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Published: October 13, 1999
America's Black Holocaust Museum
By John L. Hoh, Jr.
America is filled with museums. There are museums for our history local, national, and corporate. There are museums dedicated to things long gone from the American scene. There are museums dedicated to some of the more bizarre. Most museums look at the positives in history and society. Rarely are museums dedicated to the negative.
In Milwaukee, Wisconsin, one such museum exists. It exists to share the history, tragedy, suffering, and torment of that "peculiar institution" slavery and its aftermath after the Civil War, right up to the Civil Rights movement.
This museum is the creation of James Cameron. Mr. Cameron himself lived a dark part of our nation's history.
On August 7, 1930, at age sixteen James Cameron's life changed forever. A day before, he and two other young Black men were arrested for the robbery, rape and assault of a White couple in Marion, Indiana. While Mr. Cameron sat in a cell in the Grant County Jail, a lynch mob numbering into the thousands formed outside.
The mob comes into the jail and grabs one of the men accused, with James, of the crime. He is beaten unconscious, dragged outside, and lynched. The second man is then given the same treatment. (The bodies of these two men, Tom Shipp, 18, and Abraham Smith, 19, hanging from a tree is depicted in a famous and disturbing photograph.) The mob now comes for James. He is beaten and dragged out to the tree where his friends now hang and the rope is placed around his neck. It is at this moment that James remembers hearing what he describes as an angelic voice above the crowd say "Take this boy back, he had nothing to do with any killing or rape."
Suddenly the hands that were beating him are now helping him. The rope is taken from around his neck and the crowd clears a path for him to walk back to the jail. In interviews he later conducted with people who were in the crowd, no one remembers hearing any voice. Their reason for why the crowd did not lynch James: "You were lucky that night." Though James never admitted any guilt in the assault (he admits that he was there), he served 4 years in prison. The female victim later changed her story and confirmed that James had no part in the assault. Cameron received an official pardon from Indiana Governor Evan Bayh.
After he was paroled, James Cameron moved to Milwaukee. During his career, he held several jobs including table waiter, laborer, construction worker, laundry worker, salesman, janitor, ditch digger, record shop owner, theater custodian, junkman, newspaper reporter, shoeshine boy and cardboard-box factory worker. He also organized the Madison County Branch of the NAACP in Madison and other chapters in Muncie and South Bend, Indiana. Upon retirement, he opened a rug and upholstery cleaning business.
In 1983, after not being able to find a publisher for the book he started writing in prison, Cameron took out a second mortgage on his home to publish "A Time of Terror", his autobiographical account of what happened that night in 1930.
The following year, after hearing of plans to build a Jewish Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., James Cameron decided that a Black Holocaust Museum was needed. "It seems that every group of people have a chance to erect museums and memorials and statues in our country so that the world can never forget."
In 1988, he founded America's Black Holocaust Museum, Inc., a non-profit museum devoted to preserving the history of lynching in the United States and the struggle of Black people for equality. Part of Cameron's philosophy is, "The Klan should be stamped out, and the people should be the ones to stamp it out."
Recently, the Black Holocaust Museum featured artifacts recovered from the wreck of the Henrietta Marie, a slave ship that sank off the Florida coast in 1700. Included among the artifacts were the shackles used on the people in involuntary servitude right down to the small hand irons used on children. A map showed the close proximity each slave was to each other basically two square feet for each slave, and each slave ate, slept, prayed, and relieved themselves in their own small spots. Slaves were also chained together if one escaped, several would have to escape together, risking death.
The Henrietta Marie also revealed other secrets. Captains of slave ships were known to have crewmembers put to death shortly before arriving in port. This was done to save on payroll sailors would receive once the ship reached port.
The Black Holocaust Museum contains exhibits of slavery days, lynchings, even the stereotypes blacks were subjected to in the media. Lest you think all was negative, people assisting in the abolition movement are mentioned. Touching is the story of the former slave ship captain, John Newton, who converted to Christianity. Once converted, he also dedicated his life to the abolition of slavery.
The major focus, however, is on the lynching and violence directed at African-Americans a fact that James Cameron faced firsthand. All too often we forget about this activity that occurred in our nation. We study the Civil War in detail, but know little about the following period of Reconstruction which, more than anything, shaped the attitudes and behaviors of most white people and created the violence that has come to be associated with the Klan and the supremacist movement.
The museum itself is rather small but hopefully funds can be raised to house a larger collection. It seems that there is much more that can be said than is contained in the present museum. When the special "Wreck of the Henrietta Marie" was featured, part of the regular exhibit was stored away to make room.
People of all races should see this museum. I was privileged on my first visit to be led by a tour guide of Mexican descent. While the museum didn't touch her ancestry, she could vividly portray human suffering. Especially touching was the part when she pointed out various things about the Henrietta Mariethe children's shackles, the cramped quarters, the death toll the trans-Atlantic trip took upon its victims.
Holocaust Museum, Inc.
2233 N. Fourth Street
Milwaukee, Wisconsin USA 53212
donations can be sent, by check or money order, to:
America's Black Holocaust Museum, Inc.
c/o James Cameron
North Milwaukee State Bank
5630 West Fond du Lac Avenue
Milwaukee, Wisconsin USA 53216
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