Fort Worth resident Kennetha Perera grew up on the southwest side of Fort Worth. She was in the first graduating class of South Hills High School when it opened in 1998.  

Growing up in Fort Worth in the 1990s, Perera didn’t see many representations she could relate to as a Black person. 

“You kind of feel like an outsider,” Perera said. “You want to visit certain places, but then inside, you’re really unsure if you’ll be accepted.”

When the African American Museum and Cultural Center was proposed to be built in Fort Worth, Perera was elated.

But museum organizers are grappling with a central question: Where should it be built? Organizers have narrowed their choices down to the Cultural District and the Historic Southside. Where to build the museum has split the community into two. Some see the proposed museum as an economic engine to boost the local economy in a historically Black neighborhood. Others want the museum in the Cultural District as a symbol of Black representation.

A volunteer-led, Urban Land Institute Dallas-Fort Worth study determined three top sites for the museum:

While the location is being debated, the nonprofit African American Museum and Cultural Center continues to raise funds for a feasibility study of multiple locations.

What has happened so far

December 2019: The Butler Place advisory committee suggested a museum to preserve local, Black history. The museum steering committee came to fruition.

November 2020: The University of Texas at Arlington conducted surveys of about 90 community members, showing that the majority of them expressed interest in a combination of museum and cultural center. 

November 2021: The museum committee held a community workshop along with a panel of museum experts. The committee concluded that there was a strong interest in the community of the project.

June 2022: The African American Museum and Cultural Center became a nonprofit organization. Fort Worth City Council allocated $40,000 to the nonprofit June 28.

John Barnett Jr. is the chair of the museum nonprofit. The museum does not have a projected completion date, Barnett said. The nonprofit is taking one step at a time, he added.

“Hopefully, (they will) break ground within a year or two,” Perera said.

Museum in the Historic Southside

Johnny Lewis has lived in the Historic Southside for almost 50 years. He is the vice president of the Historic Southside Neighborhood Association. He hopes the museum will be located in his neighborhood on Evans Avenue. 

“(Evans Avenue) was the heart of what was once the Black community,” Lewis said. “Evans Avenue was almost like a Black Wall Street. It never got that big, but it could.”

Council member Chris Nettles represents the Historic Southside. Nettles wants the museum to be built in a historically Black neighborhood, even if it’s not in the Southside. Residents want to teach their children about their history, culture and ancestors, Nettles said.

“What greater place for it to be than in an African American historical neighborhood,” Nettles said.

Apart from the educational impact, Nettles also sees the museum as an anchor for boosting the neighborhood’s economy.

For every $100 a museum generates, an additional $220 is created indirectly in other sectors of the U.S. economy through recreation activities, restaurants and hotels among others, according to a 2017 Oxford Economics study of U.S. museums. The study also showed that for every job a museum supports, an additional job is supported elsewhere in the economy such as construction, insurance and transportation. 

The Southside Community Center is located in the 76104 ZIP code. The median household income is $35,193. About 34.9% of the population falls below the poverty line, double the statewide rate of 14.2%, according to the census

Nettles has heard concerns from community members on whether the museum would survive in the Historic Southside, where it would be isolated from other museums in the Cultural District.

Nettles disagrees.

The National Juneteenth Museum, which is set to be completed in 2025, is planned to be built on Evans and Rosedale avenues in the Historic Southside neighborhood. The Juneteenth Museum will be a multi-purpose facility. The building will act as a museum, provide co-working spaces and house food vendors of different cultures, Nettles said.

“We’re doing so much in District 8 to build our historic culture as well as make it an ideal spot to visit,” he said. “People will come to Fort Worth, and it won’t just be the Stockyards. It’ll soon be south Fort Worth … and Evans and Rosedale.”

Museum in the Cultural District 

Patrice Angwenyi recently opened the coffee shop HustleBlendz, 1201 Evans Ave., in March. Even though Angwenyi was born and raised in the 76104 ZIP code, she thinks the proposed museum should be located in the Cultural District. 

The museum will serve as a symbol for African Americans in the Cultural District, an area where Black history hasn’t been well-represented, she said.

“I believe being there makes more of a statement,” Angwenyi said.

The Cultural District is in the 76107 ZIP code. The median household income is $67,844 — higher than the statewide average of $63,826. About 11.4% of the population falls below the poverty line, according to census.

If the proposed museum is built in the Cultural District, it would strengthen tourism and the economy, said Jon Meyers, a partner at the consulting firm HR&A Advisors Inc. 

Meyers has over 10 years of experience working with public and private sectors on financing and implementing real estate projects, with a focus on economic analysis. In 2021, Meyers authored a study, in partnership with the University of Pennsylvania, on the economic and social impacts of libraries and museums

In 2021, Amon Carter Museum of American Art had an overall economic impact of nearly $15 million, according to a museum report. The Carter Museum generated over $620,800 in local government revenue and more than $754,500 in state government revenue.

