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City discusses long-term goal of African American Heritage Center

Shannon Gavin Johnson, executive director of the Troup County Historical Society Archives, spoke to LaGrange City Council members Tuesday about plans for an African-American Heritage Center.

Plans are still in the early stages, and the museum would take years to become a reality.

“The project has tremendous potential, tremendous merit,” Johnson said.

Johnson and others have found a few potential sites for the museum, such as 134 Main Street, 10 North Lafayette Square or the corner of Lafayette Parkway and King Street.

An important aspect of choosing a location is allowing for “critical mass,” in other words, creating the museum in the existing agglomeration of tourist attractions and museums in downtown LaGrange.

“It needs to be walkable to other attractions, some place in that downtown footprint,” Johnson said.

LaGrange Mayor Jim Thornton asked Johnson to consider looking at locations in the East Depot Street corridor, given the area’s history as a center of Black businesses.

Thornton said in an interview the idea for such a museum was first conceived in 2018 when the LaGrange-Troup County Chamber of Commerce held several meetings to discuss it. Among the people involved were Thornton, Lisa Farrow and Linda McMullen of LaGrange College, Robert Tucker of the Calumet Park Neighborhood Association and council member Willie Edmondson.

Thornton said that after the city took over the tourism bureau from the chamber and rebranded it as Visit LaGrange, the project was put on hold. Edmondson requested the council discuss the museum at the retreat “to get the conversation back on track,” Thornton said.

Some of the goals and objectives discussed in the 2018 meetings were:

  • The use of permanent exhibits;
  • The use of rotating exhibits;
  • The use of technology to create interactive exhibits;
  • Space to host educational programs such as workshops, performances, reenactments and interactive presentations;
  • Space to offer books and other items for sale.

Johnson explained that, without a location nailed down, it was difficult to know the cost of the project. Nevertheless, the estimate she provided was an annual budget ranging from $160,740 to $243,000, excluding the cost of purchasing or leasing a building. Costs would include hiring a curator, receptionists and other staff, as well as utilities, building insurance, mailing, marketing, gallery programming and other expenses.

Costs are also dependent on how high-tech the museum would be. A no-tech environment of static elements, artifacts and graphic panels, similar to the Legacy Museum, might be $300-$600 per square foot.

A low-tech option featuring digital interactives, video/projection screens and touch-screen kiosks could be $600-$1,200 per square foot.

A high-tech museum featuring highly customized interactives, multi-touch surfaces, gesture control and integrated apps might reach $1,200-$2,000 per square foot.  Johnson said the museum would hopefully include a mixed approach between traditional, brick-and-mortar museum curation and virtual or app-based content.

Thornton spoke about visiting the National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta, where he was able to use headphones to virtually experience what it was like to stage a lunch counter sit-in during the civil rights movement.

“That interactive experience sort of stays with you,” Thornton said.

Given the open factors of museum size and technology, the initial investment could range from $600,000 to $2 million.

The archives and historical society are partially funded by memberships. The archives also provides archive services to the city, the county and the school system, which all pay the organization. Thornton said the organization would likely seek funding from a variety of sources, such as the city, county and the Callaway Foundation, once plans are more concrete.

Also discussed was the idea of doing an oral history project. Interviews would be conducted with Black residents of Troup County, who would tell stories about the civil rights movement and the Jim Crow era.

“Those stories are going to get lost if we don’t find some way to document that,” Thornton said.