Mikel Holt’s SIGNIFYIN”
I rejoiced when I heard last week that there is a possibility America’s Black Holocaust Museum may soon reopen.
Not just because I worked with its founder, James Cameron, and thus knew of his ambition to keep alive the museum that brought to Milwaukee and America the atrocities that shaped this country and continue to mold Black America.
The museum closed nearly a decade ago. As with other historic Black institutions, various government and philanthropic entities, including the city, promised, at the time, they would work to reopen it if for no other reason than its status as an anchor for the Bronzeville project.
But, you know what usually happens when the government promises stuff to Black people…
But a development project that will receive WHEDA funds has opened the door for a new home for the museum, thus returning it to a physical existence versus its current digital/online state.
I’ve visited the website, but it didn’t do justice to actual viewing of artifacts and images of the “Great Maafa,” which Cameron, the only known survivor of a lynching, hoped to bring to light.
The author, philosopher and educator conceived a museum that would bring awareness to the Great Maafa—from the shores of the Motherland, to his survival of a lynching attempt during his youth in Indiana, to his discovery of a Klu Klux Klan outfit found in a house near Villard Avenue a few decades ago.
Cameron’s vision was to educate African Americans about our survival amid apartheid, including some of the worse atrocities inflicted on a people simply because of the color of our skin.
The Holocaust Museum, which some Whites found offensive because it was a reminder of their ancestors’ role in the atrocities that put a stain on America’s great promise.
We desperately need the museum, not just to remind and inform White folks, but also to educate sleeping and ignorant Black people about where we came from—and what we continue to go through—and how we survived.
But, my jubilation was not merely because Cameron’s dream may soon be restored, but also because its resurrection may spark a new museum addition that highlights the last decade during which a significant number of Black institutions and businesses were swallowed up during a socioeconomic tsunami, that may some day be viewed as a socioeconomic holocaust of sorts.
Seems like one day we were controlling key organizations that empowered Black residents through services and programs.
We wrote out checks from one of two locally owned Black banks. We ate at one of a half dozen Black restaurants and Black arts groups entertained us.
We spent every first weekend of August at the lakefront, enjoying and immersed in our unique cultural offerings at the premiere African ethnic event in America.
But then we woke up and they were gone, some through their own ineptitude or corruption, others as a result of a political paradigm shift.
And others as a byproduct of a coordinated effort to not only shift resources to non-Black entities, but to introduce Band Aides for the myriad of Black problems while creating jobs for White missionaries who would become poverty pimps.
Who knew that they offered a college course called “Poverty Pimpology 101”?
The college course—offered at several “liberal arts” colleges, was an introduction to an insidious scheme that keeps the poor poor, undermines African American culture and keeps “victims” dependent upon services that make them comfortable in their misery.
The true beneficiaries of this scheme are the organizational employees, many suburban and supposedly liberal whites, mostly white liberals who would probably never venture into the central city were it not for a payday—and I’m not talking about the candy bar.
Those of us who paid attention and recognized the ramifications of the demise of Black entities tried to warn folks, but either out of political blindness or ignorance, our cries fell upon deaf ears.
OIC, CYD, Urban Day School, Inner City Arts Council, African World Festival, and you may as well add to the list the Legislative Black and Hispanic Caucus. Like smoke from one of those vapor cigarettes (or the blunts I see too many Black teens smoking), they were gone.
And the lost businesses? Legacy and North Milwaukee State Bank top the list. And what about Stellas, Fred Jones’ car dealership, IHOP, Lincoln Mobile…the list goes on, and on and on.
You could weep a few tears over the lost revenues flowing out of the Black community, but my heart also goes out to the lost jobs and opportunities at both non-profit and for-profit entities.
The demise of OIC (Opportunities Industrialization Center) stung the deepest.
Not only have hundreds of jobs been lost, including several scores of professional positions, but also millions of dollars have been redirected away from our community to the suburbs, or other “minority” neighborhoods.
With little uproar, and even less anger by Black politicians who were elected to safeguard those institutions, the cornerstones of our community went the way of movie theaters and roller rinks in the central city.
Some of those institutions committed suicide of sorts. OIC imploded in a cloud of corruption. Several people went to prison before the cloud rescinded.
But there was more to that story. OIC was the primary funder of several cultural endeavors, including important media components and the African World Festival.
OIC also served as one of the state’s largest training grounds for Black professionals, whose services and expertise empowered dozens of smaller groups and hundreds of individuals.
It is not a coincidence that most of those Black professionals had to move outside Milwaukee and the state to find employment commiserate with their valuable skills.
That was both a result of Milwaukee’s historic hostility to upward mobility for African Americans, as a well as the culture of the non-profit sector, which allows few people of color through their locked doors.
