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Living Consciously, Not Ordinary: a Profile of Dr. Robert Davis

Feb. 21, 2022 at 1:00PM

Today is January 7, 2022. This is an emotional week of remembrance, reflection, and mourning. On this day, the spirit of Bahamian-American actor, film director, and diplomat Sir Sidney Poitier departed our earthly realm. He once said, “Living consciously involves being genuine; it involves listening and responding to others honestly and openly; it involves being in the moment.”

It is fitting that today is also the day we reflect on the journey and future of Dr. Robert—“Bert” to his many friends—Davis, the president and CEO of America’s Black Holocaust Museum. Regarding the passing of Sidney Poitier and others who shape our collective thinking and culture, Dr. Davis reminds us, “You mourn their loss not because you knew them, but because of the way they made you feel.”

After paying our respects to Sir Poitier, Dr. Bert (he gave me permission to call him that) and I also reminisced about how we felt when Prince died. “That was a gut punch, too,” he says. Strangely we shared similar stories about parties where Prince’s albums were the only music option. Our parties were quite different otherwise. His were attended by his college fraternity brothers and mine was at a raucous punk house on the East Side, but we both seemed transported to a different time and place as we were chatting. Like he said, Prince made you feel.

I was drawn to the museum for the same reason. The museum and its story make me feel a range of healing emotions during a time of intensity and conflict—through Covid-19 and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. Having an awareness of the museum back in the 1990s made me feel hope then, too.

An old boyfriend from college who volunteered countless hours in Milwaukee’s Bronzeville neighborhood first told me about Dr. James Cameron, the museum’s founder. Back then, the museum lived in an old boxing gym on 4th and North Avenue. I remember wondering why it seemed nobody knew about this unique place, or its mission. For years, there was a highway destination sign on I-43, but it felt like a special secret only for people who lived in and visited Bronzeville. I was proud to be in on that secret to a degree. It felt sacred.

Under the leadership of Brad Pruitt and the support of Alderwoman Milele Coggs and Developer Melissa Allen, the museum isn’t a secret anymore. It is scheduled to reopen on February 25, 2022, in a brand-new, beautifully designed modern building poetically named The Griot. Not by coincidence, February 25 is also Cameron’s 108th birthday.  

America’s Black Holocaust Museum, 401 W North Ave, Milwaukee, WI 53212
America’s Black Holocaust Museum, 401 W North Ave, Milwaukee, WI 53212

Initially, an opening was planned for the spring of  2020. Covid-19 interfered. And then George Floyd was murdered. Horrific incidents like this remind us of how vitally important America’s Black Holocaust Museum is for a community. With Davis at the helm, he and his team are on a mission to foster healing and grow awareness about the inequities and disparities that have resulted from colonialism, slavery, and Jim Crow.

“Reconciliation and healing are ultimately what we want. We will achieve our vision by sharing experiences and exchanges. And the setting of the museum is to be a place where people feel that they have the sanctity, the safety, and the ability to share their thoughts in an open forum where they won’t be ridiculed or persecuted,” Davis emphasizes.

A Story in a Story

One of the museum’s strategies is to educate and foster empathy, compassion, and understanding through storytelling. The standard museum title curator is not used at America’s Black Holocaust Museum. Instead, it is staffed by a team of griots. Wikipedia’s definition of a griot is a West African historian, storyteller, praise singer, poet, or musician. The griot is a repository of oral tradition and is often seen as a leader due to their position as an advisor to royal personages.

The museum itself has its own remarkable story. That sacredness I felt in the 1990s was rooted in the remarkable, unfathomable survival story of Cameron, the only documented survivor of a lynching.  He founded the museum in 1984 because he believed “the truth would set Americans free and make real racial repair and reconciliation possible.” He and his work were living records of truth and history.

“Dr. Cameron’s story is extraordinarily unique. Although he's probably not the only person to survive a lynching. As a matter of fact, there is folklore—even in my family—about people who survived lynchings; we can’t prove it. But we do have documented proof of Dr. Cameron’s traumatic experience.

“He is one of the only persons known to survive a lynching. He is the only person to write a book about it. And he is the only person to found a museum around the study of race,” says Davis.

Cameron died at the age of 92 in 2006. At that time, the museum occupied the 12,000 square foot former gym that I remember from my days in college. It was gaining momentum and strength as an institution. It was supported by a slate of board members and volunteers, and hosted visitors from around the world.

In a story about Cameron’s passing, The Associated Press quoted Marissa Weaver, a former chairwoman of the museum’s board: “The museum is his legacy. That was his life’s work—to share with the world the injustices that African Americans have suffered while at the same time, and most importantly, providing an opportunity to repair bridges that have been suffered because of our history.”

Buckle Up

Davis is now responsible for that legacy. There is no question he is also shaping his own legacy. When asked if Davis ever imagined he’d be in this role, he smirks.

“I woke up when I was five years old and I said, ‘Damnit. I'm going to run a museum!’ That wasn’t the case at all. I had no idea. I wanted to be a pathologist until I went into the lab the first week of veterinary school in 1985 and all I smelled was formaldehyde. I said to myself, ‘That's not happening.’ It was all because I watched too much Quincy M.D. or something.”

Despite his unpleasant lab experience, Davis did graduate with a doctorate degree from Tuskegee University School of Veterinary Medicine, with an emphasis on exotic animals. His distinguished career includes leadership roles at the Smithsonian National Zoological Park, Zoo Atlanta, and Lincoln Park Zoo.

“When I think about my parents, and how they made me and my sister read books even before we'd even do our homework—they were very, very staunch disciplinarians,” shares Davis. “I realized I was very fortunate. We were middle class. But my parents didn't make a big deal out of stuff. I knew what their expectations were. They didn't expect me or my sister to be ordinary.”

Davis’ parents’ high expectations were clearly realized. In 2005 he agreed to lead the Zoological Society of Milwaukee as President and CEO. In his tenure with the Zoological Society, he raised more money for the Milwaukee County Zoo than any of his predecessors. Milwaukee quickly became home. He dedicated himself to the community in several volunteer and leadership roles including serving as Vice Chairman of the Board of Directors for Milwaukee Area Technical College and Treasurer of the Milwaukee Film Festival Board.  Nationally, Davis was the Diversity Committee, Chair of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), and the Vice Chair of the American Alliance of Museums (AAM).

It was also in 2005 when Davis’ then-wife returned home from work one evening in June and announced she purchased a membership for America’s Black Holocaust Museum. “I was like, ‘That's a thing?’ She quickly countered, ‘Yeah, it's very much a thing. And I got a chance to meet the CEO, Dr. Cameron. He’s a great guy.’” Through their membership, Davis also briefly met Cameron. Little did he know then that he would someday bear the responsibility of stewarding Cameron’s vision.

Davis left Milwaukee briefly to run the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium. At this time Davis became the second African American to run an aquarium in the United States. But Milwaukee called him back. Cameron’s vision called him home.

“It was one of those kinds of things that you just don't know that it's going to happen. You just have to be blessed and fortunate that when an opportunity happens, when somebody taps you on your shoulder, you need to pack a bag, buckle up, and get on that plane,” admits Davis.

In 2019, Davis faced one of his biggest career challenges. He had planned to open a brand-new building and run one of the most emotional and thought-provoking museums in the country. However, opening a museum during a pandemic and human rights movement wasn’t part of his plan.

Prepared with a Purpose

In the late winter of 2019 Davis was celebrating a $1 million donation from an anonymous supporter. The museum’s exhibits were nearly ready. The community was excited. I was fortunate to attend an exciting sneak peek of the new museum at a dedication for a new sculpture that was anonymously donated to the museum. As I toured the collection of artifacts and read the countless stories lining the walls, I wished my kids were with me. I made a promise to myself to return with our family and to openly discuss with the children the realities shared in that building. I wanted to ask them how the museum made them feel.

But the official ribbon-cutting ceremony never happened. The beautiful new facility still sits quietly, patiently awaiting its debut. It proudly stands on the exact footprint of Cameron’s first gallery in Bronzeville.

