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Arizona's first African American history museum is open. It began with question from a 7-year-old

It’s been a little over a month since the African American Museum of Southern Arizona started welcoming visitors at the University of Arizona campus. It’s the first and only African American museum in the state.

It officially opened its doors to the public in January in a ribbon-cutting event that drew more than 300 people to campus. 

But Bob Elliott, chairman and co-founder of the museum, says really, it all started two years ago, when his 7-year-old grandson, Jody, had an assignment for Black History Month.

“Do a report on a hero or she-ro of your choice. So he goes online and he's looking up the regular cast of characters, Martin Luther King, Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman,” he said.

Elliott is in 60s, with salt and pepper hair and a 6’9" frame. He and his wife, Beverely, came to Tucson from Ann Arbor, Michigan in the '70s, when Bob was recruited to play basketball for the University of Arizona. 

That day, back in February 2021, Jody had a question for Beverely. 

“He said, ‘So, where do I go here to find a museum that's gonna talk about people who look like me?,” Bob said.

The Elliotts aren’t strangers to African American history. Beverely is on the board of the African American Cultural and Historical Museum of Washtenaw County back in Ann Arbor. 

And it was an important piece of Arizona history that drew Bob to Tucson in the first place, in 1973, when he was weighing different options for college. Just one year before that, history had been made at the University of Arizona, with the hiring of head basketball coach Fred Snowden.

“Coach Snowden was the first Black coach, basketball coach, division one, and United States at a major college. And it happened here at the University of Arizona 50 years ago,” he said. 

Snowden is, of course, just one of Arizona’s African American trailblazers. But Bob and Beverely soon realized the place Jody was asking about, where all those stories were held, didn’t really exist yet. 

Jody wasn’t pleased.

“He says, ‘you mean there's nobody Black around here that did anything?’ And my wife says, ‘no, honey, it's just that there's not a museum.,’” Bob recounted. “So he looks her dead in the face and says, ‘then you need to start one, and I’ll help.”

Two years later, almost down to the month, Jody’s request became a reality.

On a recent afternoon at the University of Arizona’s campus, Beverely greeted a small group of students and university staff outside the museum. 

It’s a simple, single-room space at the Student Union. On that day, glass display cases featured stories — like the one of Arizona’s first African American novelist Margaret Campbell, who spent years in an underground home in Tucson before her death in 1971.

TV screens mounted on the walls played interviews, some in person and some, in classic pandemic style, on Zoom. Beverely told the group she and her husband began collecting information through oral history. And they received stories from all over Arizona. 

"Some of them were pretty amazing ... some of them were a little sadder than others, obviously,” she said. “The one thing we want you to leave with when you leave here is to say, ‘I didn't know that.’ That means, as an educator, I did my job.”

Beverely’s first stop on the tour that day was a collection of prints depicting battle scenes with African American infantrymen, known as Buffalo Soldiers, who joined the military when it became legal after the Civil War. 

“Unfortunately, they were told that they had to fight our Indigenous brothers and sisters, in settling Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and Southern California,” Beverely told the group. “But one of the things that most people don't know is, in 1866, right at the end of the war, most of these men had been enslaved, and they didn't know where their families were. This provided them with, guess what, clothes, shoes. Most of them had never had shoes before.”

Like a lot of the collections on display now, these prints came to the Elliotts because people in Arizona heard about the museum and wanted to take part. 

And like Bob, Beverely knows a lot of this history personally. Another display showed footage of a group of African American students, teachers and supporters silently marching on campus, in 1983, just a few yards from where the museum is now. 

Beverely said this march was one of many advocating for Arizona to finally recognize Martin Luther King Jr. Day. She was there. 

“What we wanted was this holiday in his honor. There had not been one for an African American. So we did that for many years, even all the way up through the nineties,” she said. “So probably 10, 15 years of marching.”

It would be more than a decade before Arizona officially recognized the holiday, after the NFL refused to come to the state for the Super Bowl because of it. 

“So the state lost millions of dollars. So by '96 when they considered coming back, of course they passed it, MLK Day for the state,” she said. “And thus the NFL has been here, how many times now for a Super Bowl? So I can't say it was our marching, actually. It usually probably came down to dollars and cents.”

Beverely graduated from University of Arizona and spent years as an educator with Tucson Unified School District. Still, she says this process has unearthed pieces of Arizona’ Black history that she never knew. 

“I don't even know where to start,” Beverely said, laughing. “Every time I hear a story, I hear something new, not only … something that I didn't know, but there are a whole lot of other people who didn't know either.”

She said what she’s hoping the museum can be — a place to learn, but also to build upon. Just like her youngest grandson asked for, back in 2021.  

“We really hope that, you know, 50 years from now or 60 years from now, our little Jody, whether he lives here or not, he can come back and say, ‘oh, I remember this.’ And it's a part of his history as well now,” she said.

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Alisa Reznick is a senior field correspondent covering stories across southern Arizona and the borderlands for the Tucson bureau of KJZZ's Fronteras Desk.