To commemorate the beginning of Black History Month, I made a visit to the African American Museum & Library on 14th Street, just a couple blocks behind City Center. I have to be honest, and I am ashamed to admit this, but this was my first ever visit to this museum which opened 8 years ago. I guess I’ll just say it was well worth the wait, because it really is a gem of an institution.
First of all, the building itself is absolutely gorgeous! Both an Oakland City Landmark, and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it’s an architectural delight with lovely arched windows and doorways, detailed exterior stone work and incredible craftsmanship inside.
The building was spear-headed by Charles S. Greene, Oakland’s City Librarian from 1889 to 1926, who realized the city was outgrowing its first public library (a wooden structure erected in 1878 where City Hall now stands). He initiated a campaign to build a new one and, along with others including a women’s organization called The Ebell Society, found funding assistance from Andrew Carnegie’s Foundation, which offered $50,000 for the construction of the building. It was designed by architects Bliss and Faville in the American Beaux Arts style, and served as Oakland’s main library from 1902 until 1951.
“The elegant exterior of tan brick and terra cotta is incised with names of authors and disciplines and “Oakland Public Library.” “Free to All” is inscribed above the main entrance. The interior exhibits elaborate oak paneling, classical columns, and ornamented plaster ceilings. The second floor with its coffered, barrel-vaulted ceiling supported by massive columns, is one of Oakland’s most imposing interior spaces.” [Historical Plaque co-sponsored by Oakland Heritage Alliance]
Once the new main library (at 14th and Oak streets) was opened in 1951, this building served as a branch library, at which point it was renamed the Charles S. Greene Library. It later became city offices, and was eventually abandoned after the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989. “Following extensive restoration, it reopened in 2002 as the new home of the African American Museum and Library at Oakland.”
The mission of the Museum & Library is to discover, preserve, interpret and share the historical and cultural experiences of African Americans in California and the West for present and future generations.
The library is housed downstairs and consists of unique archives and reference materials on the history of African Americans in Northern California. The reference library houses approximately 12,000 volumes whose subjects include “religion, the military, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, the Black Panther Party, Africa in relationship to the African-American experience, genealogy, and California history.” And the archives contain diaries of prominent African Americans, newspapers on microfilm, videos and oral histories, and much more.
The museum is upstairs and “regularly hosts traveling and original exhibitions that highlight the art, history and culture of African Americans.” Here are two of the murals that greet you as you take the stairs to the second floor…
The current temporary exhibit is titled Access to Life: Faces from a Quiet Revolution and will be up through February 27th. It’s a powerful photographic exhibit by 8 Magnum photographers who focus their lenses on AIDS patients both before and for months following their antiretroviral treatments. “The project documents individuals in Haiti, Mali, Peru, Russia, Rwanda, South Africa, Swaziland, and Vietnam; countries chosen because of the diverse contexts and circumstances driving the epidemic in each one.” To learn more, visit accesstolife.theglobalfund.org. Here are a couple shots…
There is also a permanent multi-media installation titled Visions Toward Tomorrow: The African American Community in Oakland, 1890-1990. “Visions documents the historical accomplishments of generations of African Americans in Oakland from the era of pioneering and settlement to those eras of community formation, development of the press, establishment of local churches, and creation of a lasting legacy of music and the arts.”
If you’ve never visited this wonderful institution, might I suggest that there is no time like the present. In honor of Black History Month, I plan to focus on more African American cultural events and institutions as February continues…