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A cultural change: The Harrison Museum of African American Culture will move to Center in the Square when the art museum opens.
[September 13, 2006]

A cultural change: The Harrison Museum of African American Culture will move to Center in the Square when the art museum opens.

(Roanoke Times, The (Roanoke, VA) (KRT) Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge) Sep. 13--A new tenant is set to fill the space left when the Art Museum of Western Virginia moves to its new home off Williamson Road.

Center in the Square's board of directors voted Tuesday to bring the Harrison Museum of African American Culture into the downtown arts and cultural center.

For the Harrison museum, which has been housed in the former Harrison School building in Northwest Roanoke for more than 20 years, the move will mean 7,000 square feet of rent-free housing, security, building maintenance and housekeeping.

More importantly, Harrison board president Mac McCadden said downtown foot traffic will bring increased funds and elevate the profile of black culture in the city.

"It is an opportunity for the African-American population to feel proud about something," he said.

The art museum is expected to move out of the first and second floors of Center in the Square in 2008, when its new zinc, steel and glass building is projected to be finished.

When that happens, the Harrison museum will move into part of the space the art museum vacates.

The Center in the Square board is considering leasing other sections of the first and second floors as professional offices and retail shops, said Jim Sears, the Center's president and general manager.

The Harrison museum first approached Center in the Square more than a year ago about moving into the art museum space.

The Center's board initially recommended the Harrison museum join as an affiliate of the History Museum and Historical Society of Western Virginia, a move that the Harrison board saw as a loss of autonomy and rejected.

After months of discussions, the Center's board on Tuesday voted unanimously to bring the Harrison museum on as an autonomous member.

Sears said the struggle was to find a way to follow the Center's guidelines, which allow for only one of each type of arts and cultural center. At first the board was not sure what exactly the Harrison museum was or how it might overlap with the other organizations, Sears said.

At the Harrison museum, just over a mile from Center in the Square, reactions to Tuesday morning's decision ranged from sad to bittersweet.

Alphonzo Holland Sr., 89, attended the Harrison School, which opened in 1917 as the first public high school for blacks in Southwest Virginia. He is a former Harrison museum board member.

Holland said he would rather see the museum stay where it is than move downtown. The museum is an anchor for the black community, he said.

The building, owned by the development firm Fralin and Waldron, is a national historic landmark.

"This is a historical building," Holland said. "If you take everything out of it, it ceases to be historic."

Inside the museum, Rochelle Lorrits, coordinator of the Henry Street Heritage Festival, an annual museum fundraiser, said the move will be painful, but that it is progress.

The move will help the museum survive and that is what is most important, she said.

"Things change. Neighborhoods change. And the best of us have to change with it," Lorrits said.

In the street outside the museum, Joseph Saunders, 41, was walking home on Harrison Avenue Northwest. He said moving the museum downtown is a great idea, even though he lives in the neighborhood.

"There isn't much activity down here like there used to be back in the days," he said. "It's a damn good move."

Back at Center in the Square, David Helmer, president of the Historical Society of Western Virginia, said he is excited about his future neighbor.

"I think it will be a good addition," he said. "It will add a little diversity."

Copyright (c) 2006, The Roanoke Times, Va.
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Business News.
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