Scheduled to open in 2025-2026, the Urban Civil Rights Museum in Harlem will be New York’s first museum dedicated to civil rights. The museum planners are considering how museums can inspire the social change that we want to see happen, and how we build a museum that can activate civic engagement and support democratic practices. These are crucial questions for the museum’s inaugural director and chief curator Jennifer Scott.
Future headquarters of the National Urban League and Urban Civil Rights Museum in Harlem on 125th St., Harlem, New York. Image courtesy of National Urban League
Scott joined the organization in 2022 to develop and lead the museum from vision to actualization. She previously served in senior roles at history and other social justice museums, including the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit, one of the earliest and most significant African American History Museums in the country, and Jane Addams Hull-House Museum in Chicago, a feminist and immigrant rights museum and historic landmark. In Chicago, she co-chaired the Chicago Monuments Project–a commission and city-wide initiative created to help rethink the city's monuments and public art collection. Earlier in her museum career in New York, she was the Vice Director and Director of Research at Weeksville Heritage Center in Brooklyn where she helped recover a hidden history, launched the oral history program, and helped build a new $40 million interpretive center.
Museum Association of New York [MANY]: Thank you for speaking with us today and for sharing more about the Urban Civil Rights Museum. It feels like a long time coming for the creation of a physical museum by the National Urban League in Harlem. Where did the vision for this museum begin and how did it start?
Jennifer Scott: The museum is part of a larger building project that will allow the National Urban League to return home to Harlem more than 100 years after it was founded. The museum will be a way for the Urban League to not only return to Harlem but to extend the league’s mission, which, historically, has been to support underserved communities, primarily through social services. The organization began as people fled the South during the Great Migration, as a way to provide them with resources, help them find jobs, obtain an education, secure housing and civil rights, and, in general, support people and families seeking safety.
In the last 20 years, under the leadership of President and CEO Marc Morial, the Urban League has expanded its social justice mission and its focus on policy, creating an “Equitable Justice” division. The museum is the vision of President Morial who recognizes the importance of history in understanding the possibilities of social justice. The museum will serve as a space that will share the civil rights work of the Urban League and the work of many other non-profit and grassroots organizations and activists in the North who have contributed to the long fight for social change.It’s the Urban League’s first major entrée into arts and culture, and we are all excited to be a part of this new direction.
MANY: Right, because this will be the first Civil Rights Museum in the North?
Scott: Yes, most Civil Rights Museums are located in the South, giving the impression that the story of Civil Rights is primarily a Southern story. The fact that the museum is being built in New York, in Harlem, and in the North is super exciting because so much work toward civil rights happened here and in other Northern areas. Those are the stories we want to highlight to expand the narrative. And, we’re not just looking at the traditional era of civil rights in the 1950s and ‘60s, but also more than two centuries earlier - back to the early roots of the African American presence in the North when people migrated North as Free people or as fugitives from enslavement. The museum will address the long history of the struggle for civil rights – sharing stories of abolition, anti-slavery, the development of free black settlements, the Great Migration, the Harlem Renaissance, and much more. We will also bring this history up to the present era, sharing recent stories of activism and community organizing that happened in the last 20 years, including the Black Lives Matter movement.
MANY: You have stated that this museum will be a call to action and that it will interpret, document, and explore the long and ongoing struggle for justice and civil rights in Northern urban environments going back to the 1600s and into the 21st century. What else can you tell us about what the visitor experience will look like?
Scott: We want the museum to provide a vibrant educational experience that inspires visitors in New York and beyond to become agents of change in the ongoing movement for equity and justice. We’re hoping to create an engaging, participatory, and inspirational experience for visitors that will connect to diverse audiences –students, educators, activists, artists, political officials, community organizers, local residents, and tourists - anyone who’s thinking about social change and those who aren’t quite there yet. We are hoping that as people explore the museum, they will reflect upon how they can learn from history - how powerful lessons of the past can help them transform their understandings of the present and the future.
We’re also very aware that we will be located in our new home in Harlem, and we want to welcome and immerse visitors as much as possible in Harlem at the heart of the visitor experience with a strong sense and respect of place and history. We also welcome Harlem residents, their stories, and memories of Harlem.
MANY: You mentioned the importance of place, Harlem, which is not only important in the Urban League’s history but also in the greater story of African Americans who made this neighborhood their own. How do you anticipate the museum engaging the Harlem community?
Scott: Similarly to many communities in New York City, Harlem is experiencing tremendous change, demographic changes, and gentrification. As people move away from neighborhoods, their important experiences and stories of all that they contributed become threatened of getting lost or overshadowed. One of the ways that a museum can help preserve these stories and memories is through inviting in and collecting oral histories.
MANY: And you have a background in oral histories.
Scott: Yes, I’m a trained oral historian and have contributed to many oral history projects. I have learned how important it is to preserve our stories and memories because these stories often disappear as people leave the area if they are not recorded. Ideally, we want people to stay and to figure out how we can help them to stay in the neighborhood. And additionally, we want to make sure their voices are heard and preserved so that we continue to tell our own histories. We want to elevate these community stories and give them more space.
