Twenty-three years ago, Clayborn Benson founded the Wisconsin Black Historical Society, 2620 W. Center St., and today, Benson serves as the executive director and owns both buildings.
One of the structures was built in 1889 and served as a public library -- the book drop is still intact -- and the other, built in 1924, was a theater.
The Wisconsin Black Historical Society -- run by Benson and about 10 volunteers -- is a museum that showcases local African American historical events. Also, it serves as a communal space for school programs, receptions, weddings, lecture series, debates, movies, dance classes, Kwanzaa celebrations and more.
"We've been extremely busy this summer," says Benson. "We had exhibits at Juneteenth Day, the African World Festival and Garfield Days."
On Friday, Aug. 20 and Saturday, Aug. 21, Africans on the Move will present the 22nd annual Garveyfest at the Wisconsin Black Historical Society. A film and discussion on healing takes place Friday at 6 p.m. and on Saturday, from noon to 6 p.m., Garveyfest will include a parade, a children's corner, African marketplace, cultural showcase, music and spoken word performances. Both events are free and open to the public.
Garveyfest celebrates Marcus Garvey and Amy Ashwood Garvey, who founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association-African Communities League (UNIA-ACL) in 1914. The group was designed to rebuild a positive social, cultural, psychological and political life for African people around the world.
Benson, who is retired, opened the historical society while working as a photojournalist at WTMJ. He held the job for almost four decades before retiring a few years ago. Benson received a degree from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and says his love for history -- and his parents' love for history -- gave him the energy and desire to hold down two full-time jobs.
Benson started the Wisconsin Black Historical Society around the same time that Dr. James Cameron opened America's Black Holocaust Museum. Cameron died in 2006 and the museum closed in 2008 due to lack of funds.
"We are fortunate to still be here," says Benson. "It's difficult these days to run any museum."
Recently, Benson received artifacts from the Holocaust Museum, including hundreds of Cameron's books and thousands of pages of his writings.
In February, Benson will open an exhibit dedicated to Cameron, who was a civil rights activist, the founder of three chapters of the NAACP and the only known survivor of a Marion, Ind., lynching. Cameron recounted that experience in his 1982 book, "A Time of Terror."
Permanent exhibits at the historical society include a replication of a tannery where many local African Americans worked, tributes to progressive Black Milwaukeeans such as Vel Phillips who was the first African American woman to graduate from Marquette Law School, a collection of bottles from the Peoples Brewery, a local Black-owned brewery that existed in the ‘70s, and a barbershop.
Benson's family owned three barbershops. His uncle, Henry H. Moore, was the barber commissioner for the State of Wisconsin and started the Black Barbers Association. Moore opened his barbershops to friends and neighbors for more than just shaves and haircuts.
"He helped all kinds of people. He helped drug addicts, people with rent problems," says Benson. "But mostly, it was a place for people to stop in and enjoy themselves."
The Wisconsin Black Historical Society is open Monday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is $5.
Molly Snyder started writing and publishing her work at the age 10, when her community newspaper printed her poem, "The Unicorn.” Since then, she's expanded beyond the subject of mythical creatures and written in many different mediums but, nearest and dearest to her heart, thousands of articles for OnMilwaukee.
Molly is a regular contributor to FOX6 News and numerous radio stations as well as the co-host of "Dandelions: A Podcast For Women.” She's received five Milwaukee Press Club Awards, served as the Pfister Narrator and is the Wisconsin State Fair’s Celebrity Cream Puff Eating Champion of 2019.