The Arna Bontemps African American Museum and Cultural Arts Center is moving forward under a new director, which has led those who have been with it from the beginning to praise what it is today.
The Arna Bontemps African-American Museum in downtown Alexandria was established in 1992. The site is the childhood home of Harlem Renaissance era author Arna Wendell Bontemps. Town Talk file photos
The museum opened its doors in August 1992, but only as a fruition of four long years of work.
The Arna Bontemps Foundation got its start in 1988 under the guidance of founder Gwendolyn Y. Elmore and 16 other founding and charter members. Attorneys, clergymen and other area residents threw their support behind the mission to restore and relocate the childhood home of Arna Wendell Bontemps, the acclaimed author of the Harlem Renaissance era who grew up in the Alexandria area.
The house sat on the corner of Ninth and Winn streets when Bontemps’ family resided there, Elmore said. He made references to it in his own writings, and the impact his childhood home had on the man he became.
As such, it seemed a fitting setting to establish the state’s first dedicated African American museum, Elmore said. Officials established the museum within the home at its current location at 1327 Third Street in Alexandria.
And that was just the
Gwendolyn Elmore is past director of the museum and cultural arts center that celebrates the work of Arna Bontemps with writing and literary workshops and with jazz music festivals.
“The mission of the Arna Bontemps African American Museum and Cultural Arts Center is to further knowledge of the literary legacy of Bontemps and to promote awareness of African American history and culture,” Elmore wrote in a statement to The Town Talk.
The institution has pursued this mission by way of programs to inspire young minds in Cenla and beyond, Elmore said.
“Thousands of students have come through our programs and events,” Elmore said. “And we have had diverse participation.”
The museum paved paths for students to learn, to practice and to compete, said Haywood Joiner, president of the museum’s board of directors.
With the literary heritage of its namesake, programs with a writing focus fell naturally into the scope of the museum’s programs.
The museum brought in some of the most esteemed names in modern African American literature to help lead summer workshops or give lectures on the heritage of the written word in this region of the country, Joiner said. Authors Ernest Gaines and Ernest Hill are among those who have a hand in shaping the museum’s canon of contributions to Cenla.
“These are individuals who have national and international reputations,” Joiner said. “The Arna Bontemps African American Museum has been responsible for bringing that level of talent as far as writers of acclaim to the area.”
In addition to paying homage to established writers, the museum has spent much effort in inspiring new generations of writers during its nearly 20 year history, Elmore said. The formation of the Junior Writers Guild has given a banner under which aspiring authors can gather to share ideas and sharpen their literary abilities from an early age.
One of the biggest contributions the museum has made to Cenla’s cultural landscape is its role in the establishment of Jazz on the River concert, Joiner said. This annual event has been an avenue down which some of the most renowned names in jazz — such as the Marsalis family and Michael Ward — have traveled to Cenla to inspire the next generation of jazz enthusiasts.
The museum has also played a role in fostering a deep respect for the art of jazz among area youth through the formation of the Bontempian Big Band, Joiner said. The Bontempians — a collection of young musicians from the area — get a unique opportunity to receive jazz instruction, to practice and to expand their repertoire.
Probably the most important contribution made by the museum to the area and the state is the hosting of the Arna Bontemps African American Heritage Quiz Bowl, Joiner said. This event pits three-member teams from elementary, junior and high schools across the state against each other to compete in their knowledge of black history, Joiner said.
“That has been at the forefront in our community when it comes to knowledge of the contributions that African Americans have made throughout history,” Joiner said. “I’m glad to say that the quiz bowl is not just African American participants but participants of all ethnic backgrounds. It’s the bringing of our youth together.”
Yet, few of the museum’s achievements would not have come to fruition without one key element, Joiner said.
“It’s importance in Central Louisiana as well as its importance statewide we can attribute largely to the work Elmore has done with the museum in the past,” Joiner said.
Elmore — who among other titles earned the (National) Association of African American Museums Lifetime Achievement Award in 2009 — has served many roles during the museum’s history.
After retiring from 24 years of education in Rapides Parish, Elmore turned her attention to the formation and sustaining of the Arna Bontemps African American Foundation and Museum.
Last year, Elmore handed over the reins of the executive director position to Chad Bailey, who began his work with the museum as interim director in August 2011.
“With the new director, we still have some of those qualities (that Elmore brought to the position) there,” Joiner said. “But had it not been for Mrs. Elmore, I would say that the museum would not exist today.”