A significant part of Bowling Green’s history is now on public display after years of effort.
The Bowling Green African American Museum on the Western Kentucky University campus at 1783 Chestnut St. is now open for visitors two days per week.
The museum was born in what was once the heart of the region’s African-American community – the Shake Rag area.
There once were four primarily black areas in Bowling Green, but Shake Rag, with many black businesses and restaurants, was the vibrant hub.
“That’s where everything was,” museum board member Wathetta Buford said.
Small portions of the historic Shake Rag area remain between downtown Bowling Green and The Medical Center campus, but much of it was demolished and redeveloped.
“Houses were being torn down. ... We wanted that feeling of community back,” Buford said, so she and others formed an organization to work on preserving as much of the area as possible. Starting in the early 2000s, Buford and others began collecting photos and other items from the area. That developed into the idea that a museum was needed to house the items, an idea supported by city officials.
At its inception, the collection was housed in a small building owned by the Housing Authority of Bowling Green on Third Avenue, but it never regularly opened to the public.
Since then, the all-volunteer board has been working to make the museum a reality.
“A museum takes a lot of work, commitment of resources and time,” said museum board chair John Hardin, who is a history professor at WKU. “Good things take time.”
In 2014, the museum, operated as a nonprofit, found a new home at the Erskine House building at WKU, and board members have been working ever since on exhibits and a development campaign to open the space to the public regularly.
That effort became a reality when the museum opened earlier this month for regular hours of 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays.
Inside the small museum, visitors can see photos, maps and other items that tell some of the rich history of the black community in Bowling Green and surrounding counties.
Displays tell the stories of Ernest Hogan, who was the creator of ragtime music, and prominent black judges, athletes and war heroes who hailed from Bowling Green. But it also chronicles everyday life as it once was in Bowling Green’s vibrant black community.
Museum board member Don Offutt said the community was built on four pillars: family, church, education and self-determination.
“The worst thing you could be called was lazy,” Offutt said. That culture, pushed by highly educated leaders and teachers at the black State Street and then High Street high schools, promoted academic excellence, as well as more than a few state and national athletic championships.
“The information needs to be mined before it’s gone ... that’s why this museum is so important,” he said.
Hardin said he wants the museum to eventually collect oral histories and be a source for research. He also envisions an entire area dedicated to the many African-American veterans from the area, “who were willing to give up their lives for the country ... we need to recognize that.”
The museum already features a “WKU room,” where photos and other items tell the story of the black experience at the school – from a photograph of the school’s first black graduate, Margaret Munday, who earned her degree in 1960, to pictures of some of the great basketball teams in the school’s history.
The exhibits fill several rooms, and there are two outbuildings where more exhibits are planned.
Even before its regular hours were established, the museum hosted many student groups by appointment.
During a recent tour by some WKU students, Offutt spoke about the large number of local African-American men who served in the Union army during the Civil War and the once-dynamic Shake Rag area, where he was born.
He told students that looking at what is left of Shake Rag now would give a false impression.
“It doesn’t look like it was very much of a place,” he said. In fact, “it was one of the most thriving black communities in Kentucky.”
The same fate of destruction in the name of “progress” befell other black areas, most notably Jonesville, which was demolished to make way for WKU expansion in the 1960s.
Many of the WKU students expressed surprise that their campus was built in part on such a community. To address those kinds of issues, Hardin said he also wants the museum to feature even more maps – “we need to let people know the geography of this community,” he said.
As she recently sat amid the photos and other items she helped collect over more than a decade, Buford said the long journey to find them a permanent home has been worth it.
“I’m thrilled they finally have a place,” she said.
– For more information about the museum, call 270-745-5753.