A family looks at artwork at the Northwest African American Museum on the day of the museum’s reopening in January 2023. Credit: DIWAS Photography
The Northwest African American Museum has long been a local Seattle gem: a small but mighty collection of exhibits in a converted schoolhouse building located in the Central District.
My family and I have visited the museum a handful of times in the past, and I’ve always been impressed by the combination of history, art and timely rotating exhibits that the museum packs into just a handful of rooms on the first floor of the building.
I moved to Seattle just over a decade ago, and a common refrain I heard from locals of all stripes at the time was that there wasn’t much Black history in the region. The Northwest African American Museum blows that perception out of the water, with exhibits that educate as much as inspire regarding the area’s rich Black history.
NAAM has always been a community spot worth visiting. But with the institution’s most recent renovations — and there are more in the works — the Northwest African American Museum is a must-visit destination in 2023.
During the pandemic lockdowns, NAAM, like many local organizations, was forced to close its doors. The closure lasted nearly three years. Last month, the museum reopened on Martin Luther King Jr. Day with a community fest held jointly with Garfield High School’s 40-year-strong MLK Day march.
After the first phase of what will be a three-phase renovation process, the museum now features a community room equipped with Black history books, a television screen broadcasting digital programming and local art by Black artists represented by Onyx Fine Arts Collective. The exhibits have been reconfigured and expanded throughout the museum; and more additions are expected in later phases.
Field trip destination
As a multiracial Black woman, I have come to expect that I have to fill in the gaps left by our educational system when it comes to teaching my children about their history. But, I don’t want just my children to know their history, I want all children in the United States to know it. Black history is American history, and for too long school curriculums have ignored or erased important facts about Black people and their legacy in this country.
For this reason, it struck me how perfect NAAM is as a destination for school field trips, especially in our current political climate. As the national conversation about the necessity of honestly teaching Black history rages on, NAAM mounts informative exhibits on Pacific Northwest-specific Black history, celebrating prominent Black figures from the region as well as offering a broader context on how events throughout U.S. history impacted Black people migrating to or living in the area.
I couldn’t help but notice much of what is highlighted in the museum’s historical exhibit perfectly complements Washington state’s school curriculum, particularly: the Oregon Trail, the Great Migration, Black settlers, integration and more.
NAAM for families and kids
The museum also has programmatic offerings for families and kids. Its Youth Curator Program, for teens ages 13–18, “teaches students the process of creating museum-quality animations” and helps participants gain skills related to art, writing, research, filmmaking and music. More importantly, it provides a space to make friends and learn from mentors in a time where many teens are still in need of post-pandemic socialization opportunities.
In addition, NAAM hosts a monthly virtual read-aloud that families can tune in to on the second Sunday of every month. Stories feature Black characters and the books are written by Black authors.
But more than any one program, event or exhibit, education coordinator Jason Turner and CEO LaNesha DeBardelaben told me that they envision NAAM as a space for hope and healing for the local community. The newly renovated space has a large living-room-style resource space they say is already being utilized by local schoolchildren to play, read or just relax. The museum also features a newly renovated cafeteria space where they plan to host food trucks for “Soul Food Sundays” in the near future.
Black History Month events
The museum is also hosting several events for Black History Month (yes, that’s this month!), including a a writing and research workshop for high school students at UW (Feb. 15); a BHM keynote lecture with the Smithsonian’s Dr. Damian Thomas at the museum (Feb. 16); and a performance by NAAM’s African American Cultural Ensemble at Climate Pledge Arena (Feb. 23).
After the past several years, I did experience the space as both hopeful and healing, just as its creators intended. Envisioning a space for Black people (and our allies) to come together in Seattle to learn, to connect, to express ourselves and just be is as vital as ever.
If you go ...
Find it: The Northwest African American Museum is located at 2300 S. Massachusetts St. in Seattle’s Central District.
Open hours: The museum is currently open Wednesday–Saturday, 10 a.m.–5 p.m. On the first Thursday of the month, the museum stays open until 7 p.m.
Admission: Museum admission is $10 for adults, $5 for ages 4–18, and free for children ages 3 and younger.
Play and snack nearby: