Texas African American History Museum

In 2016, residents of Tyler, Texas, established the Texas African American History Museum with the intention of helping the community both preserve and transcend a painful past.

Like many Texas cities, Tyler has a dark past of slavery and lynchings. From 1857 to 1912, at least ninety-two African Americans were lynched in Tyler. In 1912, Dan Davis was lynched by a mob of thousands after confessing to the assault of the daughter of a local farmer, though his guilt was never corroborated. Davis was burned alive at the public square without trial. Historical preservation of these incidents is not only important, but necessary, and often the action of record-keeping itself can be a form of redress for a community. The Texas African American Museum, located in Tyler, Texas, was created with this idea in mind.

In 2016, the Texas African American Museum was co-founded by Gloria Washington and Clarence Shackleford. Washington felt compelled by a desire to not only preserve African American history but to provide a place for outreach, where African American history would be celebrated more often than just February each year. Shackleford agreed, acknowledging that he had not previously seen any cultural memorabilia to remind him of his ancestors, and was inspired to do so. As a branch of the Empowerment Community Development Corporation, a Tyler-based non-profit devoted to education, preservation, and supporting minority-owned small businesses of which both were board members, the museum began operation. In the context of the heightened racial tensions surrounding the United States Presidential election of 2016, and the events that followed during the ensuing Trump administration, the Texas African American Museum began work on developing and collecting exhibits with Washington serving as curator and executive director.

The parent group of the Texas African American Museum, the Empowerment Community Development Corporation was not much older when it helped establish the new venture. Founded in 2015, the Empowerment Community Development Corporation quickly began to work at benefitting the community with local Tyler pastor Steven Cofer as President. As part of his professed mission, Cofer spent much of his time as a decades-long Tyler resident working on various improvement projects and community outreach events, often taking on leadership roles. He also served as President of the Texas Minority Coalition, a Republican Party-affiliated outreach organization in Texas, and as a board member of the Reformation House of Prayer, a Christian ministry in Tyler. As President of the Empowerment Community Development Corporation, Cofer has played a large role in the continued development of Tyler, and looked to the museum as a continuation of that.

With approval and support from Cofer, Washington and Shackelford started the Texas African American Museum. In the beginning, it was mostly a virtual endeavor, with African American histories and news events posted to a Facebook page and webpage. Eventually, however, Washington and Shackleford had set up a single-room display inside of the Unique Shopping Mall off of West Erwin Street in Tyler. Surrounded by antiques and other goods, the small one-room display housed hundreds of donated photographs, African art displays, and artifacts from local Tyler history that included a poll tax receipt from Smith County. The display operated on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, from eleven-thirty in the morning until five-thirty at night, with free admission. Despite the small space, Washington, Cofer, and Shackleford turned the African American Museum into a large presence in the community. Local news stories in the Tyler Morning Telegraph helped bring attention to African American Tyler residents interested in preserving their local stories and family histories. In 2018, the Texas African American Museum relocated to a larger space on North Border Avenue. Washington took advantage of the larger space by implementing outreach opportunities that included school tours, hosting events, and gathering more local exhibits for display. With a larger and more permanent shelter, the museum began to flourish in the community.

Through cultivating partnerships with groups such as the Democratic Club of Smith County and the Tyler branch of the NAACP, the Texas African American Museum continued its outreach endeavors into the hectic year of 2020. That February, as part of a larger black history month celebration, the museum hosted a ceremony in honor of twenty African American women of East Texas for community service, including LaToyia Sessions-Jordan, Empowerment Community Development Corporation Executive Director and founder of the "I Am Beautiful" movement, and Dr. Shirley McKellar, the councilmember representing District 3, the northwestern district for the city of Tyler. For Juneteenth, during the summer wave of Black Lives Matter protests following the death of George Floyd at the hands of Police Officers, the museum was instrumental in adding seven new historical markers to the “Half Mile of History” display in downtown Tyler. Among the local names added were Arthur Dooley Wilson, who portrayed the character Sam in the 1942 film Casablanca, 1972 Olympic medalist Robert Taylor, and Charles Evan Coleman, the first licensed African-American lawyer in Tyler. Texas College also received a plaque, commemorating the school’s legacy as an 1894 institution for the education of former slaves that now offers several baccalaureate programs.

On November 11, 2020, the City of Tyler donated the former fire station number 4 off of West Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard to the Empowerment Community Development Corporation for the purpose of housing the Texas African American Museum. Cofer, Washington, and many others immediately remarked that there were big plans in store for the Museum. Tyler Mayor Don Warren commented on his hopes for the future of the museum and its potential. Throughout a short history, the Texas African American Museum grew into a prominent feature of Tyler, Texas. During the lockdowns of the 2020 and 2021 Coronavirus pandemic, the museum continued fundraising efforts and renovations to the new location, eventually opening to the public in February of 2021, for black history month, with exhibits that included works photographs of President Abraham Lincoln with the Emancipation Proclamation, and works by Barack and Michelle Obama, the former United States President and First Lady, and first of African-American heritage. Already serving as a bastion for local, state, and national African American history, those involved with the project had visions of incorporating international perspectives as well. From humble beginnings and a virtual presence to a larger role in the Tyler community and a permanent home, the Texas African American Museum and the individuals who established it and maintain it are still working to preserve important historical stories for future generations.

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