If placed in the Cultural District, the African American Museum would be within a mile of the Modern Art Museum, Kimbell Art Museum and Amon Carter Museum of American Art. 

Grouping museums together is a common strategy, Meyers said.

“If I’m somebody from outside of the Dallas-Fort Worth area, and I travel into the area and there are three or four museums within easy walking distance of one another, then I might extend my stay … which I may not otherwise make,” Meyers said. “That is good for the local economy that I would spend money on local restaurants, shops or hotels.” 

Ken Loose is the chair for the Cultural District Alliance. The alliance is an independent organization dedicated to preserve and promote Fort Worth’s Cultural District. Loose sees the Cultural District as the city’s family room.

“It’s a place where you can receive guests, and it’s a place where you can enjoy yourself,” Loose said.

The Cultural District falls within council member Leonard Firestone’s district. Firestone said the proposed museum will highlight the contributions Black Fort Worthians have made to the city. He said the Cultural District could be a good fit for the proposed museum.

Loose would like to see the proposed museum in the Cultural District because of the area’s cultural significance.

“It’s not about tourists’ dollars,” Loose said. “Those things will come if you’re doing it right. But it’s much more important that we be culturally diverse, that we have this kind of offering.” 

Museum as a symbol of representation

Angwenyi said she did not see many infrastructures of representation growing up on the city’s Southside. For her, the most significant symbol of representation in the community she saw growing up was the establishment of the Ella Mae Shamblee Library in 2008. 

Ella Mae Shamblee was Fort Worth’s first Black librarian. She delivered books to other African Americans in south Fort Worth, during a time when Black people were not allowed to sit in libraries. 

The library was the first time Angwenyi learned about the history of her community, she said. 

W. Marvin Dulaney is a retired professor of African American history who taught at the University of Texas at Arlington for about 20 years. 

Museums play a unique role as an education institution in society, Dulaney said. Dulaney has served as the deputy director and chief operations officer at the African American Museum of Dallas. 

“I’ve been teaching all together for about 42 years,” Dulaney said. “And I’ve found that I can actually reach more people, teach more people and have them understand information much better at a museum than I can in the classroom.”     

Museums showcase images, artifacts and maps among other things on a regular basis that Dulaney couldn’t do in classrooms. In classrooms, students are more focused on their grades than actual learning, he said.

The proposed museum would fill the gaps of African American history in Fort Worth that local public schools may have missed in the classrooms, he said. 

Museums are perceived as trusted organizations and hosts to diverse populations who visit the spaces, which make museums potential catalysts to advance racial equity and inclusion in their communities, according to the 2021 research from the Reinvestment Fund, University of Pennsylvania and HR&A Advisors. 

Museums create the chance and provide the space for different people to get together, share experiences and learn from each other, the research further explained. 

‘A hard question’

Kathryn Holliday, a professor of architecture at the University of Texas at Arlington, sees the upsides of placing the museum in either the Cultural District or the Historic Southside. 

The proposed African American Museum could make the Cultural District stronger, Holliday said. 

The Cultural District currently has a mix of local, national and international arts.

Kimbell Art Museum and Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth showcase arts from around the world. The Amon Carter Museum of American Art explores national artworks. 

The Fort Worth Museum of Science and History has a focus on displaying artworks from Texas and the Southwest, while the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame celebrates women who helped shape the American West.

But Holliday, whose teaching and research interests include American architecture and art history, also sees value in the museum going to a traditionally Black neighborhood like the Historic Southside.  

Some members in the community want the museum to cater to the local community more directly. Others hope the museum would be more of an economic engine that boosts the local economy. The difficult part is how best to do both.

“It’s a really hard question,” Holliday said.

‘Super excited’

Perera, the southwest Fort Worth resident, ventured out when she didn’t see representation in her city.

Perera attended Dillard University, a private, Black college in New Orleans. She lived in New York and Chicago, where she saw cultural representation and felt relatable and belonged, she said.

Representation matters especially for people of color because it shows whether a city acknowledges their presence and accepts them, Perera said.

A portrait of Fort Worth resident Kennetha Perera (Courtesy of Kennetha Perera)

Ultimately, Perera said she’s fine with the proposed museum’s uncertain timeline and the extended site selection study. She’s also OK with the museum being situated either in the Cultural District or the Historic Southside. 

All she wants is the project to continue and be completed sooner rather than later. 

“I’m super excited about the African American Museum,” Perera said. “I’ve been born and raised in Fort Worth, and I’ve never seen anything like this ever happen.” 

Editor’s note: The story was updated on Aug. 3, 2022, to clarify the proper name for the Fort Worth Community Arts Center.

Chongyang Zhang is a summer fellow reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact him at chongyang.zhang@fortworthreport.org or via Twitter

At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

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Chongyang Zhang

Chongyang Zhang graduated from the University of Texas at Arlington in 2021. Previously, he worked for his school newspaper, The Shorthorn, for a year and a half.