In 2014, the History Museum at the Castle and African Heritage, Inc. created a civic engagement initiative to highlight the marginalized history of Black experiences and racial discrimination in Appleton, Wisconsin. As the first major study of Blacks in northern Wisconsin, the exhibit and programming shed light on a growing Black community before 1900, a sundown town custom that existed from 1920 to 1960, and how the Civil Rights Movement impacted the city.
For this project A Stone of Hope: Black Experiences in the Fox Cities, the museum’s goals included: (1) Create an affinity group to guide the project, (2) create research files for public use (including paper, oral histories, photographs, and artifacts), (3) create a small pop-up museum to visit schools, businesses, and public spaces, and (4) create programs that further engages the community. Most importantly, the exhibit and programs served as a truth and reconciliation effort for the community to reflect on past racism and move forward as a more equitable place for people of color. The exhibit and programs include an incredible depth of research from historic Black newspapers in Milwaukee and Chicago (both covered Appleton), state archival records, military pension applications, and traditional local sources. The development committee held listening sessions to incorporate community memories and recorded eight oral histories of current Black residents. Due to the complex and challenging content, every element of the exhibit was reviewed by the committee, academic historians, and content experts such as a United State Colored Troops historian at Petersburg National Battlefield.
A Stone of Hope significantly contributed to the institution’s visibility in the Fox Cities and has helped demonstrate that the museum can significantly participate in important community conversations. This project has directly impacted the success of the organization by contributing to a 12% increase against the historic average of visitor attendance, as well as a 30.4% increase in membership revenue. When asking why people joined the institution, many individuals could specifically point to this project as one of their reasons. The exhibit committee is also working with neighboring communities who are interested in doing similar projects about their history of African Americans and discrimination. Not only have the exhibit and programs re-written local history and led others to do similar work, but it has also projected the museum in a whole new light to the community.