A tour at the Colored Girls Museum, which is fighting for post-pandemic survival

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Two pillars of Philadelphia’s Black cultural community need $100,000 to reopen after the three-month quarantine rocked their revenue streams.

Northwest Philly’s Colored Girls Museum and the Paul Robeson House in West Philadelphia on Monday launched a joint GoFundMe page. Their six-figure goal will allow them to complete physical renovations and institute new cleaning protocols so they can reopen to the public safely, they told Billy Penn.

“I don’t even know how to quantify it,” said Vashti DuBois, founder of the Colored Girls Museum. “You work and work and work to get to a certain point, and then the ground disappears.”

By mid-July, the page had exceeded its goal.

Though the Colored Girls Museum has scored some funding from the Knight Foundation and other philanthropic foundations — both institutions get all their unrestricted cash from visitors, tours and events, which haven’t been possible lately. The financial blow has been severe.

“We are Black-led institutions. We do the work,” said Christopher R. Rogers, program director at the Robeson House. “How can we say, ‘Get behind us, get behind our work?’”

The two historic centers need to establish new systems to keep their buildings clean during the pandemic — think air purifiers, sanitizing stations and cleaning supplies.

Both museums say not reopening isn’t an option. They recognize the importance of small, Black cultural institutions for communities — especially during a pandemic that has disproportionately affected Black Philadelphians. They’re hoping they can jump on board the current revolutionary moment and score enough donations to stay afloat.

The African American Museum in Philadelphia, a much larger institution in Center City, recently had to battle against a funding cut proposed in the Kenney administration’s initial plan for the city’s next fiscal year. That funding, about $230k, was later restored.

Growing momentum stopped short by the virus

The Colored Girls Museum had just scored grant funding for the first time in November 2019.

The money was going to kickstart a brand new Toni Morrison display, plus fresh programming to teach girls ages 13 through 16 how to dig through archives and create their own exhibits.

At the Paul Robeson House, where the namesake famous actor and musician lived during the 20th century, 80-person tours were scheduled for this year. But along with the house’s biggest fundraising opportunity, Robeson’s birthday on April 9, they had to be canceled.

“We really had some great momentum going before this thing happened,” Rogers said. “At the pace that we were achieving before the pandemic, I think we were doing two to three events a week.”

Both volunteer-run organizations have always operated on a shoestring budget.

“Our ability to survive and navigate this moment and do maintenance is built on our events, our programming and how we can call people together,” Rogers said. “It’s critical for us to put these calls out there.”

New cleaning supplies, plus a porch and a kitchen

On deck for both the Colored Girls Museum and the Paul Robeson House are a handful of necessary repairs and renovations. Most importantly, the owners and staff want things like air purifiers, sanitizing stations, PPE and full-time cleaning staff.

“I do most of the labor myself, in terms of cleaning the museum,” DuBois said. “Once we reopen, with two tours a day, we’d have to bring somebody in who’s constantly making sure things are clean. Those are expenses we didn’t have before, taking on a whole other level of immediate urgency.”

The Northwest Philly women’s museum also wants to update its porch. That way, DuBois can host outdoor events and galleries at a safe, social distance.

The Paul Robeson House could benefit from a new kitchen, so they can cook food in a sanitary way and then sell it to make up for lost revenue.

Both institutions say they don’t have a timeline for reopening, because they can’t do it without completing these renovations first, which they can’t do until getting some help via the GoFundMe.

It just wouldn’t feel right to open their doors to their predominantly elderly, Black volunteer and visitor base during a pandemic, they said.

“Really, we do want people to be able to come, and to send the message that these are not just spiritually and culturally safe spaces, but also these are physically safe spaces,” DuBois said. “When you come here, know that we’ve prepared a safe space for you.”

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Michaela Winberg

Michaela Winberg is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn. She covers LGBTQ people and culture, public spaces, and transportation and mobility. She also sometimes produces radio and web features...