MANY: Reflecting on your comment about wanting people to stay, the building where the museum will be is a mixed-use building that includes 170 units of affordable housing, below-market rate office rental space for non-profits and community groups like One Hundred Black Men of New York, United Negro College Fund New York, and the Harlem-based Jazzmobile, and retail space. What do you anticipate will be the impact of this building on the community?
Scott: The bigger real estate project of the National Urban League, indeed, brings retail investment, office space, and affordable housing to the area. I think the museum, in particular, can help support the history, arts, and culture that already exists in the neighborhood and has existed for a long time, and the museum can work with neighborhood residents to expand arts and culture in the area even more.
There will be many possibilities to help activate the power of place. We want to support local artists, activists, students, and others by being a place to convene, have conversations, and host public forums. We want to be a place where people can connect, network, and organize together when possible. The museum will be a neighbor and a partner with local residents and other historic community organizations in the area, including theatres, libraries, churches, schools, arts centers, and other community organizations. We are interested in joining and contributing to the rich and wonderful Harlem cultural ecosystem in the neighborhood.
MANY: What have you learned being part of this process?
Scott: I’m fortunate and very privileged because this is not the first museum I’ve helped build from the ground up. I enjoy helping to envision a project like this that supports a higher cause, bringing it to fruition, and seeing what’s possible. One thing that I’ve learned over and over again in this process is that it’s never a solo project; it takes many, many people (and lots of time and effort) to build something meaningful. When I walk into any project like this, I, thankfully, become part of a larger collaborative. It’s motivating, inspiring, and humbling to work with such dedicated teams. I learn a lot, and am honored to know that I am a participant in such a potentially impactful project and a steward of this important legacy.
MANY: How does the museum communicate all of this to the public?
Scott: I think with the increase in activism in the past several years, and especially since the brutal murder of George Floyd, there’s a heightened awareness of the need for change and an elevated sense of conscience. As a museum focused on social justice, we hope to connect and communicate with the people, communities, and initiatives that are interested or becoming interested in fighting for change and learning more about the history of these struggles in the past.
MANY: I think a lot of museums are asking a similar question –how can museums inspire social change? What are your thoughts?
Scott: Our hope is that the museum will be a place where one can see and feel the work of the many people who fought for justice in urban centers in the North, and reflect on past civil rights efforts so that we can imagine and inspire new possibilities of collective action.
Part of the museum will serve as a resource where visitors can learn more about the different grassroots movements in the past and present, various civil rights legislation that people have fought for, and contemporary initiatives and tools that are available to fight inequities and injustice. The museum plans to host public and education programs that allow people to reflect on democratic ideas and ideals and that will encourage people to engage with one another in public forums and conversations, especially through culture and the arts.
I also believe that you can help inspire social change when you elevate and support narratives that have been historically marginalized and that continue to face threats, distortions, and erasures. There is a lot of power in narrative.
MANY: I think we underestimate the power of narrative.
Scott: I feel that narrative and our power to change the narrative is still an untapped resource at museums and cultural sites.
MANY: What do you want or hope audiences will take with them after visiting the museum?
Scott: It’s always hard to guarantee what visitors will take away. We would love for people to leave with a better understanding of the role that the urban civil rights movement had in the long fight for social change and in the development of Northern cities. We would like people to see the significance of coalitioning and the power of collective action. Although we will also highlight individual leaders of the Civil Rights movement, we would love for visitors to also see, learn about, appreciate, and celebrate everyday people who contributed to the fight for justice and civil rights.
I hope people will have a better understanding of how everyday people and communities went about pursuing, securing, and maintaining economic, political, social, self-reliance, equity, and justice from generation to generation in creative ways.
MANY: We’re excited to have you join us in Albany this April as part of our opening keynote discussion with Ben Garcia, Executive Director of The American LGBTQ+ Museum for the 2024 Annual Conference “Giving Voice to Value.” When was the last time you attended a MANY conference?
Scott: Thank you! I’m looking forward to it. I feel that it will be kind of a homecoming for me because I think the last time I was at a MANY conference was when I was working at Weeksville almost 11 years ago! I’m excited to connect with my New York State colleagues and to be able to reflect on our work and share resources. I noticed recently that MANY is a different organization today than it was then. It seems to be much more diverse in membership and in programming, with many more relevant and interesting programs - in-person and virtual. I’m also looking forward to reuniting with my friend and colleague Ben Garcia in our keynote conversation. It feels like such a privilege to be able to be in conversation with another colleague who is also building a museum in New York and to share the challenges and possibilities with him and with our New York colleagues.
The Urban Civil Rights Museum is scheduled to open in 2025/2026. To learn more about the museum, visit https://nul.org/news/national-urban-leagues-innovative-urban-civil-rights-museum-will-bring-little-examined-corners.
Jennifer Scott will join Ben Garcia, Executive Director of The American LGBTQ+ Museum in an opening keynote discussion, “Slow Cooking: Recipes for Centering Value in Museums” moderated by MANY Executive Director Erika Sanger at the 2024 annual conference in Albany, NY on Sunday, April 8 at 3 PM in Chancellor’s Hall, The New York State Education Department Building. To learn more and to register for the conference, visithttps://nysmuseums.org/annualconference.