Arts » Culture

The Invisible Museum

Idaho's Black History Museum struggles to stay open

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Each June, the Idaho Black History Museum (IBHM) in Julia Davis Park celebrates Juneteenth, a holiday marking the anniversary of the emancipation of slaves in Texas on June 19, 1865.

This year, IBHM joined the party in style with dancing, music and food. At the party, Bob Trerise, former museum board member, met a young man from Houston attending the celebration with his parents. The family was in town visiting Boise State, where the young man was being considered as a running-back for the Broncos football team. After enjoying the Juneteenth festivities, the potential footballer and his parents were so moved they told Trerise IBHM had tipped the scale toward Boise State away from the other schools vying for the athlete's enrollment.

"Idaho is known as being very white and not a place that people of color would find themselves comfortable," said Trerise. "That can really hurt us as a community."

Idaho has never been known for its diversity. Since its 1890 inception as the 43rd state, Idaho has been over 90 percent Caucasian. Even today, with its population more diverse than ever, less than 1 percent of the population is African-American.

This reputation for homogeny heightened with Idaho's notoriety as a haven for white-supremacists with the publicity received by the now-demolished Aryan Nations headquarters in Hayden Lake.

In 1995, it was with a hope to change the perception of Idaho that Trerise spoke to the Boise Parks and Recreation board about opening the Black History Museum in Julia Davis Park.

"Boise has an ill-founded reputation of not supporting diversity and not being inclusive," Trerise said. "I told the Parks and Rec board about the value of adding to the cultural enrichment. Bringing this museum sent a strong message to the world that Boise embraces diversity."

Trerise was successful in his plea with Parks and Recreation. In 1999 the tiny building that was once St. Paul Baptist Church at 128 Broadway had its grand opening as the IBHM in Julia Davis Park. It is still the only museum of its kind in the Pacific Northwest and continues to be a forum for progressive thought by educating the community about the "Invisible Idahoan."

The "Invisible Idahoan" is the title of the current exhibit highlighting the lives of prominent black figures in Idaho's history, including the first black man to come to Idaho, a man who traveled with Lewis and Clark as a slave.

The mid 1800s brought black prospectors and homesteaders hoping to claim land and build lives away from oppressive laws, but their ambitions were cut short in 1863 by a Boise County law prohibiting prospecting by black and Chinese people.

By 1900 there were fewer than 300 blacks in the state of Idaho. But that didn't stop Jennie Hughes from becoming the first black student to graduate from University of Idaho in 1899, nor did it prevent the Progressive Club from forming in Mountain Home.

The spread of the railroad brought new jobs to Boise and Pocatello and the black population doubled in a little over a decade Though they were still denied entry to many public establishments, blacks formed communities to support one another.

In 1908 St. Paul Baptist Church was formed as one of the only two black churches in Idaho's history. In 1921 the congregation moved into the building that later became the Black History Museum.

"Often when people talk about black history, it's the story of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks. It's very limited," said Cherie Buckner-Webb, founding board member and current president of the Museum board. "We want black culture to be viewed holistically. Oppression is only a part of the culture."

Buckner-Webb, who also works as a diversity expert and has a master's degree in social work from Northwest Nazarene University, emphasized that it's easy to stick black culture into niches. Not all black people play sports and dance, she said. There is a rich tapestry to black culture and the many people who have helped shape the history of Idaho.

One example is Dorothy Buckner, who helped push the Idaho Civil Rights Bill through the state legislature in 1961, three years before its federal counterpart was passed.

Another is Lela Liggins, who founded the Pocatello Free Clinic in 1970 and later became the first female president of the Idaho NAACP.

John West was the first civil rights activist in Boise, and Vernon J. Baker was awarded a medal of honor for his service in World War II.

Unfortunately, the museum's ability to educate the community and preserve these stories is limited by their current financial constraints. The museum is wholly funded by private contributions, and a shortage of donations has forced the museum to close during the week and let go all its paid staff. It is now only open for five hours on Saturdays and is manned by board members or a lone volunteer, 78-year-old Bob Olson.

Olson has been volunteering faithfully for several years, pulling through after a turn-over in board members and uncertain finances left the museum in a state of limbo. Olson was there three years ago when vandals carved a swastika on the door of the museum—a reminder to him of how necessary the museum is to the city.

"I would like to see the museum open more frequently, changes in the exhibits over time and some programs. In the past we have had play readings, musical events, book discussions," Olson said.

New board member Sandy Schackel, a history professor at Boise State, said that in order to restore those programs the museum needs volunteers, leadership and, most of all, funding.

"We get small corporate grants for educational exhibits," Schackel said, "but it isn't enough."

Schackel, Buckner-Webb and the other board members are hoping to see the community step up to help make the museum better than it has ever been. Buckner-Webb is optimistic.

"When you put out the call, this community steps up. It's amazing," she said. "This community built the Black History Museum. We are asking them to reengage."

The Idaho Black History Museum is not a prominent building. It sits nestled among larger, more impressive structures in Julia Davis Park. It's easy to look right past the Idaho Historical Museum to the zoo beyond without seeing the small, white-washed chapel. And just as the museum is easy to miss, so are the contributions of blacks to Idaho's culture. But the many supporters of the Idaho Black History Museum are unwilling to let that happen.

"We are here for the long haul," Buckner-Webb said, "breaking down barriers, sharing historical information, and honoring those that came before us. Blacks leave a legacy to our country and our community and we want to share that."

Idaho Black History Museum, 508 Julia Davis Dr., 208-433-0017, IBHM.org. Open Saturdays, 11 a.m.-4 p.m.

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