said, “People don’t know who’s in charge and who’s going to be accountable. It’s very problematic. Believe me, they have an awful long way to go.” Omaha City Councilman Ben Gray said until the museum has a fully functional board it stands little chance of getting stakeholders to buy in. Upon news of the museum installing a new board, Gray said, “It’s a positive move,” but he withheld further comment until seeing who it’s members are.
Gray, Council and Douglas County Board Commissioner Chris Rodgers form a committee allocating turnback tax dollars for North O cultural projects. Gray and Council say loosely structured organizations like the museum must follow best practices if they expect funding. The GPBHM was denied turnback dollars in 2009.
“We have to establish the necessary boards for some of these organizations to be viable,” Gray said. “Their boards have to adhere to certain rules and regulations that all other boards have to adhere to. In order to bring the museum back the way it needs to be brought back — and it’s not impossible to do — there has to be a credible board, there has to be a credible curator, there has to be a credible building that is in fact a museum. As a community we’ve got to do that and if we don’t do that then we’re just kind of whistling in the wind because you know nobody with means or resources is going to support an organization if those standards have not been met.”
Then there’s the impediment of Jim Calloway himself. Wright found objections in the community to his presence and feels the time has come for him to relinquish control.
“A lot of people have tried and failed to work with Mr. Calloway as far as restoring the building,” said Wright. “One of the first things to come out of people’s mouths is, ‘If Mr. Calloway is going to be involved with the museum then I’m not going to be involved with it.’ The museum building needs to be totally disconnected from the Calloway family. A lot of people support the project but it needs to be separated on its own and not be babysitted or controlled by anybody from the Calloway family.”
Calloway said it’s no surprise some condition their participation on “my being out of the way. I know I’m kind of an obstacle.” He insists he’s “stepped aside” before and is willing to do so again.
Just as the long list of building needs is nothing new, the lack of money to tackle them is an old story. In the museum’s heyday enough grants and donations came in to mount exhibits, hire part-time staff and operate five or six days a week. Still, as far back as the late ‘90s, Bertha Calloway fretted over creditors and outstanding repairs.
Ever since she and her late husband James acquired the building in 1974 little more than piecemeal fixes have been made. Her son Jim Calloway said his frustration with partial mends is what motivated him to reject city funding.
Repairs may ultimately be a moot point. In October 2006 the city filed a 32-page Notice of Violations document against the museum, detailing dozens of serious code infractions encompassing the entire structure. The museum was given two months to cure the problems under threat of demolition. A lack of funds and liability insurance stymied any remedies. Following the city’s next inspection, a ticket may be issued. The misdemeanor criminal citation is punishable by a judge-determined fine or jail time. The citation could be appealed. The next city action after a ticket could be a demolition order, although Chief City Inspector Kevin Denker said the building is low on his department’s priority list given the property’s “historical relevance.”
Calloway said the city is “being patient with us, they really are. They understand the significance and the importance of the building and how much it means to the community, but these code violations have to be addressed very soon. It is definitely not an open-ended situation.”
Another sticking point is possession. Wright said people he approached to serve on a reorganized board expressed concerns about the building’s and the archives’ ownership. “They’re confused about the ownership of the building — who owns the building, does it belong to the Calloway family or does it belong to the museum?”
Ownership came into question in a case decided in the Douglas Country District Court Jim Calloway defended the museum’s viability against claims it was defunct. He found himself embattled with his late sister, Bonita, over control of the museum’s assets. The late Karen Tibbs represented her. Tibbs also represented the interests of Bertha Calloway’s estate. Tibbs was named conservator after a court found Bertha Calloway incompetent. Tibbs contended the museum’s assets are family property while Jim Calloway argued the line he said his mother always maintained — that the building and contents belong to the 501c3 Great Plains Black Museum and Interpretive Center, Inc. the museum is chartered under and the building is deeded under.
Citing a clause in the deed that states the building reverts back to Bertha should the GPBHM cease operating as a museum, Tibbs claimed the museum was no longer a functioning museum. But in a 2006 ruling Judge Robert Burkhard declared the GPBHM never stopped operating as a museum. Tibbs appealed the ruling to no avail.
Wright said potential funders are afraid renovations could be made only to have the museum move elsewhere. Would a newly refurbished building then revert back to the Calloway family’s ownership? Would the archives and artifacts revert back as well? Wright said until the clause is removed the museum will face uneasy scrutiny. People who’d like to get involved, he said, await some definitive resolution.
