Museum helps to share African-American story

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Story and photo by Rod King

Fort Wayne’s African/African American Historical Society Museum, located at 436 E. Douglas St., is home to northeast Indiana’s largest collection of original African art.

Seventy percent of the more than 130 pieces of art were donated to the museum by Tony Ogunsusi, a Nigerian chief who came to Fort Wayne in the late 1970s. It includes a wide variety of original polished wooden statues, drums, masks, spears, shields and a number of unique musical instruments.

In addition, one of the upstairs exhibit rooms is dedicated to local sports stars Rod Woodson, a veteran of 17 years in the NFL, and the late Johnny Bright, college and Canadian Football League star. The exhibits include uniforms, equipment, photos and memorabilia.

Another room focuses on “firsts” in the community with photos and background information on the first black men and women police officers, first black Central High School valedictorians and salutatorians, first black judges and first black politicians.

The Accomplished Ones, which fills another room, tells of individuals such as sports agent Eugene Parker, Fort Wayne Community Schools Superintendent Wendy Robinson and Oscar Micheaux, author, film director and independent producer of more than 44 movies in the 1920s and 1930s.

The first floor is where the art collection is located, along with a room highlighting products created by black scientists, inventors and innovators. A Reconstruction-era black politician exhibit highlights Southern personalities.

Bryant Rozier, volunteer creative director, is busy collecting a digital library of Central High School graduates, working on a radio program to present moments of black history and developing a comic book outreach project designed to get kids interested in black history.

As John Aden, volunteer executive director, points out, “This is the only center of its kind in northeast Indiana. In fact, the nearest similar facility is in Evansville. It’s basically a labor of love that was started by a group of 13 founders in 1999 and is still a work in progress.”

The building once housed the Phyllis Wheatley Center, which offered a quilting program and sponsored a women’s basketball team. Hana Stith and Condra Ridley were instrumental in purchasing the house from the Ministerial Alliance and establishing the museum with the art collection in 2001.

“Our goal,” said Aden, a Harding High School and Wabash College graduate who holds a doctorate in history from Indiana University, “is to enlighten visitors on African history as well as the achievements of African-Americans in Fort Wayne and the United States. Most people don’t realize that the street we’re located on was originally called Montgomery Street.

“I particularly enjoy telling groups, much to their surprise, that the trans-Atlantic slave trade also made many blacks wealthy. One in particular was Chico Franque who was a shipbuilder in Africa. Ships built by him took slaves to Brazil.

“William Warfield came here in 1894 and became one of the first black landlords and real estate moguls. He purchased homes in the area around the museum and rented apartments to black railroad workers. Songs written by him are in the Library of Congress. His daily journal, which covered more than 27 years, is kept in the Allen County Public Library. We hope, sometime in the future, to turn it into a book.”

That list of songs includes “We Love Old Fort Wayne.”

“Another of our goals is to get the house listed on the National Register of Historic Places,” Aden said. “In addition we would ultimately like to expand to a state-of-the-art facility with a broader array of hands-on exhibits and space that would enable us to host larger groups. It’s a struggle being a small not-for-profit organization. We rely on grants and donations from corporations and individuals and we’re presently exploring e-commerce as a method of raising funds.”

February, which is Black History Month, finds the volunteer staff busy making presentations in schools, expanding the comic book program and hosting visitors at the museum. Tours of the museum are by appointment and can be made by calling Erma Belt at (260) 410-4334 or by e-mailing the museum at officiallyaaahsm@gmail.com. Admission is $7 for adults and $5 for children.