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Building What’s Next

With plans in place for a new location, Richmond's Black History Museum aspires to a larger story.


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The print version of this story misstated the total amount the museum is attempting to raise. It has been corrected in this online version.

Stacy Burrs unlocks the door of 00 Clay St. and apologizes for how cold it is. The heat hasn't been running. The lights are off, and they stay off while he briefly shows off one of the Black History Museum's exhibits.

The museum is mostly closed, and operations are in a holding pattern. But in its basement, the future is being mapped out. The room is dominated by artistic renderings of a sprawling, modern-meets-19th-century building illuminated by floodlights.

"I can't overstate how large a project this is for such a small organization," says Burrs, a longtime board president who recently stepped in as chief executive officer.

For more than 20 years the museum has served as a go-to resource for researchers and a standard bearer of the legacy of Jackson Ward, at one time the city's largest black community — thriving, prosperous and often called the Harlem of the South. In the 1950s, Interstate 95 was routed through its heart.

"I see a really great future," says Burrs' predecessor, Maureen Elgersman Lee. "I see the highest potential for the museum as being this central gathering place for the public, but also a galvanizing place for the various African-American organizations."

To achieve that, Burrs is heading a multimillion-dollar fundraising campaign to renovate and build out the nearby Leigh Street Armory. Constructed in 1895 for the 1st Battalion of Virginia Volunteers, it's believed to be the only armory built exclusively for a black militia. So far, the campaign has brought in $4 million of the $13 million needed for a three-story museum with a roof gallery, cafe and performance space in the old armory.

Set to begin next year, construction should be completed in time for an early 2015 grand opening, Burrs says, when museum-goers will discover is a radically different place than that which sat unassumingly on Clay Street.

"We're going to try to live up to the name of the organization," Burrs says. "The museum up until now has been a Richmond-based, almost Jackson Ward-focused museum. We want to now pay attention to the history of people of African descent starting first in Richmond and then working out through the rest of the state."

How does this fit in with plans for a slave heritage site and museum in Shockoe Bottom that the mayor announced last week?

Burrs says the slave sites in Shockoe Bottom need to be protected and preserved, and that plans there "provide a real opportunity to showcase a sense of reconciliation." He and the Slave Trail Commission chairwoman, Delores McQuinn, have been meeting in recent months to discuss their projects.

"The context of those meetings is collaboration and support for one another," he says.

He declined to talk about what investment in the proposed heritage site could mean for the museum in its quest for funding.

Instead, Burrs stressed that the Black History Museum is about more than any one aspect of African-American history. "We've taken to saying that part of our ambition is that we're trying to attract suits to swags," he says. "It's a play on the [Virginia Museum of Fine Arts'] notion that they're attracting ties to tattoos. It's ingenious, and it's what you have to do."

That means interactive multimedia exhibits, he says. It means creating a space where Maggie Walker and a sneaker exhibit exist side by side. It could mean causing controversy.

"It's important for people to have a safe space to have conversations around ethnicity, class, identity," Burrs says. "We're almost certainly going to do something around LGBT rights and civil rights. We'll almost certainly make some people angry about that."

Burrs says the museum's new mission has been encouraged by local and state government, corporate donors and the community. With a construction date looming, however, the first goal is hitting the fundraising mark, which will be tackled in two separate campaigns.

It's a lot of money, and Burrs says the museum must loom large in the lives of Richmonders for it to succeed.

"It's not going to work if people don't see it as that third place you go to — the first being your job, the second being your church," he says. "This is not going to work if the community doesn't embrace it."


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