Museums are not just buildings with items hanging on the walls, multimedia elements running on a loop, and/or artifacts enclosed in glass cases. They are repositories of history, people, achievements, and life.
This is particularly true for museums that share stories from all over the African Diaspora – from the first slaves taken from their homelands and thrust upon American shores to iconic figures in contemporary society—and everyone and everything in between.
Located in former homes, famous buildings, historic black neighborhoods, and other sites all over Kentucky, these museums were designed to preserve, protect, and share African American legacies and treasures of the past and present for generations to follow.
Take a look inside these six amazing museums, each offering its own unique insights into the black experience.
African American Museum
Although simply called the African American Museum, it is anything but simple. On the contrary, this museum in Bowling Green is a rich collection of exhibits and artifacts highlighting the significant history of the African Americans who lived in this area during the early 20th century.
Two of the predominant communities here at that time were Jonesville and Shake Rag, both founded by former slaves and chock full of the typical well-established and thriving entities one would find in any modern-day neighborhood – churches, retail establishments, medical offices, restaurants and nightclubs, schools, and the like.
As in many other parts of the country, over time these entities were lost due to demolition and/or redevelopment. Yet the area’s descendants came together to create this museum to preserve these early stories, history, and legacy, as well as other African American accomplishments in the decades to follow.
The museum is situated on the Western Kentucky University campus in the Erskine House Building within the former but rejuvenated Jonesville neighborhood.
Kentucky Center for African American Heritage
Spanning approximately 63,000 square feet on the site of an historic trolley barn complex, the Kentucky Center for African American Heritage in Louisville plays a very important role in sharing the cultural contributions, heritage, and history African Americans have made in the Bluegrass State as well as throughout the African Diaspora.
It’s important to note that the Center is not just a museum, rather a rich repository of priceless artifacts and memorabilia, enhanced via interactive exhibits, photography, works of art, and other elements. These features are peppered across several themed “alleyways” of black history, including the Civil Rights Movement and the Civil War, among others.
Throughout the year visitors can also enjoy a host of entertaining, enlightening, and inspiring artistic performances, panel discussions, and festivals relative to the black experience.
Harriet Beecher Stowe Slavery to Freedom Museum
Although she only stayed in Kentucky for a short period of time, abolitionist, educator, and author Harriet Beecher Stowe is honored at the Harriet Beecher Stowe Slavery to Freedom Museum.
Located in Maysville, the museum is situated inside of the Marshall Key House. Built in 1807, this brick Georgian townhouse named after Colonel Marshall Key, the nephew of U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Marshall, is where in 1833, Stowe came to visit one of her students—Elizabeth Key—the daughter of Colonel Key. During that visit she was taken to the nearby courthouse to watch a slave auction. This visit was believed to have shaken her to the core.
Historical accounts differ as to whether witnessing the slave auction, or the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, was the inspiration for her now best-selling work, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, originally published in 1852.
African American Heritage Center
“Small but mighty” may be the best way to describe the African American Heritage Center in Franklin.
Located in a beautifully restored Victorian home, the museum is a wonderful repository of African American life in this area of the state, in particular in the Harristown Historic District. It was, and still is, here that several generations of black residents made significant contributions to all areas of the cultural, religious, political, and social landscape. Here visitors can enjoy a wide range of activities, workshops, special programs, and more.
The district is also listed on the National Register of Historic Places and there are numerous organizations that host and promote businesses, events, and other aspects of Afrocentric interest throughout the year.
Roots 101 African American Museum
Another African American museum located in Louisville is the Roots 101 African American Museum. Its name is said to be a nod to an entry-level academic course—“101”—while its location overlooking the Ohio River speaks volumes about Louisville history and Kentucky’s position—literally and figuratively—as a pro-slavery state bordered to the north by Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio - all of which were free states back in the day.
Nevertheless, the history and lessons shared here go far beyond the Bluegrass State, encompassing vivid exhibits and gallery spaces, interactive activities, and enlightening programs that together highlight numerous aspects of the African American experience and positive influence their forefathers and mothers have had on a global scale.
Each level of the four-story museum offers a different and unique perspective from slavery through today’s contemporary black artisans, performers, writers, historians, and others.
Last but certainly not least, Russellville is home to an exceptional assemblance of six beautifully restored historic buildings, together called the SEEK MUSEUM. Four of the buildings are grouped together in what is called the SEEK MUSEUM in The Bottom. Spanning over 150 years of history going back to the Civil War, this assemblance illuminates the many facets of discrimination from outright violence against blacks, to segregation, the Civil Rights Movement, and of course, the horrors of slavery. Added significance comes from the fact that the buildings are situated in a National Register Historic District where a flourishing commercial and residential neighborhood settled by freed blacks once stood.
The SEEK MUSEUM at The Bibb House offers an intimate look into the often-untold story of slave owners who eventually played major roles in Emancipation.
It was here that a Revolutionary War soldier by the name of Major Richard Bibb lorded over hundreds of slaves, many of whom had lived on his family’s property for generations. What’s left of the plantation originally built in 1817 is the Bibb home and another structure which housed the laundry and kitchen. Here visitors learn not only about the oppression the slaves lived under, but also Bibb’s reversal of his “family tradition” when he removed the confines of slavery for over 100 people prior to his death in 1839.
Written by Lysa Allman-Baldwin
January 17, 2022