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A Boost for Kansas' Black Museum

TONY COX, host:

Black culture just got a big boost in Wichita. The Kansas African American Museum has been given permission to expand on to eight acres of city property. That's good news for the small museum that's operating out of a 90-year-old Baptist church.

For more, NPR's Farai Chideya spoke with its executive director Eric Key.

FARAI CHIDEYA: So first of all, Kansas, can you give us a bird's eye view of your collection and what life used to be like for black folks in and around Wichita?

Mr. ERIC KEY (Executive Director, Kansas African American Museum): Oh, this is one part of the cattle drive came to Wichita, which really gave Wichita its beginnings. And of course, African-Americans were on that - cattle drive. And the piece of property that we are speaking about happens to be the side where they were dressed. And the African-Americans would be a part of the cattle drive resting on this site. The cattle would graze out of the Arkansas(ph) River and so, we feel that it's a, it's a great site to - historically, anyway. And then with all the riverbank improvement, it's just a great site. Kansas, overall, is a part of the Underground Railroad. Everybody knows Brown versus the Topeka Board of Education, which took place in Topeka, Kansas. Kansas is strong in African-American history.

CHIDEYA: So Wichita City Council agreed to let you build on a land but there's a catch. What were the stipulations with the new lease?

Mr. KEY: Well, we have to first raise the money to build a new building and we have five years to do so. In signing the lease, it basically set aside that piece of property until almost four and a half years, (unintelligible) five years for us to raise our $50 million needed for the new building.

CHIDEYA: Now, we've done stories on African-American philanthropy and it can be a little hard to squeeze the dollars out of the black community sometimes. How much are you expecting the community to give to your effort?

Mr. KEY: A good percentage. We're a small community and the African-American community is even smaller, but we are beginning to talk with the faith-based community and they're willing to assist in any way that they can. And of course, we're looking at civic and social groups to do their part as well. Initially, background, a lot of people and a lot of organization have been waiting for us to unveil the capital campaign so that they can help. A lot of individuals have expressed interest in donating to this project. And we're speaking of African-Americans, a lot of forefathers, people who were here before I became the director, have signed on on the campaign and setting aside some dollars to give to this campaign. So now, it's just a matter of unveiling it and moving forward.

CHIDEYA: So how - why specifically is this gift of land or this grant of land so important?

Mr. KEY: Well, it signifies to the community that we do have a property and it also signifies to the corporate that we do have a site identified for the museum. And that's usually - it's extremely important when you're asking donors because the question comes back as who else is supporting you. And the first thing we can say, we already have our property and then the second part particularly if you're looking to raise some dollars outside of your community, they want to look at all of those factors, not only what the community is doing, what the business community doing locally, but what your - the local politicians are doing as well.

CHIDEYA: I have one last question for you.

Mr. KEY: Okay.

CHIDEYA: When you think about the history of African-Americans in Kansas and you think about the history of Native Americans in Kansas, how do they intersect in positive and negative ways?

Mr. KEY: Oh, they intersect mostly in positive ways. Even with early American history, we knew that the Native Americans and the African-Americans really got along to a point there was a springboard if you would say of a mixed culture and became the Blackfoot Indians. And also the African-Americans along with the Native Americans came to Kansas as a part of the Trail of Tears that came through Kansas and part of that resettlement of the Native Americans from the South to reservations.

CHIDEYA: Well, Eric Key, thank you so much.

Mr. KEY: Oh, you're perfectly welcome.

COX: That was NPR's Farai Chideya speaking with Eric Key, executive director of the Kansas African American Museum in Wichita. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.