The Search for a Home for African American Culture Begins in Long Beach

An African American art exhibit displayed at a First Fridays event in Bixby Knolls. Photo: Stephanie Rivera

The search for a potential home for a future African American cultural center in Long Beach is officially underway after the council voted Tuesday night to initiate the process that will likely include the community as well as private investors.

Proposed by Eighth District Councilman Al Austin with the support of Councilman Dee Andrews and Vice Mayor Rex Richardson, the item’s introduction comes just before the end of Black History Month. The site for the proposed center has yet to be determined but a few members of the public suggested that the old North Branch Library, which currently serves as a temporary winter shelter, should be a contender.

Austin suggested that a center that the community deserves would likely need about $1.5 million in seed money, adding that the community should “go big” in trying to put together the center that has been discussed in the city’s black community for some time.

“This is a dialogue that is starting but it’s a dialogue that we mean to move with purpose and with action,” Austin said of the initiation of the search.

He said the challenge should not rest just on the city to identify funds and someone to operate the center once completed, and extended that challenge to the community as well. Sixth District Councilman Dee Andrews offered up about 7 percent of Austin’s projected seed money goal, challenging his council colleagues to make similar contributions.

“It’s time for each of us and each of you, to literally put your money where your mouth is,” Andrews said. “I am prepared to commit $100,000 in one-time infrastructure funds to serve as a matching funds from any of my colleagues who claim to be similarly interested in promoting our shared, diverse Long Beach culture.”

The move drew wide support from members of the public who gathered to back the item’s introduction. Sakkara Ingrid Thomas, founder of the Queens Historical Society, a group that helps present African American heritage, said that while other cities have recognized Black history with centers and museums, it would be special to not have to leave the city to experience the same kind of recognition.

“Having a designated space is the most important thing that you can do,” Thomas said. “Even though it’s honorable to be able to travel around nationally, internationally, to come back home and not have a home is very disheartening.”

In a letter sent to the council before the hearing, Naomi Rainey-Pierson, president of the Long Beach Branch NAACP, said that the the center would teach life lessons through the history of African Americans in Long Beach and help inform people of the contributions of African Americans in the city and nationally. Rainey-Pierson said it would also provide a sense of equality.

“The establishment of this center will show that the city of Long Beach respects and proactively promotes the diversity of our city. In addition, it will show inclusiveness and equity for all,” the letter read. “This center will help to reduce ethnic tensions in our community and debunk the myth and misconception of ethnic favoritism by our city leaders.”

According to the city’s demographics, African Americans make up about 13 percent of the city’s population but that ethnic group lacks its own cultural home that other minorities have in Long Beach. If constructed, the proposed center could join the Museum of Latin American Art, the Pacific Island Ethnic Art Museum and the Japanese Culture Center as a cultural hub celebrating diversity throughout the city.

A report on the progress of identifying funds and potential site for the African American cultural center is expected back in the next few months.

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Jason Ruiz covers City Hall and politics for the Long Beach Post.