There’s another part of that story that has escaped public scrutiny.
None of them were involved in the corruption at OIC, a soap opera of fraud and venality that included kickbacks and misappropriation of funds and other vices that resulted in several indictments and the imprisonment of a powerful Black politician.
When the smoke cleared on OIC’s implosion, the umbrella organization was on the auction block, thousands of poor were left without services, and dozens of Black professionals were left unemployed.
For many the story ended on that tragic note. But what happened next was even more alarming.
Tyrone Dumas was named interim director in an attempt to save the organization. I helped with a plan to reorganize the board, restructure the organization, and introduce a partnership with city, county and state government. Surprisingly (or maybe not so) the only politician to agree to work to keep OIC alive was the Republican county executive. The Democratic mayor and governor turned their backs and not by coincidence OIC’s various programs were divided up among White agencies.
OIC’s demise, the shift in resources and control of poverty programming didn’t stop there. Harambee Ombudsman lost funding to a White agency that told funders it could do a better job running programs for Black Milwaukeeans than Black administrators. White arts organizations followed that paradigm and took funds away from the Inner City Arts Council and Ko-Thi.
CYD (Career Youth Development) found itself in a similar situation. With the death of its founder, the politically connected Jeannetta Robinson, the powers-that-be quickly vamped on CYD and before you could blink your eyes…poof, it was defunded and its programs shifted to missionary agencies.
The political scheme to reward its liberal white supporters was foretold when a major anti-pregnancy grant targeting Black teens was awarded to a White suburban agency that admitted it didn’t have employees willing to work in the central city.
The solution? Subcontract with some of the same Black agencies they took the money from.
Don’t be confused by what is going on here.
It is no coincidence that SDC (the Social Development Commission) has lost its largest grants for poverty programs to White and Hispanic agencies.
Further note, when SDC lost its Head Start contract to another agency, it had a snowball affect that is still reverberating. SDC contracted with several Black agencies—serving Black people—including Northcott Neighborhood House and Urban Day School. Northcott is suffering, and Urban Day is closing as a result.
Neither found a receptive ear from the agency that took over the Head Start program.
Observers who are not tied to a political party that sustains the poverty pimp paradigm, or who have no financial stake in the non-profit community, see this phenomena for what it is: a two sided coin that does not bode well for the Black community.
Some of the financial shift is based on capturing financial resources to sustain organizations. White agencies generally come out on top because they have the connections, the resources and the political backing.
As resources (spelled poverty program grants) started to dwindle a decade ago when Republicans controlled the legislature, competition for the dollars intensified and Black agencies came out on the short end of the stick.
The other side of the coin is more ominous. Some of those agencies have as their mission appeasement, making the poor comfortable in poverty; versus empowering them to left themselves out of their circumstances.
The lesson here is that the missionary agencies need poverty to continue in order to make money. To empower the poor is to work yourself out of business.
The Democratic Party, unfortunately, has been a partner in this crime. That’s why whenever a proposal is introduced to empower the poor, our “friends” and “benefactors,” shoot it down, telling us they know what’s good for us.
And since Black politicians are almost exclusively Democrats, most sing those lyrics without understanding the melody.
Some observers believe the school choice controversy provided an example of this social dichotomy. The program, at its very essence, is about resources, and who should control them, the educracy—teachers union—or parents, who can control where to send their children (like parents with income do, including Barack Obama).
Some Black parents chose to abandon the public school system (taking their tax money with them) for the private schools because they felt those schools better educated their children and empowered them to boot.
Now, interestingly, more and more White run schools are dominating the school choice system. That’s not to say they aren’t performing, but here again, you find few Black administrators in charge.
A similar scenario could be said of Black businesses. Competition is at the core of capitalism, so it is not surprising that many Black businesses are overrun by large White corporations.
A case can also be made that most of the Black businesses that went under of late—particularly Legacy and North Milwaukee State Banks, died from self-inflicted wounds (with ammunition supplied by a failing economy, and Wall Street collapse).
Our corner grocers sold out to foreign interests, and the restaurants may have died due to poor marketing and poor business decisions.
It cannot be over looked, however, that Milwaukee, despite being a minority majority city, does not have a business participation program, nor does local government prioritize Black business development and sustainability. That’s why the best-kept non-secret is that scores of relocated Black businesses find success elsewhere.
If we want to slow the demise of Black institutions, or provide a blueprint for business success and community empowerment, we need to study where we’ve been and how we got here. And since that story would best be an exhibit of tragedy and deceit, political intrigue and backstabbing, the Black Holocaust Museum would be an appropriate place to house it.