The way Jim Calloway sees it the “dispute has been settled once and for all, and as far as I’m concerned,” he said, “that’s opened the door, paved the way for progress. That had always been a problem — it impeded a lot of what could have taken place during that time. Everything was on hold.” As for the clause, he said he understands people’s concerns but insists if the building did revert back to the family it’d go to the state to cover his destitute mother’s nursing home bills.
Wright said he found great interest within the African-American community and the larger community in reopening the museum, if not in its original Lake St. home than somewhere nearby. But restoring the building for any use would take upwards of $1.5 million according to figures put together by Alley. Restoring to stringent historic landmark specs and meeting strict museum-quality climate control standards would be costly. That’s why Alley, Calloway, Wright and others say it may be more practical to restore the building as the museum’s administrative headquarters and either renovate an existing structure or construct a new one to serve as the public museum site. A second building would mean another steep price tag. Then there would need to be funds for an operating budget to see the museum through its first few years.
At Calloway’s behest Wright applied for 40-plus grants for the museum in 2008-2009. None were awarded.
“During this difficult economic time a lot of organizations were opting to donate funds to already running programs rather than capital projects,” said Wright, “which the museum project would be because the building is in such bad condition and needs a lot of work before we could even reopen.”
In an application for Community Block Grant monies Wright and Calloway asked for the improbable sum of $1.5 million, which was denied. City of Omaha community block grant administrator James Thele said among the things he and his staff weigh is “what other money can you bring to the table,” noting the program’s meant to fill funding gaps, not be a primary source. He said Calloway’s past refusal of city funding “would not prejudice” consideration of new grant requests by the museum. “However,” he said, “knowing an organization has had problems in the past, we’re going to ask certain questions and do some research of our own.”
Wright said the resistance he encountered had to do with the museum’s shadow board. “Without a strong board of directors no foundation is going to want to donate money with the financial problems the museum’s had. When you apply for grants one of the first things a funder does is vet your board of directors. If your board is weak then you might as well forget it, it’s not going to happen,” he said.
Regardless of past or current problems, there’s great interest in a reborn museum.
Said Council, “I don’t think you could talk to anyone in the community who doesn’t want to see that institution restored. But at what cost? And when I say at what cost I mean putting money someplace where you know it’s going to have a return in terms of providing the programs, i.e. the museum, on a regular, consistent basis and there’s measures and steps taken to preserve the collection and to build the collection.” As for the building, she said, “the consensus in the community is that it’s unquestionably a historic landmark we’d like to see restored, but it’s a long way from being at a point where people feel comfortable or confident that will occur.”
Nothing short of a public-private rescue seems likely to change things. In the community block grant application Wright outlined a detailed vision for what the resurrected museum might look like. It’s a beautiful vision complete with a restored building, a research center, a library/archives, meeting rooms, offices, educational programs, special events, outreach activities, guided tours, a professional staff.
Wright suggests it’s the city’s obligation to save the building and institutionalize the museum as community assets in service of education, preservation, history, culture and tourism. He believe once the city steps up, others will follow.
Ben Gray agrees the public-private sectors have an obligation, but he feels the African American community must first demonstrate commitment. “We have to put up something, too. We have to have some skin in the game, whether it be sweat equity, whether it be whatever meager resources we have to bring to the table, we’ve gotta bring that,” he said. “And then we’ve got to say to the broader community, This is the part we can do, these are the things we have done, these are the mechanisms we have put in place, these are the commitments we are willing to make, what are you all going to do now?’”
Doing the right thing aside, Gray said unless the museum has a solid infrastructure in place no one’s going to sink dollars “into a black hole” that lacks the leadership and the tools to succeed over the long haul.
As the politics play out, Calloway does what he can to protect the building, whose interior is covered in tarps to collect water let in by the leaky roof. He suctions out the water as best he can. He’s also exploring options to display portions of the collection somewhere. Ben Gray may have a line on a site.
Meanwhile, Tekla Johnson continues discovering gems in the treasure trove spread out before her. From tidbits about the Stone Soul Picnic to the history of the Eure family to the exploits of Buffalo Soldiers, she said the archives promise to shed a whole new light on the African-American experience in Nebraska.
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