Earlier this month, the Texas African American Museum in Tyler held a fundraising gala for renovating the museum’s new space – a fire department building formerly owned by the city of Tyler.
As part of the event, organizers, including Gloria Washington, the museum’s volunteer executive director, invited a special guest speaker: Khalila Camacho-Ali, the widow of boxing great Muhammad Ali. Washington spoke to Texas Standard about what happened after Camacho-Ali got to the podium. Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below.
This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:
Texas Standard: Tell us about what happened to this fundraiser when Camacho-Ali got up to speak.
Gloria Washington: Well, it was a surprise of a lifetime. We had no idea, no indication as to what was going to happen. So when she got up to speak, she asked me to come forward and she told us that this had been on her mind for awhile, and now it was time for her to get it off her mind and to relay to us what it was that was on her mind. And then she dropped the bomb. ‘I will be donating $1 million to the Texas African American Museum.”
Wow. How did you react?
I couldn’t do anything but scream and shout, run around the building, just shout and just hug everyone.
What will that money allow the museum to do?
Before she spoke the words that she was going to give us the million dollars, we already had in place what we are trying to do at the museum. Right now, we’re in the process of trying to renovate the museum, do the ceiling, open up more space at the museum. Just revitalize the museum. And so when this comes through, we will further what we’re already doing.
Tell us a little bit more about the museum and its activities. How did you get started?
The museum is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) under the auspices of our parent company Empowerment Community Development Corporation, and it got started in 2017. We did not have a standalone building. We were just on social media. And a year or so after that, we were in our first standalone building. After we were in that standalone building for about four or five months, the landlord had to leave suddenly, so we had to scramble and find ourselves another building, which we did.
Meanwhile, the City of Tyler was in the process of building a new fire station. So the city manager, mayor and our president were talking, and our president informed the mayor that we do not need another vacant building in North Tyler. And so the process got started and we put our hat in the ring for the existing fire station.
They asked us to do a five year strategic plan for that building, and they were going to donate it. But they were going to charge us for five years and then they would gift us the building. But after we did that five year strategic plan, it was looked over, and obviously it was in agreement with what they were looking for. So in November of 2021, the City of Tyler gifted that building to the Texas African American Museum under the auspices of Empowerment Community Development Corporation. The property is 5,070 square feet and it sits on approximately two acres of property.
So what sort of artifacts or exhibits should people expect to see there?
All types of African American history; artifacts from the past, artifacts from the present information about our past and our present. We have displays on different individuals that have contributed to society. We have information on Muhammad Ali, Bessie Coleman, on General Colin Powell and the Buffalo Soldiers. We have a lot of information. But is more than what I could just say on the phone. You would have to come see what we have here.
How long have you been associated with the museum? How did you get involved?
The gentleman that had a vision to start this Texas African American museum – he was the visionary. And I think he got involved with doing other things in the community. And he asked me, would I like to be the director of the museum. But I had to be voted in by our board. So I’ve been there ever since 2018.
So when you think about what this money will ultimately mean for the African American Museum in Texas, what do you envision?
I will say, the vision is to capitalize upon what we already are doing, trying to get the museum to be a worthwhile museum for our community – for our city, our state – where people will want to come from miles around to see what we have to offer.