Two years ago, the Sacramento Sheriff’s Department called the Sojourner Truth African Heritage Museum and asked for a mural.
In response, a group of artists and local students transformed a long piece of shipping container into a vibrant landscape of primary colors and playing children’s silhouettes, beneath the word “COMMUNITY.” The mural popped in front of the building’s beige facade.
The department couldn’t finance the project, but that wasn’t a problem: The museum received lots of similar requests and never turned one down. Since its inception 25 years ago, it’s painted 2,000-square-foot murals throughout Sacramento — many of them for free.
So when the museum came away from this year’s Big Day of Giving with a mere $2,000, founder and director Shonna McDaniels was “simply heartbroken.”
Most other museums got over $50,000 from the 24-hour donating challenge. The Sojourner Truth Museum is the only African American museum in Sacramento. To McDaniels, those two facts are not unrelated.
“We should have had every sheriff in Sacramento making a contribution to our Big Day of Giving, you know?” said McDaniels.
Instead, she said her children became “victims of trauma and abuse” at the hands of the same sheriff’s department.
While McDaniels spoke, Sojourner Truth was there, too: a painting of her face, a full-body doll — both among the art donations that decorate the museum’s south Sacramento space. Truth was a prominent African American abolitionist and women’s rights voice in the 1800s.
McDaniels has always been drawn to Truth, even when she was a little girl and didn’t fully grasp the activist’s importance. But after learning of Truth’s commitment to racial and gender equality, McDaniels — an artist herself — vowed to honor her legacy.
“I say that every woman, no matter what race, should know about Sojourner Truth and what she stood for, what she fought for,” she said.
In addition to memorializing Truth, the museum seeks to celebrate Black history and culture through arts education and outreach. The “mural beautification” program is just one way of accomplishing this mission: There are also the in-house art exhibits, all-expenses-paid field trips, and a youth music initiative that connects students to local producers, artists and teachers, to name a few.
Although the coronavirus forced these programs to go virtual, McDaniels says that this hasn’t hindered the museum’s ability to engage the community.
Every first and third Friday, families used to gather in the museum to enjoy catered food and a variety of “pop-up activities,” from African drumming to hip-hop to visual art. Now, these events are online, with meals and relevant art supplies available for pickup beforehand. Children can make slime together over Zoom; adults can join “book circles” highlighting African American authors; families can dance to a local DJ.
McDaniels says the online platform has allowed the museum to reach an even larger audience. Prior to the pandemic, it was already serving 12,000 kids in the area. But fundraising disparities — like those observed during Big Day of Giving — make it difficult for the museum to sustain its impact.
“We need to thrive as well,” said McDaniels of black-owned businesses. “If we don’t have anybody ever giving to us and helping to uplift us with their donations, then how can we continue to do this very important work?”
This year wasn’t the first time the museum received so little. Despite being one of the original organizations involved in Big Day of Giving, it’s ended up with nearly the same amount every year. In fact, the problem is so pervasive that several Black women nonprofit leaders, including McDaniels, created the African American Nonprofit Coalition. They’ve asked Big Day of Giving to launch a campaign that encourages donors to “diversify their dollars,” but no action has been taken.
As a result, McDaniels has begun her own fundraising efforts through GoFundMe. The link is advertised on a Facebook graphic, accompanied by the slogan: “Black Museums Matter: Help Black Businesses Thrive!” The effort had earned about $4,000 as of Friday morning.
“When people see our name, they think, ‘Oh, no, it’s only a Black thing,’” said McDaniels. But she wants to make clear that the Sojourner Truth Museum shares art with “all people, all human beings,” and “all the diverse groups of kids who desperately need art in their lives.”
“Art is so important,” she said. “I always ask, ‘What would the world be without art?’”
Visit www.sojoartsmuseum.org to see more and learn more about the Sojourner Truth African Heritage Museum.