African American History Gallery in Benton Harbor continues to uplift community
BENTON HARBOR, Mich., --- ABC57’s Black History Month coverage is highlighting a black owned business in Michiana. The African American History & Literature Gallery in Benton Harbor is celebrating its fifth year of making a difference in the community and now they’re pushing to get African American monuments across Berrien County.
The gallery is the life's work of two founders who crossed the country to inspire Michiana.
“… this is not normal, that there is no art, there is no vision, no tall buildings to be inspired by,” said the gallery’s co-founder and director Sharon Brown.
That’s what Sharon and Emanuel Brown say they saw in Benton Harbor five years ago before they opened the African American History & Literature Gallery on Broadway Avenue just outside of downtown.
“Having come from a healthy community, which was right outside of Los Angeles, you had museums, monuments, all kinds of things that were socially present, to inspire, to engage a sense of hope, to help form an identity as being a citizen,” added Emanuel Brown, the other founder and director of the gallery. “So, coming here, our idea was, because these things are lacking, perhaps if we can have them materialize, maybe just maybe, one soul might be inspired to dream and to hope.”
The couple who was just shy of retirement uprooted their comfortable life in California and moved back to their hometown in Benton Harbor in 2018, to fulfill what they believe was a dire need in the community.
“You don't always know you're privileged. You just take for granted that things are kind of cute, and they're nice and in place you’re inspired in your life and your career is like happening, and you feel like, well, that's what you've been taught is the American way and for that not to be happening, you go, I don't know what's wrong here, but this needs to change,” said Sharon.
From civil rights icons like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to sport phenoms like boxer Muhammad Ali, the couple now sharing African American stories through art, history, and literature they’ve collected over the years.
Hoping to not only educate but to motivate all citizens of Benton Harbor, something they believe is essential in one of Michiana’s only predominantly black communities.
“People are coming into the knowledge of themselves. We have had various groups come through the gallery, schools, organizational clubs, and the children love this place,” Emanuel explained. “They come in with this spirit of awe and curiosity. But then they realize that they can actually have fun learning. So, we teach how to form an identity of who you are.”
The Browns say their mission is much bigger than just sharing art and history.
“We sit in the heart of the community here at seven two five Broadway, and we do get a lot of knocks at the doors and it's not always to come in and do a fireside chat or to do a tour of the artifacts. Sometimes it's one of our neighbors needing help or assistance in some way,” added Sharon.
The couple also partners with Whirlpool and Feed America to put community fridges in the basement of the gallery, and they are leading the Unified Civic Monuments Project --an effort to get matching statues MLK statues in both St. Joe and Benton Harbor.
“…after we moved here we got a phone call from the Krasl Art Center in St. Joe, and says, Hey, you know, that MLK monument that you've been talking up? Do you think the time is now? And my response was, I stole the line from the movie. The time for justice is always now,” Sharon said.
The project is a result of collaboration by several organizations like Lake Michigan College, Benton Harbor, and St. Joe, very different organizations and cities---trying to attain a similar goal.
“We can't deny where we are today and what some of the things we're still facing. So when you look at it that way, the climate in St. Joe and the climate in Benton Harbor, there is a difference. But justice and the sake of humanity is always the same,” explained Sharon.
The Browns say whether it’s inspiring folks through their monument movement --- or through history in their gallery --- their number one goal is uplifting people in the very community they grew up in.
“…to feel that they may be able to accomplish something that was contradictory to their present, social existence, might say. So, these things were just simply necessary as a part of having a community and being a part of that community,” said Emanuel.
“We've made it a strong goal here to talk about the legacy and the history. But then we want to know about your history, about the legacy that you're building,” added Sharon.
Details for the monument in Benton Harbor are already set, but things are still being worked out in St. Joe including fundraising.
If you’d like to get involved donate to the project or learn more click here.
You can mail donations to located PO Box 541, Benton Harbor 49023 or call 805-501-3673.