The Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History opened the doors to its current Midtown Detroit facility in 1997 and hosted an impressive 30,000 visitors in the first three days of operation. The museum was originally established by its namesake, Dr. Charles H. Wright (1918-2002) in 1965, as the International Afro-American Museum, and is considered to be the oldest and largest museum dedicated to black history in the world. Dr. Wright was a Detroit area obstetrician who was inspired by a visit to a World War II memorial while traveling abroad. His goal was to document, preserve, and educate the public on the history, life, and culture of African Americans. “In my next life,” Wright told The Detroit News in 1997, “I’ll be a historian, not a physician.”
The three-story building was designed by architect Harold Varner of the Detroit architecture firm Sims-Varner Associates with inspiration from African art and architecture. The museum boasts 125,000 square feet of space and was constructed for $38.4 million. Flags of African nations fly in the main rotunda under a 55-foot-tall glass dome. Other spaces include a 22,000 square foot exhibit titled “And Still We Rise”, gallery space, listening rooms, a 317-seat auditorium, classrooms, a research library, gift shop, restaurant, and administrative offices.
Harold Richard Varner (1935-2013) was a native of Detroit. He received his architectural education from Lawrence Technological University and became a licensed architect in 1967. He joined fellow African American architect Howard Sims’ firm in 1973, forming the firm Sims-Varner Associates. Varner served on the Michigan Board of Architects and in 1981 was elected to the American Institute of Architects’ College of Fellows. Varner had a long and esteemed career, defying the odds in a profession where black architects comprise less two percent of the total. The Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History is a wonderful legacy for a stalwart professional.