Black history advocate worries about museum’s future

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Gwen Robinson stands in front of a quilt displayed at the Black Mecca Museum. Robinson, a tireless researcher of black history, is one of the founders of the museum at the WISH Centre in Chatham.
Gwen Robinson stands in front of a quilt displayed at the Black Mecca Museum. Robinson, a tireless researcher of black history, is one of the founders of the museum at the WISH Centre in Chatham.

Gwen Robinson, a passionate researcher about the history of black people in Chatham-Kent, is not about to sit idly by and watch what she believes is the decline of the Black Mecca Museum.

Robinson, who is in her eighties, is one of the founding members of the museum at the WISH Centre in Chatham.

“My concern here is that it seems as though things are waning rather than building,” she said in an interview with The Voice.

Robinson has also expressed her worries by writing letters to local newspapers in which she cited “poor management” by the Chatham-Kent Black Historical Society.”

She said dismal attendance at the annual John Brown festival has been particularly hurtful.

Robinson laments that the festival, honouring the abolitionist with strong ties to Chatham, only drew about 20 people this year.

She also noted that the annual Black History program at the historic Campbell A.M.E. Church no longer exists.

Robinson, who has spent most of her adult life researching and writing about local black history, said the issue is about preserving the original vision for the historical society: To continually seek the truth about Chatham-Kent’s black history and to propagate this knowledge to future generations so the legacy is never forgotten.

“This isn’t about me,” said Robinson. “This is about the rich history and that I don’t want it lost.”

Robinson hopes that she can spark some action and get more people involved in promoting the museum and the society throughout the community.

“It’s our history; the Canadian mosaic, and we’re part of it,” said Robinson.

The vice-president of the C-K Black Historical Society says Robinson’s concerns are understandable.

While Mark Vincent admitted interest is waning in some of the events, he said the society is not standing still.

He noted that many accomplishments have been achieved since a five-year plan was set in motion in 2009.

These include the Black Mecca Museum achieving official designation as a museum, which allows the facility to access funding through the Community Museum Operating Grant.

Crediting the leadership of executive director Blair Newby and society president Brenda Travis, Vincent said new exhibits have been installed and work has begun to digitize the archival resources.

While Newby has recently returned to school, Vincent noted that she remains at the helm and continues to be passionate about the museum.

“Through Blair, we have accomplished many things,” said Vincent. “We have not lost our way but just taken a new direction.”

The direction includes working closer with the North Buxton Historical Site and Museum, and the Uncle Tom’s Cabin Historical Site.

Vincent said the society has also launched a project that aims to the have the museum’s archival database on its website – www.ckblackhistoricalsociety.org – by the end of this year.
In addition to safeguarding the museum’s collection for years to come, having the information available on the web will make it easier for more people to access it.

“We believe we have kept the same vision, which is to educate and inform, not only in the Municipality of Chatham-Kent but the surrounding areas, of the rich black heritage that we have,” said Vincent.

While admitting there is a long way to go, he hopes the change in direction will help rebuild interest in the museum and the society’s activities.

“We believe in making things not only educational, but we also believe in having fun in what we do, and when you have fun at what you do, people will learn more,” said Vincent.

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