For more than a generation it's been a dream, a hope, a plan and, at times, a source of bitter controversy. It's been the site of an occupation...

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For more than a generation it’s been a dream, a hope, a plan and, at times, a source of bitter controversy. It’s been the site of an occupation by activists, the focus of countless community meetings and the subject of a fundraising campaign still working toward its $22.6 million goal.

But on March 8, it will finally become a reality: The Northwest African American Museum will open its doors in the former Colman School in Seattle’s Central Area.

“We’re getting down to the very finishing work, the part that will really make things sing,” said Barbara Earl Thomas, deputy director/curator. In shaping the museum’s content, Thomas tapped churches, schools, longtime residents and an array of civic and community groups.

A Seattle native and artist and writer by background, Thomas, 59, acknowledges she’s still new to the museum business, but she’s certain of this: If the public thinks of this as her museum, it is doomed to fail.

“It’s just an institution and it’s an inanimate object,” she said. “It only comes alive when people come through the door.”

Slices of history

Visitors entering the brick 1909-vintage school building will be greeted by a timeline that spans the hallway, depicting journeys that brought African Americans to Seattle, Portland, Spokane, Boise. It will detail African Americans’ contributions and significance in local and national history.

Farther inside, the opening exhibit in the museum’s largest gallery will highlight the lives and works of two prominent African-American artists who lived in Seattle, Jacob Lawrence and James Washington Jr.

In another area, museumgoers, African American or not, will be able to trace their own roots and learn about their own slice of Northwest history. Additional rooms will accommodate lectures, workshops and artist work spaces.

If the museum works, Thomas said, visitors will see aspects of their own lives inside and will leave feeling as if they’ve been in a stimulating conversation, not lectured to.

Early controversy

The question of just whose museum it is has been a sensitive one for decades.

The three-story school was closed in 1985 when Interstate 90 was expanded next door. But even before its closure, the idea of having a black-history museum in the neighborhood had been discussed.

In November 1985, a group of African Americans moved into the vacant school and announced that they wouldn’t leave until the building became a museum and community center.

School officials wanted to avoid a confrontation, so they simply told the activists that they were trespassing and decided to wait them out. A core group of the activists stayed in the building for more than eight years, until they got an agreement from the school district that the building would become a museum.

But years of uncertainty and disagreements followed. Two separate groups purported to represent the museum. The school district severed ties with the original activists and in 2003 sold the building to the Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle for $800,000.

Michael Greenwood was one of the activists who occupied the building. He said last week that his group still feels the school district improperly cut them out of the project.

“After all the time and energy and effort we put into it, to not have been included in how it came about, I do have a problem with that,” he said.

Now, while Greenwood isn’t sure if he’ll go to the museum, he said “to know that it’s coming alive, I rejoice in that. I would hate to think all our efforts and energies were in vain.”

Carver Gayton, who was tapped to be the museum’s executive director in late 2004, said his focus has been on moving the project forward with the broadest possible support. Although the original activists have not been directly involved, their efforts will be acknowledged in a museum display.

“They set the groundwork,” Gayton said. “We need to honor the contributions and the sacrifices folks made in the past, but that doesn’t mean we’re going to be satisfying everybody’s perspective of what needs to be done.”

Gayton, 69, a former state employment-security commissioner, Boeing executive and longtime educator, helped line up key sources of support. Six-figure contributions have come from, among others, Microsoft, Safeco, Boeing, Key Bank, Washington Mutual, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation. More than $4 million has been obtained from federal, state and local government.

The Links Inc., an association of African-American business and professional women, has committed $70,000. And Gayton said he is particularly grateful for a host of small-to-medium-size donations from individuals.

Personal touches

The 19,000-square-foot museum will occupy the school’s main floor. The top two floors have been transformed into “Urban League Village,” 36 apartments for families of moderate means.

DKA, a black-owned architect firm, designed the apartments and museum. Another black-owned company, Leajak Construction, has been the prime subcontractor on the museum; the RAFN Company of Bellevue is the general contractor.

By the end of this month, trucks will begin arriving from Portland, where the museum’s exhibits have been created by a company called Formations. Already, volunteer docents are being trained in weekly sessions by Brian Carter, 28, the museum’s education director, a Yakima native with a master’s degree in museum studies from the University of Washington.

Interactive displays will pose questions for visitors to answer and invite peeks into certain exhibits, such as a duffel bag of a World War II soldier, or the suitcase of an immigrant from Ethiopia in the 1970s.

Personal mementos of particular significance will be featured, such as the helmet that belonged to Claude Harris, Seattle’s first African-American fire chief, and a trumpet owned by the late jazz musician Floyd Standifer.

The exhibits and activities will change over time, to give people reason to return. It’s an approach that has paid off for Seattle’s Wing Luke Asian Museum, which is opening its expanded quarters in May.

“We want to make sure all the loose ends are tied together,” Gayton said. “So that by the time we open up, the African-American community and the broader community are going to be fascinated, they’re going to be interested and they’re going to want to come back.”

Jack Broom: 206-464-2222 or jbroom@seattletimes.com