African American Museum of Southern Arizona to open on campus
The museum, which will open on Saturday at the University of Arizona, was co-founded by Beverely and Bob Elliott – local business owners, volunteers and philanthropists with deep ties to the Tucson and university communities.
A new museum on the University of Arizona campus will highlight the contributions the African American community has made to Southern Arizona and the world.
The African American Museum of Southern Arizona, located in Room 244 of the Student Union Memorial Center, will open to the public Saturday, just ahead of Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Jan. 16. A ribbon-cutting ceremony will be held from 10 a.m.-12 p.m. Admission is free.
The museum's 1,100-square-foot space, in what used to be the Alumni Heritage Lounge, includes exhibits about influential African Americans in Southern Arizona and significant movements and moments in African American history. The museum's founders also plan to offer K-12 programs that help the next generation understand the contributions African Americans have made to Tucson and beyond.
The museum's opening represents nearly two years of work by Beverely Elliott, a graduate of the University of Arizona and the museum's co-founding executive director. A website for the museum launched in late 2021.
"'I didn't know that' – that's we want visitors to say when they leave," Elliott said. "That's one of the things that I've been saying as we've collected stories for this museum, and something I've heard from people who have been here for years when I tell them some of the stories we've learned."
Elliott, along with her husband, Bob, are longtime local volunteers and philanthropists with deep ties to the University of Arizona and Tucson communities. Beverely Elliott earned her bachelor's degree in health sciences from UArizona and spent much of her career as a teacher and counselor for the Tucson Unified School District.
Bob Elliott played basketball for the Wildcats from 1973-1977 and later played in the NBA. He earned a bachelor's degree in accounting and a Master of Business Administration from the university. He is founder and president of Elliott Accounting Group, an accounting firm that has served Tucson for more than 30 years. Beverely Elliott is the firm's vice president.
An idea from a 7-year-old
The Elliotts credit their grandson, Jeremiah, who goes by Jody, for first envisioning a museum in Tucson dedicated to local African American history.
In February 2021, Jody, who was 7 at the time, got a school assignment to write a report on an African American hero of his choice in recognition of Black History Month.
The Elliotts had been deeply involved in establishing the African American Cultural and Historical Museum of Washtenaw County, which opened in their hometown of Ann Arbor, Michigan, last year. Knowing his grandparents' experience with establishing museums, Jody asked his grandmother, who he calls "Nanu," where in Tucson he could go to hear stories of local African American heroes.
"I had to tell my grandson there wasn't a place in Tucson for those stories, and he was pretty disappointed," Beverely Elliott said. "He felt like, 'Didn't any Black people do anything in this state?' I said, 'Of course they did, there's just not a place for it.'"
Jody, who is 9 now, figured they could just make one. A few months later, they got to work, gathering ideas from community members and friends about what the museum should include.
When it came to deciding where the museum would be located, sustainability was the key factor.
"We thought about the University of Arizona because it's been around for quite a few years," Beverely Elliott said. "It's going to stay around, so we'll stay around – that's basically what it came down to."
The Elliotts reached out to John-Paul Roczniak, president and chief executive officer of the University of Arizona Foundation, who was immediately on board.
"I can't think of two better people to lead this effort," Roczniak said. "Bob and Beverely have brought vision and passion to celebrating the story of the Black community in Southern Arizona, and it's fitting that this story will be told in a place of learning."
'People wanted to tell their stories'
The Elliotts set out to collect materials for the museum – artifacts, oral histories and more – from Southern Arizona's African American community. It didn't take long before people were contacting them to offer donations and loans.
"People wanted to tell their stories," Beverely Elliott said. "I think a lot of people in the African American community were a little bit worried, asking 'What happens to my family's story? It's just going to get lost.' To preserve those stories and have them documented in a place where someone could go find them meant a lot to them."
The museum's initial exhibits will highlight the CROWN Act – a national movement to end race-based hair discrimination – and the story behind the coded quilts enslaved people used to find safehouses along the Underground Railroad. Another display will showcase Arizona's Buffalo Soldiers – African American servicemen who were allowed to join the U.S. Army beginning in 1866.
Another corner of the museum will be dedicated to Fred Snowden, who became the first Black head coach in Division I college basketball when he joined UArizona in 1972.
The museum's walls will feature three large TVs that display video footage and recordings of oral histories by Black Southern Arizonans.
A table at the center of the museum will feature a rotating "pop-up" exhibit, a temporary display focused on a timely celebration or events in Black history. The first pop-up display will feature a collection from Thomas Blackshear, an African American painter and sculptor.
UArizona support extends beyond the location
UArizona experts provided crucial support in getting the museum started, the Elliotts said.
Beverely Elliott was part of the Border Lab Summer Institute, run by the university's Confluencenter for Creative Inquiry, where she learned how to gather, digitize, archive and create the stories the museum intends to tell.
The Center for Digital Humanities, led by associate professor of Africana studies Bryan Carter, is helping to make digital scans of the museum's artifacts. Museum visitors will eventually be able to scan QR codes that allow them to view the digital versions of the objects on their smartphones and rotate the images on their screens for a 360-degree view.
The Elliotts are also in talks with the Eller College of Management to set up an internship program for students interested in helping with the business side of the museum. The university's Facilities Management team led construction of the museum's space.
"We've been very blessed to have all these people guiding us," Beverely Elliott said. "They've made us feel very welcome at the university."
Following the Jan. 14 opening, those interested in visiting the African American Museum of Southern Arizona can make an appointment by emailing email@example.com. The museum will establish regular hours at a later date. Admission is free. Those interested in volunteering for the museum can email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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