In 1974 the Dallas African American Museum was founded on the campus of Bishop College. The original name of the museum was the Southwest Research Center and Museum of African-American Life and Culture. The founding director of the museum was Dr. Harry Robinson, Jr. Born in New Orleans, Louisiana, Robinson grew up in rural Louisiana and attended and earned his bachelor’s degree from Southern University in Baton Rouge. He earned his graduate degrees from Atlanta University and the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. As of 2012 Robinson had served as the museum’s only director and chief executive officer.
After its founding, the museum developed and sponsored programs and activities that highlighted its mission. It sponsored African and African-American art exhibitions, a lecture series named in honor of Bishop College’s first African-American president Joseph J. Rhoads, and a biennial Texas women’s conference that was eventually named for Dallas journalist and local historian Dickie Foster. The museum opened in a small 30’ x 30’room on the second floor of Bishop College’s Zale Library, for which Robinson also served as the chief librarian. Although Robinson eventually moved the museum to the basement of the Zale Library which had limited exhibition space, it exhibited the works of local African-American artists, sponsored a variety of programs for youth and adults, and served as a centerpiece for Bishop College’s community outreach efforts and programs. After its opening, the museum received major donations of African art from Mr. and Mrs. Stanley Marcus, Mr. and Mrs. George Perutz, and the Meadows Foundation.
In 1979 the museum shortened its name to the Museum of African-American Life and Culture, and it became independent of Bishop College—a separation forced by Bishop College’s ongoing financial crisis. The museum created an independent, nonprofit governance organization called the Foundation of African-American Art. Although the museum separated from Bishop College, it was still housed on its campus in the Zale Library. In an effort to increase its exhibition space and program facilities, in 1981 the museum embarked on a capital campaign to renovate a chapel on the Bishop College campus. The campaign was not successful. Despite a series of community programs designed to raise funds, a grant from the National Institute of Museum Services, and a challenge grant of $75,000 from the Meadows Foundation, the museum raised only $325,000. But it needed $800,000 to begin the renovation project.
Bishop College declared bankruptcy in 1988, and the museum moved its offices to Dallas Fair Park. Its temporary location was in the Magnolia Lounge, a building that also housed the Fair Park information center. By using offsite galleries and exhibition sites and auditoriums in the city, such as the Dallas Public Library, the Hall of State, El Centro College, and the Trammell Crow Center, the museum continued to sponsor a plethora of exhibitions and educational and community outreach programs. Some of its major exhibitions included Black Presence in Dallas: A History of Black Political Activism in Dallas County, 1936–1986 (1987); Sacred Symbols: Animals of Pharaoh’s Egypt (1989); and Juneteenth: 125 Years Later (1990). Its programs included the biennial A. Maceo Smith Brunch, the annual Texas Black Invitational Rodeo, the Southwest Black Art Exhibition, community African-American history courses, summer African-American history camps, an annual African-American Heritage Bowl for high school and middle school students, and an African-American history fair. During its fifteenth anniversary in 1989–90, the museum sponsored the first statewide African-American History in Texas conference, the Arco Lectures series, and a concert by the Boys Choir of Harlem.
During the year of its fifteenth anniversary the museum also celebrated another major milestone—on November 4, 1989, Robinson, the museum’s board of directors, and a host of dignitaries, including Dallas mayor Annette Strauss, broke ground in Fair Park for the museum’s new building. In 1985, even before the closing of Bishop College, Robinson had begun an effort to build a new building for the museum in Fair Park. After discussions with Harry Parker, the director of the Dallas Museum of Art, the two of them negotiated with the Dallas Park Board, the Friends of Fair Park Association, and other stakeholders to move the museum to Fair Park. The negotiations included providing partial funding for the museum’s new building from a 1985 city bond issue to upgrade Fair Park and other arts institutions in the city. The bond issue passed, and the museum received $1.2 million to build a new $3 million building in Fair Park. After four years of fund raising, including major donations and contributions from the Meadows Foundation, NationsBank, Exxon, and over 50,000 individual donors, the museum broke ground for its new building in 1989. But due to the rising costs for construction which eventually amounted to more than $4.6 million, the museum’s 38,000-square foot building did not open until November 13, 1993.
The opening of the new building provided Robinson and the museum staff a variety of new opportunities for exhibitions and programs. To acknowledge and emphasize the new phase in the museum’s history, the board of directors shortened its name to the “African American Museum.” The new building provided space for the museum’s most important archival and art collections and a venue to open them for viewing by the public and use by scholars. The museum has specialized in collecting and exhibiting African-American folk art. It houses and exhibits a 200-piece collection of folk art named for former Dallas Park board chair Billy Allen (the Billy R. Allen Folk Art Collection). The museum also has the following major collections: the Sepia Magazine Photograph Collection, the Dallas County Black Political Archives, the Bishop College Archives, the Texas Black Women’s History Archives, the Freedman’s Cemetery Collection, and the A. Maceo Smith Collection. It is the official repository for “Black Texana” for the state of Texas, and it houses the Texas Black Sports Hall of Fame. The museum’s current programs include: monthly “Music Under the Dome” concerts, an oral history project sponsored by the African American Education Archives and History Program, the annual Tulisoma Black Writers’ Conference, and a Junior Docent Program.