BALTIMORE — On the eve of the Civil War, Maryland slave Isaac Dorsey was granted his freedom. He stored the legal proof of his new status in a handcrafted metal tube and passed it down to his descendants.
His great-grandson, James Dorsey, recently donated these family treasures to the just-opened Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture. But the $34-million institution, the largest African American museum on the East Coast, almost didn't get the gift. A businessman and church leader, James Dorsey "once considered destroying the documents because of conflicted feelings about his family's suffering in times of slavery," an exhibition label says.
The Maryland museum is part of a wave of new African American museums, and Dorsey's ambivalence about his past suggests one of the main challenges they face. Not only must these institutions wrestle with contentious and often emotional historical questions, but they must do so without scaring away donors or tourists.
"You cannot bring up the nobility of the African American experience in America without also bringing out the horror," said the Rev. Joseph Darby, a member of the steering committee for the planned International African American Museum in Charleston, S.C. At the same time, he said, "you have to acknowledge that [the museum] also has to turn a profit."
Discussions of slavery, however difficult, represent a necessary return to "ground zero" of American race relations, said Ira Berlin, professor of history at the University of Maryland and a fellow at the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard.
The museum boom, Berlin says, is part of a larger cultural conversation that has spawned books, films and television documentaries, including PBS' recent "Slavery and the Making of America." Monticello, Mount Vernon and other historic sites now make a point of exploring the contributions of African Americans to the plantation economy.
"The fact that there's this extraordinary popular engagement with the question of slavery is a really striking phenomenon," said Berlin, who is co-editing a catalog for a show debuting at the New York Historical Society in October, on slavery in New York. "It has a lot to do with a real crisis in American race relations in the beginning of the 21st century."
Other experts say that the proliferation of African American museums -- including the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, which opened last August in Cincinnati, and planned museums in Charleston; Washington, D.C.; Fredericksburg, Va.; Louisville, Ky.; San Francisco; and elsewhere -- reflects the liveliness of scholarship in African American history and a healthy impulse toward cultural preservation.
"I think it's a wonderful renaissance," said Sandy Bellamy, executive director of the Reginald F. Lewis museum, who compares this period to the establishment of historically black colleges and other institutions in the early 20th century.
"In some ways, it's the right time," said Lonnie G. Bunch, who next month becomes founding director of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of African American History and Culture. "It's a time that benefits from 30 years of real good scholarship on African American culture and history ... and a thriving black middle class and upper class that can help support" these museums.
Still, not everyone is eager to tell -- or to hear -- accounts of slavery, segregation or the civil rights movement. "We tell stories that people don't want to be told," said Lawrence J. Pijeaux Jr., executive director of the Birmingham Civil Rights Center and president of the Assn. of African American Museums. "There's an effort in this country to forget that African Americans came here in bondage. If you're telling a story on slavery, you have a lot more trouble finding funding than if you were talking about American art."
In fact, many black museums -- including the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit and the African American Museum in Philadelphia -- are struggling financially. After years of turmoil, the Wright museum, which has no endowment, opened a new core exhibition last fall, and museum President Christy Coleman says that annual paid visits have risen 80% since then. The smaller Philadelphia museum, founded in 1976 for the Bicentennial, has foundered for years. In March, the museum, with a deficit approaching $600,000, announced a six-month recovery plan, but its future remains uncertain.
Pijeaux argues that African American museums can capitalize on the rising importance of heritage tourism to attract more than just black support. "One of the things that helped us [in Birmingham] is that we've become a major destination point for tourists," Pijeaux said. "Sometimes we get confused with racism and think it's only black and white. There's some green in there too."