African American History on Display

Interactive Museum at UArizona Highlights Tradition and Heritage

By Christy Krueger

Tucson’s newest museum, and the only one of its kind in the state, is set to open in January to put visitors in touch with the tradition, culture and heritage of African Americans in Southern Arizona.

The African American Museum of Southern Arizona, situated in the University of Arizona Student Union, is scheduled to open on Martin Luther King Day on Jan. 13 and will offer wow factors that will attract all ages. It’s entertaining, interactive and educational, and it covers the gamut of local African American history.

“Our vision is to serve as a resource and provide the community with lessons on tradition and heritage,” explained Beverely Elliott, a long-time Tucsonan and retired educator who founded the museum with her husband, Bob, himself a prominent Tucson figure first as a Hall of Fame UArizona basketball player and as a Tucson business leader. “There are digital and traditional exhibits. We want to include all generations,” Beverely said.

She said the campus is an ideal site for the museum. “One reason we wanted to work with UArizona is that during the pandemic, lots of museums closed because they couldn’t pay utility bills and donations went down.” Plans are in the works for the museum to eventually move to a larger space on campus when the university opens its new cultural center in two to three years.

The museum’s online experience launched in December 2021 and will remain active since folks from out of the country have shown interest and Elliott wanted to make it available to all. The site includes a virtual tour, numerous oral histories from locals, historical resources, the arts and much more. Three permanent exhibits can be visited in-person and virtually – CROWN Act, Buffalo Soldiers and Quilts – each with educational opportunities for students. 

Passed by Congress in 2020, the CROWN (Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair) Act prohibits discrimination based on an individual’s texture or style of hair. It gives rights to people of all races and genders to wear their hair as they choose, particularly in the workplace and school.

“It’s been something I’ve been supportive of for a long time,” Elliott said. “I have daughters in the corporate world and in education, and it’s been brought to their attention to wear their hair straight. We want to teach the understanding to be who we are. It opens the door to be an individual and it’s okay to celebrate your hair. As part of the educational component of the museum, we have crowns to decorate and where kids can style their hair any way they want.”

Another themed exhibit is on Buffalo Soldiers. “Fort Huachuca has a Buffalo Soldiers Museum, but they were all over Arizona. They were the primary reason African Americans settled here. Buffalo Soldiers came and stayed after the Civil War. Many had been slaves. It was a way to travel and see what was available, a new way of life.”

A collection of quilts is displayed in the museum and their significance relates to their role in the Underground Railroad. According to Elliott, enslaved Africans and African Americans used quilts like a GPS that would guide them safely along their journey by the use of meaningful patterns and symbols sewn into the fabric.

Art lovers will be drawn to the museum’s gallery, which houses works from local artists, including an encaustic painting by Joe Bourne titled, “Inspiration.” The colors of the Pan-African flag – red, black and green – are portrayed within the image of a heart. 

“When Beverely asked about donating a piece of my art, I thought I’d do something specifically for the museum,” Bourne said. “Each section is fabric dipped in different colors of wax, individually applied.” Next to the heart is Maya Angelou’s poem, “Still I Rise.”

Elliott selected the layout and design of the museum with advice from the UArizona Facilities Management Team. Elliott and two advisory board members set up the traditional exhibits. The IT team led by Forrest Richoux were responsible for the digital displays of oral histories and legacy stories. 

“We have received tremendous support and collaboration with the Tucson community,” Elliott said, adding that it included UArizona and the Juneteenth committee led by President Larry Starks.

Elliott said she is proud of the amount of work she and others have put into the museum and she hopes visitors find something that connects them to their American heritage. “This has been a passion of mine, a labor of love,” she said.

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