Coinciding with its 150th anniversary, the Delaware Historical Society announced a $6.6 million campaign that will establish the Center for African American Heritage.
Creating the center will be one of several improvements slated for the historical society’s holdings along N. Market Street in Wilmington. In a news conference, Thursday, Delaware Historical Society CEO Scott Loehr said 59 donors have already contributed more than $5 million towards the effort entitled Sesquicentennial Campaign: Ensuring a Future for Delaware’s Past.
Among the initial investors, the city of Wilmington contributed $1 million towards the campaign.
“The funds will finance improvements to the Delaware History Museum, to Old Town Hall and will constuct a two-story glass connector between the two buildings,” said Loehr, who is confident the nonprofit will be able to raise the balance of the funds through public donations, grants and corporate gifts. “Yes, there are physical improvements, but this is really more about program improvements.”
In the public history world, Loehr said “program improvements” means more exhibitions, permanent and rotating, as well as improved and repurposed spaces to support more programs for school children and adults.
“So really, across the spectrum, some exciting new things that will really transform this organization,” he said.
Stakeholders took part in a ceremonial groundbreaking with construction set to begin next week; March 2016 is the scheduled completion date.
Center for African American Heritage controversy
Plans for the center have been years in the making, and were finalized in January 2012 under then-Mayor Jim Baker’s leadership.
Loehr said the new center “will allow a voice that has been not heard enough in the narrative in Delaware history, and that is the African American experience, to come forth and be part of the mainstream history here in Delaware.”
The center will be housed inside the already existing history museum, featuring dedicated space for presenting the contributions of African American Delawareans.
Community activist and campaign co-chair, Bebe Coker, has been involved in the development of the capital program for three years.
“The Center for African American Heritage is a major step forward in ensuring that the contributions of all Delawareans, African Americans in particular, are part of the historical record,” said Coker, who is African American. “The Delaware Historical Society has undertaken a long overdue project with cultural sensitivity and professionalism.”
Opponents of the historical society’s proposal protested the center’s location on N. Market St. They felt the east side of Wilmington would have been a more appropriate location due to its concentration of African American history and residents.
Critics also accused the Delaware Historical Society of being a predominantly white organization that would not be able to properly tell the story of African American history.
In addition to the aforementioned improvements, the capital campaign will also allow the historical society to reopen Old Town Hall. The historical building has been closed to the public for decades. The building’s HVAC system does not work, there are no functioning restrooms and it’s not wheelchair-accessible.
Once upgrades are made, Old Town Hall will come online as rotating exhibit space.
Renderings also show plans for a garden behind Old Town Hall and the Delaware History Museum, visible from the proposed glass connector between the two buildings. The green space which stretches back to King St. was dubbed “King Street Gardens.”
Take a look at the Delaware Historical Society’s renderings below.