June 29, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Sitting in a quiet space in a now very quiet Crossroads Mall, the Great Plains Black History Museum is currently a bit underwhelming.

It is a pleasing space, but sparse. As part of the current exhibit, the walls are lined with skillful pencil drawings of some of the greatest African-American figures of the last century. But, one longs for more than drawings.

Take a step back, though. Consider where the Museum has been. Closed down for a decade. Artifacts unseen, in disarray and, in some cases, moldering. And consider where the museum is going. Plans are taking shape for a new $15.5 million facility, The Great Plains Black History Museum, Science & Technology Center, that will not only include display space for the museum’s collection, but also ample state-of-the-art exhibits, labs, and classrooms for the area’s high school science and technology scholars.

For now, the Crossroads location is a place-holder of sorts, says the chairman of the museum board and architect of the museum’s rebirth, Jim Beatty. “We’re building energy here. This is a step in a process that’s heading to a very exciting place,” he says.

On a recent weekday afternoon, only one person perused the collection of portraits by local artist Terry Diel. That one guest, though, carries an excitement present in a much broader audience in this city. Darrell Sterling, who works nearby in Crossroads, grew up in North Omaha. He says he knows the energy is there for the museum to “become something great.”

“I went to the old museum down on Lake (Street) in grade school,” Sterling says. “It was a meaningful experience and honestly, there wasn’t even much there. I’m thrilled the museum is back, that it’s growing. It should be, it deserves to be. This city needs it. It’s important to the community.”

“For a city the size of Omaha to not have a black history museum, it’s embarrassing,” Beatty says. “It’s long overdue.”

Volunteers are in the process of cataloging and securing the current artifacts, some of which have been in danger of decay sitting in the leaky old museum structure. Other parts of the collection languished in a storage locker. “The collection is safe,” Beatty says. “Now it’s time for it to grow.”

As fundraising-raising efforts expand (which even includes efforts by state Sen. Rick Kolowski to generate up to $8 million in matching state funds for the project), the Crossroads site will continue to bring in quality exhibits. Next up—just in time for the College World Series—will be a collection of artifacts and interpretive pieces from the Negro League Baseball Museum in Kansas City. The exhibit will include photos and other items from the Omaha museum’s own collection, including photos of the city’s early African-American men’s and women’s baseball teams.

Board member Terri Sanders, who, on a recent day, was the lone greeter/de-facto curator at the Crossroad location, says that she, like Beatty, sees the current quiet times as temporary. “Part of the process,” she says.

“We’re thrilled to be where we are,” she says. “We have a nice place that people can come into, see what’s happening, and hopefully get involved and be a part of this big leap forward.”

How big? The new facility is slated to have 14 full-time employees. That’s 14 times more than the common current staffing level of one.

“It’s a little quiet sometimes right now,” she says. “That won’t be true in the future.”

small