No one museum can fully tell the story of the struggles and triumphs of the African-American experience across the United States.
Sure, some major museums do an excellent job of providing an overview from a national perspective or highlighting watershed moments of the Civil Rights Movement. But what about the many challenges, injustices and victories that have taken place in nameless counties and cities, places that don’t readily come to mind when the conversation focuses on civil rights. That’s where regional and local museums come in—and a surprisingly excellent example of this is a small museum located in Reading, Pa.
The Central Pennsylvania African American Museum (CPAAM) gives an insightful look into African-American history in Reading and Berks County. Slavery, the Underground Railroad, Reconstruction and more modern times are highlighted through artifacts, photographs, recordings, texts, graphics as well as interactive elements.
The museum is housed in the oldest Black-owned church in Reading, which was purchased in 1836 by Samuel Murry, a freed slave from Maryland. This is where the Old Bethel A.M.E. Church was built, which was turned into the Central Pennsylvania African American Museum in 1998. While the museum occupies the second floor of the building, on the main floor is one of the most compelling aspects of the structure—a space hidden under the floorboards where Blacks hid as they fled from slavery. It is a documented stop along the Underground Railroad.
One display shows a quilt and explains how codes about the Underground Railroad were woven into the designs. Another shows a map with safe houses around Reading where those fleeing could find refuge.
Frank Gilyard, the founder and curator of CPAAM, gives an impassioned tour of the museum, which contains a good many items from his family’s personal collection.
He points out how a white or green cloth displayed on a lawn statue meant it was safe for those escaping slavery to stop by a safe house, but a red cloth indicated to keep moving. At one point while moving through the museum, Gilyard bends his small frame into the small space of one exhibit to demonstrate the cramped quarters allotted to Africans aboard slave ships. He also talks about a former Pennsylvania governor who owned slaves and of a number of local residents who championed civil rights and achieved national acclaim in sports, music, the military and other fields.
Although the museum has been operating for 13 years, a $238,000 federal grant made possible a major upgrade to the facility with high-quality exhibits and graphics. It re-opened in June 10, 2011.
Efforts are now under way to further expand the museum. Officials are hoping that a $6.7 million project will come to fruition within the next two years so the museum can expand five-fold.
“All we can try to do is tell our story because it’s American history,” said Gilyard.
While Reading may not have been on one’s travel radar, it (and other places like it) are worth including on a “Check Out If Nearby” list when one travels within a stone’s throw. It can be a most eye-opening experience.