Decades in the making: African-American historical museum expected to open in Ann Arbor

Museum officials look to 2019 opening date

Fundraising Co-Chair Bob Elliott and Board Chair Marlys Deen pose outside the proposed site for the African-American Cultural and Historical Museum of Washtenaw County (Credit: Meredith Bruckner)
Fundraising Co-Chair Bob Elliott and Board Chair Marlys Deen pose outside the proposed site for the African-American Cultural and Historical Museum of Washtenaw County (Credit: Meredith Bruckner)

ANN ARBOR – Sitting on a corner lot at 1528 Pontiac Trail is a beautiful historic brick home with a sign out front reading: "Proposed site for the African-American Cultural & Historical Museum of Washtenaw County."

The museum was established in 1993, and its directors hope to open the doors to its permanent home in the spring of next year.

The building was originally located on Washington Street at the intersection with Division and was marked for demolition. It was saved, transported to Pontiac Trail across the Broadway bridge and donated to the museum by Peter and Rita Heydon. 

Power lines had to be cut to allow for the massive home to pass through certain areas. 


The building's original location on Washington St. (Credit: AACHM)


Moving the building to Pontiac Trail (Credit: AACHM)

According to Board Chair Marlys Deen, the location of the site is symbolic.

"It’s appropriate that the museum sits here because Pontiac Trail was the Underground Railroad route in Ann Arbor," she said.

According Deen the museum was started, "For people who grew up in Ann Arbor to know what it was like, what school they went to, what activities they participated in. Because African-Americans have been a part of this community since the 1830s. And when the village of Ann Arbor was incorporated in 1833, there were citizens who were opposed to the institution of slavery.

"(African-Americans lived) in the Lower Town area, on Broadway. That’s basically where the village of Ann Arbor was established. Then they began to move over the Broadway bridge to the other side to establish the African-American neighborhood there in the Kerrytown area."


(Credit: AACHM) 

For years, the museum has been giving presentations to local schools and has been working with the Historic Downtown Tour to help preserve the history of African-Americans in the area.

The museum has three facets to its collection: The arts, the Underground Railroad tour and oral histories.

"Our Underground Railroad tours are called 'Journey to Freedom' and they’re bus tours," said Deen. "They happen several times a year, particularly in the warmer weather. They can be available to groups, too, through appointment. Our special exhibit, 'Midnight Journey,' has been shared with other places, such as Grand Valley State University and Uncle Tom’s Cabin Historic Site in Dresden, Ontario."

"Journey to Freedom" is an official member of the Department of the Interior, National Parks Service and the Underground Railroad Network to Freedom Program.

As part of the "In Their Own Words: The Living Oral History Project," in partnership with the Ann Arbor District Library, 20 interviews were recorded with local African-Americans that cover topics like race, employment, housing and faith are available to listen to here.


(Credit: AACHM)


(Credit: AACHM) 

In addition, the museum has an oral history collection titled "In Their Own Words – Voices from the Past A.P. Marshall African-American Oral Histories" in partnership with the Ypsilanti District Library. The collection is comprised of interviews conducted over 40 years ago by EMU professor A.P. Marshall with dozens of African-American community leaders in Ypsilanti. 

These oral histories will be used for research and will be on display at the museum.

"African American history often lives in the boxes, attics, closets and basements of private homes in family collections. The African American Cultural & Historical Museum of Washtenaw County’s goal is to document and display our local cultural arts, history and contributions – and place it in a regional, state, national and international context." - AACHM

Deen spends much of her time at the Bentley Historical Library at the University of Michigan and the Ann Arbor District Library, diving into the past through historical documents and records. 


(Credit: AACHM)

"The Ann Arbor District Library has the abolitionists’ newspaper 'Signal of Liberty' digitized," she said. "It was published between 1841 and 1848."

The 2019 opening will depend on the museum's second annual fundraiser later this year, following a successful fundraising event in 2017.

Last year, Deen put in a call to her childhood friend Beverely Elliott, wife of former NBA player Bob Elliott, both born and raised Ann Arborites.

"Last year was the museum’s 20th anniversary and Marlys called my wife," explained fundraising co-chair Bob Elliott. "Marlys knew that (Beverely) and I had been involved in a lot of philanthropic endeavors and she knows how to put on a fundraising event. She’s done it with the NBA Wives Association -- they’ll raise $1 million in a night."


Bob and Beverely Elliott at the AACHM fundraiser on Dec. 3, 2017 (Credit: AACHM)

Beverely, a member of the museum's advisory board, organized the event at Travis Pointe Country Club in Saline. The goal was an attendance of 250 guests, but they reached the club's 300-person maximum capacity.

Along with several corporate sponsors, members of the Detroit chapter of the Retired NBA Players Association were in attendance, as well as former Detroit Mayor Dave Bing.

"I was amazed at how many people, when CEO Joyce Hunter and Marlys were talking about the events and the facets that they have, people were like, 'We didn’t know that,'" explained Elliott. "But you’ve got to get the word out and let people know that this museum will be here."

"This is a special community," added Elliott, who has lived in Tuscon, Arizona, since his college years. "You find out how much you had after you leave. And it is so true."


(Credit: AACHM)

This year's fundraiser will be held on Dec. 2 at the Sheraton Ann Arbor from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m.

For more information about the event and sponsorship opportunities, click here.

To learn more about the AACHM, visit www.aachm.org.

To make a donation to the museum, click here.

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