Bill would provide black history center matching funds

The Appropriations Committee heard testimony Feb. 13 on a bill that would provide state matching funds for a new black history center in Omaha.

LB904, introduced by Omaha Sen. Rick Kolowski, would establish the Great Plains Black History Endowment Fund to support the design, development and construction of the Great Plains Black History Museum, Science and Technology Center in Omaha.

The bill would appropriate $8 million in general funds to the new fund to be available as matching grants. The Nebraska State Historical Society would administer the fund and would make a $1 million grant for each $2 million in matching funds collected for the center, up to a total of $8 million in state funds.

Kolowski said estimates indicate that a new center would draw 65,000 visitors a year and could have a significant economic impact on Omaha. The possibility of matching state funds would inspire more donors, he said.

“I believe it is important that the state join in support of this effort,” Kolowski said.

Jim Beatty, chairman and president of the Great Plains Black History Museum, testified in support of the bill. Beatty estimated that $28 million would be needed to complete the envisioned center that would replace the museum’s previous physical location, which closed to the public in 1997.

Beatty said state support for the project would send a message that Nebraska values its citizens of color and their contributions.

“We, as African American, are often excluded in America and in history books,” he said.

Marty Bilek of the Omaha Mayor’s Office also testified in support of the bill, saying the museum’s collections contain valuable historical and education material about the contributions of African Americans to the city and the state.

“That history is valuable,” Bilek said. “Everyone growing up here should be aware of it.”

James L. Calloway, son of the Great Plains Black History Museum’s founder, testified in opposition to the bill. He said moving the museum out of North Omaha would be contrary to his mother’s vision for the institution.

Calloway said the museum’s collections could be made accessible to the public without spending large sums of money on a new building, which he said could be better spent addressing the needs of the African American community in Omaha.

“We’re sitting here talking $28 million for a monument?” he said. “This is ridiculous.”

The committee took no immediate action on LB904.

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