Fortunately, in the meantime, America’s Black Holocaust Museum was ahead of the curve with virtual offerings. Much of the museum’s vast collection was digitally archived and managed by race relations experts and museum staff members Dr. Fran Kaplan and Reggie Jackson. Kaplan and Jackson launched the virtual museum more than 10 years ago. The digital version of the museum archived more than 3,000 artifacts and documents. It was essential to maintain support and fundraising efforts during the pandemic. When George Floyd was murdered on May 25, 2020, both the physical building and the virtual collection stood as symbols of healing and sources of understanding.

“People gave to the museum because of the pandemic; they knew the resources were going to be scarce. And they gave to the museum because of what happened with George Floyd and all the other countless, senseless murders,” says Davis. “Donors were very deliberate. They reached out and said, ‘Hey, we want to help you.’”

Also beneficial to the museum was the fact that Davis is deeply embedded in the Milwaukee philanthropic community, dating back to his days at the Zoological Society. Not that it has been easy. Davis and his team have run into some setbacks. Not all funders want to support Black organizations. Notably, the museum was denied a grant because the sponsor didn’t want to be associated with Black Lives Matter and perceived riots. 

“The problem with being known as a Black museum is people will pigeonhole you, which I told some of our consultants was going to happen, and it did,” says Davis. “In some cases, we have been completely dismissed as a result of this categorization. A grant sponsor said they didn’t want to support ABHM because they don’t support BLM, which is unfortunate, obviously. Not to mention the fact that we never once mentioned BLM in our proposal. BLM wasn’t our initiative.”

Davis passionately clarifies why the museum is essential to the entire community. “American history is Jewish history, Native American history, Latino history, women's history, Black history. It's everybody's history. We are all part of the tapestry of the United States.”

Davis continues, “We're going to talk about American history and focus it through the lens of Africans in America. From before the transatlantic slave trade to now. We want everyone to tell their own story in that context.”

Keeping the Doors Open. Always.

Davis doesn’t allow roadblocks built from ignorance and prejudice to get in his way. For every naysayer or adversary, there have been tenfold more champions of the museum and Davis himself. While the donor base doesn’t necessarily resemble the giving personas of larger institutions, Davis appreciates the groundswell of support from people around the city and region who wanted the museum to return. Some foundations have even eliminated outdated or overly bureaucratic criteria to expedite financial support. This has allowed the museum to create a strong financial base and continue Dr. Cameron’s legacy.

“The compassion of people and their strong desire to see the museum's mission and vision become fulfilled is heartwarming.  Recently, we were awarded another $10 million grant from an anonymous benefactor, which squarely puts us in a scenario in which the museum can say, we won't ever close our doors again.”

The latest injection of cash has made it possible for the museum to purchase land across the street from the existing building to create space for a parking lot and additional storage for artifacts. The funding also supports the construction of another building to house additional programming, classrooms, an auditorium, and office space. 

The timing of the grant announcement is perfect, given the upcoming reopening celebrations. The community and Davis’ perseverance are fueling the exciting next chapter of America’s Black Holocaust Museum and the future looks bright. Davis’ 10-year goal is to establish the museum as a center of academic excellence focused on the study of race in America and beyond. As the son of parents who encouraged extraordinary outcomes, Davis is determined to see his big goal come to life.

“I am inherently a compassionate person who always thinks of others before myself. Always. And when you are a compassionate person, and all you ever want to do is help people, people know it. They can tell, and they will always try to help you. And so people have always tried to help me. Always, in my career.

“Was I called a n****r before? Yes. Have I experienced prejudice? Yes. But here I am.”

Here, in Milwaukee, he’s helping us as a community to listen, respond to others honestly and openly, and be in the moment. He’s giving us a gift: He’s making us feel, to our cores.

About the author

Cory Ampe

Cory Ampe has worked in marketing and communications for more than 20 years. She currently owns a marketing firm named Campe + Co , is the president of United Adworkers, and volunteers for Sculpture Milwaukee, Islands of Brilliance, and Girl Scouts Wisconsin Southeast. She is also married to a creative person and is the mom of two high-energy kids.