Dr. Synatra Smith and Laura Perez Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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In March, poet M. Nzadi Keita led a book discussion at the Prince George’s African American Museum and Cultural Center. She asked audience members to talk about women in their lives that inspire them.

The request led to tears and laughter, but mostly a rare honesty shared between strangers. I had no intention to tell a personal story among people I didn’t know in a museum I’d never been to, but I did, and felt extremely grateful to be a part of it. That’s exactly the experience that the staff and board of directors at the Prince George’s African American Museum and Cultural Center strive to offer.

Situated in the heart of the Gateway Arts District in North Brentwood, the PGAAMCC isn’t just a museum, it’s a home—a place to go back to and remember where you came from and what your ancestors survived.

With tireless leadership and advocacy for the voiceless, the staff of the PGAAMCC continues to build what they describe as a museum without walls—a space to have thoughtful and empowering conversations.  

“Our mission is to amplify the voices of folks in [Prince George’s County] and connect those voices to the world at large,” says Chanel Compton, the vice chair of  development and former executive director of the PGAAMCC. “When people think of [Prince George’s County] they think of politics or negative media instead of the good work that is being done. We are a platform for those voices. We want to help make [Prince George’s County] a major destination for why this area is so unique. We have tremendous networks of academics and activists but you don’t ever hear enough about them.”

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The Prince George’s  African American Museum and Cultural Center, as it stands today, opened in 2010, but its origins date back to 1991. That’s the year that the North Brentwood Historical Society formed with the initial task of creating an oral history project that “documented and celebrated the rich cultural heritage of the first municipality in Prince George’s County incorporated by African Americans,” the museum’s website states.

From the oral history project, the Friends of North Brentwood was established in 1998 with the purpose of creating a museum for North Brentwood. After becoming a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization and working with state, county, and town officials to open a museum, Friends of North Brentwood officially changed its name to the Prince George’s African American Museum and Cultural Center in 2007, and in 2010, construction began on the museum.

In the seven years since the museum opened, it has established itself as a unique community space that preserves Prince George’s County’s rich cultural history. But what makes it such an asset to its community is the work the museum and its staff do beyond its structural walls.

Laura Perez, the director of education and programs, and Dr. Synatra Smith, the education coordinator and scholar-in-residence, work on the museum’s partnership with Prince George’s County Public Schools. They reach more than 60 schools across the system, working with students from pre-kindergarten to high school to bring multicultural education—specifically black art, history, and culture—into classrooms. In addition, they offer professional development training for educators, using the museum as a resource for the classroom.  

“We give the youth the tools to advocate for themselves,” says Smith, who brings black popular culture into classroom discussions. “[These students] are in a unique situation where the schools they attend are predominantly youth of color but their educators are not. The youth get put in situations in the classroom where they are made to feel less than. While maybe not always intentional, it happens, perpetuating white supremacy. … I don’t want them to feel that they cannot challenge authority in the classrooms, especially when it feels dangerous.”

“There is a lot of traumatic work being done in classrooms particularly in history, science, and English where there are not a lot of people of color being highlighted,” Smith adds. “This does something to a student. When that is all that they learn throughout their entire schooling, they don’t feel like they really belong in the classroom. I want them to have the tools to say, ‘Actually I do belong and this is why. My culture is valuable and this is why. We are magical people and this is why.’”   

Perez agrees, noting how most public schools only really devote a month to teaching black history.

“It’s great to have a month to celebrate something but it can feel very compartmentalized,” she says. “We are trying to make connections that last year-round.”     

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As the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture celebrates its one-year anniversary, the staff of the PGAAMCC is finding its niche. “With the rise of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, we see how important community museums are,” Compton says. “We are all telling a tapestry of stories. It’s pushed us to articulate in new ways who we are and why we matter. It’s only an opportunity. Our mission is to preserve, celebrate, and present Prince George’s African-American history and culture.”

And the PGAAMCC works hard to accomplish that mission: Their program calendar is stacked with events. The museum kicked off this month with its Rated PG: Black Arts Festival, the first woman-centered festival in the county. It celebrated female artists throughout the Diaspora with a full day of musical performances, panel discussions, an artists market, and a film screening. On Oct. 19, the museum will host a panel discussion with artists included in its current exhibition, Tell the Truth About Me. Additionally, the museum plans to expand its building and add a 10,000-square-foot black box theater.

All of which makes the museum’s fundraising more impressive: In 2015, the museum raised more than $100,000 through fundraising and grants, and this summer it launched a major campaign to raise $30,000 in contributions.

“At one point Prince George’s had the largest population of enslaved African Americans in the state of Maryland, but today we have the largest population of affluent African-American communities,” Compton says. “It’s really a national and international model for black mobility. We preserve that history through our collections department and further illustrate that history and connect our local story through our programming and education.”