Understanding the Colman School Reoccupation Struggle for an African American Heritage Museum & Cultural Center

Black community elder, AAHM&CC founder and living legend Omari Tahir has been reoccupying the old Colman School building that he and other community members won from the city in 1998 after the longest occupation of a public building in US history. He is frequently joined by fellow elder and AAHMM&CC co-founder Earl Debnam, a distinguished Central Area artist of Historic Africatown.

Since Juneteenth, 2020, Omari, Earl and a growing number of community members have been maintaining a round-the-clock presence at the entrance of the building that’s misnamed “Northwest African American Museum”, or “NAAM”, to draw attention to how white developers colluded with the Urban League, the FBI, the family of Bill Gates and corrupt officials within the Seattle School District to steal Colman School from the African American Heritage Museum & Cultural Center, who are the rightful owners of the property. 

In spite of being locked out of the building, the AAHM&CC has liberated the space in front of the entrance, activating it as a museum without walls, complete with exhibits, a community garden, exercise equipment, solar power, a front desk, and a makeshift office.

Omari is the President of the real museum. To back his case, he has a signed purchase and sale agreement with the Seattle School District as well as an approved loan for the full amount of the price of the building listed in that agreement. A news article documents that he submitted the downpayment for the building; their cashier’s check was accepted by the district in a public Seattle School Board meeting.

Omari was part of the occupations that won El Centro de la Raza and Daybreak Star Indian Cultural Center. The Colman School occupation — and now reoccupation — is part of this lineage.

From 1981-4, Omari and members of the community spent three years at 23rd and Yesler fighting to prevent a new precinct from being built. They told the city, “We don’t need more police. If you have money for a new precinct, let’s invest it in something positive instead”.

Omari got the idea for the museum from Mama Karimu Francis White who had the first black history class at CORE/Congress of Racial Equality. He had already created the Black Cultural Center in 1969 and joined the two visions together. Colman School was identified as the site for the museum by a 1984 task force to create the museum commissioned by then Mayor Charles Royer.

From 1985-1998 community members occupied the abandoned Colman School, running programs for the community while the city denied them basic services like water, heat and electricity. In 1993 newly elected Mayor Norm Rice expressed a commitment to get the museum off of the ground, he commissioned a study to outline the programs, renovation and governance of the museum and moved the organizers of the museum —  along with most of their operation — into two large portables in the parking lot to continue their programs while initial renovations began. (Some of of the museum’s musical equipment remained in a store room in the main Coleman building.)

Mayor Rice then proceeded to fill all of the executive positions on the museum board with his people and the “internal” conflicts began. Nonetheless the project continued. Omari traveled back and forth from Africa bringing art that filled display cases in the portables. They led workshops and held concerts, engaging with youth to connect with their roots and be proud of their heritage so that they would not turn to the streets. They were successfully running a mini version of their envisioned project.

In 1998 the real museum signed a purchase and sale agreement with the school district. But the Mayor’s obstructors on the board were busy at work. Robert Flowers, who had a conflict of interest — simultaneously serving on the boards of the AAHM&CC and the Urban League — refused to follow the AAHM&CC board’s vote to pay the $50,000 down payment. 

The organizers were then evicted from the portables by SWAT police with teargas and assault rifles, and their music equipment simultaneously stolen from Coleman’s store room by the same SWAT Team. All of the exhibits in the portables were likewise stolen by the cops, and never returned. 

In spite of this police raid, the organizers subsequently arranged separate funds to make the down payment on the building, which the school district publicly received. 

But the school district, the city and the FBI obstructed the museum’s rightful ownership. The school district illegally sold the building again — which was no longer its to sell — to the Urban League. The first director of the Urban League’s “NAAM” was Carver Gayton, a proud FBI agent who had kept a file on Omari for the FBI.

The Urban League’s subversion of Black peoples’ struggle is a pattern of long-term design. The Urban League was founded in 1910 by the wife of the wealthy Boston Railroad Tycoon William Henry Baldwin Jr. From its inception, it has always consisted of white industrial wealth hiring mostly Black staff to carry out the political agenda of their employers under a nominally “non-profit” umbrella. It has always aligned itself with the US State Department and been used as a tool of white supremacy since its early days when it worked with the Woodrow Wilson administration to oppose Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association movement and pressure Black workers to support the First World War. It has always repressed Black visionaries who were reclaiming their heritage and organizing for authentic cultural and economic development.

The 1994 Mayor’s report outlines programs that the world class African American Heritage Museum & Cultural Center would include: 

—A visual arts center to “depict African American history positively, honestly, and accurately in a permanent display” with “artifacts representing countries in Africa and the African diaspora, the migration from the south to the north in the United States, and the settlement of the Pacific Northwest.”

—A musical center “to depict African American history in music positively and to encourage development in all music styles, performance and composition.” The plan further outlines, “Program activities could include performances and workshops by featured artists; classes in history of music, composition, and performance; and archives of African American music, recordings, sheet music and news clippings.”

—An artist-in-residence program

—“A small, intimate performing space that could also be used for workshops” 

—“Practice space in soundproof cubicles for individuals and groups” 

—“An instrument library for use within the center”

—“A recording studio”

In too many ways to count, the “NAAM” is not living up to the mission or vision of the founders of the real museum. It is the only museum limited to the “Northwest“, rather than serving as a world class, international museum. Most of the space is devoted to so-called “mixed income” residential bungalows, leaving only part of one floor for the “museum”. It’s only open 5 days a week from 11am-5pm, so it is not able to serve as a hub for educating and engaging with youth or people who work. Clearly the people running the “NAAM” are not rooted in or committed to the vision of the African American Heritage Museum & Cultural Center. For all of these reasons, “NAAM” cannot fulfill the original intention of supporting the community to connect with their heritage and develop their potential as artists and cultural leaders to contribute to the long lineage of proud African American art and resistance. This failure benefits the deeply entrenched system of white supremacy.

The growing movement supporting the reoccupation taking place at the entrance to the Colman School has one demand:

“Any and all entities obstructing the African American Heritage Museum & Cultural Center’s rightful control over our land and infrastructure are asked to please cease and desist from such obstruction.

“Former obstructors will be welcomed to participate in our project under the AAHM&CC’s leadership, as long as they are willing to do so. We are here for justice, not revenge.”

There would be no “NAAM” without the founders of the African American Heritage Museum & Cultural Center. Of course the museum should be led by those who envisioned it and endured hardship to win it for the community, to make it an international world class museum.

No matter how many Black public relations staff the Urban League’s “NAAM” may hire, the fact that Carver Gayton, its first director, was an FBI agent makes it clear that the struggle to return the rightful ownership of the museum is, in fact, a struggle against the white supremacist state. We are truly at a turning point in history. The Urban League is invited to step down and join this struggle. We are not trying to exclude them, the way they exclude us.

The Urban League and downtown establishment is the knee on the neck of our community. We need cultural and economic development to defend our community from gentrification and get the knee off of our necks. The recovery of Colman School for a real museum is part of the struggle to fight gentrification and stop the destruction of the black community. We demand repair-ations now.