By Jeremiah O. Rhodes, Fresnoland
[This story was originally published by Fresnoland, a nonprofit news organization]
These days, Nefesha Yisra’el’s schedule is packed tight, but she still makes time to engage with the community. Today, she sits in Rosa Kelley Park, across the street from the African-American Historical & Cultural Museum of the San Joaquin Valley, with a group of men.
One man walks around and swings a golf club playfully; two sit in the bed of an open pickup truck, while another tends to the fence that surrounds the park. Yisra’el and Swentrol Harvey, one of the men, sip Michelob Ultras and discuss plans for the park.
Harvey tells Yisra’el about setbacks in getting supplies for the park.
“I’ve been working with the Scouts to get some tables out here, but they’re moving slower than I want,” he said. “It’s taking too long.”
Yisra’el listens, and the two continue discussing ways to make the park more inviting.
While walking across the street to return to the museum, she points back to the park. “You see all those people out there right now,” she said. “Listening to music, drinking beers, that’s what I want the park to look like all the time.”
For the past three years, due to the pandemic, lack of an executive director and funds, the museum sat empty. In August 2022, however, Yisra’el took on the role of executive director and the mission to resurrect the museum.
It is much more than the museum and telling stories of the past for Yisra’el; it is about selling the community her dream of the future and working to “push our history forward.”
Born and raised in New Jersey, Yisra’el moved to Fresno four years ago to help a friend run Royal Roots, a nonprofit focused on agriculture education. Prior to her work with Royal Roots, she was living in Philadelphia, running a community center and making art.
In 2016, she began working remotely with the nonprofit, helping build community gardens and teaching Hebrew and biblical studies. In 2018, she moved to Fresno to continue her work with the organization.
She said the arts and African-American culture have been a big part of her life since long before she arrived in Fresno.
“When I was living in New Jersey, I spent probably five days a week at some kind of art event or an open mic or something,” she said. “That really shaped and framed my understanding of the power of the arts and the need for cultural institutions.”
In addition to working with Royal Roots, Yisra’el hosted art shows and taught art workshops around the Valley.
In May 2022, Yisra’el worked with a friend to help the chair of the museum’s board put together events for Juneteenth and for ArtHop. After the success of those events, he approached Yisra’el and her friend about working with the museum in a more official capacity. Her friend, Henry Ellard Jr., now serves as vice chair of the board.
Yisra’el chose a different position.
“I told him, ‘I don’t want to be on the board, I want to run the organization,’” she said.
After a series of interviews and paperwork, Yisra’el was offered the job as the museum’s executive director.
She said that when she first accepted the job, she knew it would come with challenges.
“They told me, ‘we don’t have any money to pay you,’ and I said, ‘I’ll raise my own salary.’”
Now, she works multiple jobs while trying to get the museum back on its feet. Her days start early, typically between 5 and 6 a.m. Twice a week, Yisra’el teaches boxing classes at a studio in Clovis. When she’s not working at the museum or the boxing studio, she works as an executive assistant for the San Joaquin Valley Math Project.
“I get between four and five hours of sleep a night, which is not bad,” she said.
The Museum’s history
The idea for the African-American Historical and Cultural Museum of the San Joaquin Valley was conceived in 1986 by Jack Kelley, Fresno Police Department’s first African American sergeant, and his wife Rosa. But it did not officially open until 1993. Centering Black life and culture, the museum was the only nonprofit of its kind in the San Joaquin Valley at the time.
Prior to the museum’s opening, Kelley traveled the Valley, displaying photos and artwork he collected that depicted Black life in the Valley.
“Before he even got a building, he would do these pop-up exhibits at different Juneteenth celebrations and different high schools,” Sabrina Kelley, Jack Kelley’s grand-niece, said. “Of paramount concern to the Kelleys was making sure people knew the contributions of African-Americans to the life and culture and history of the Central Valley.”
Linzie L. Daniel, a longtime Fresno resident, remembers the museum’s start. Daniel worked for the County of Fresno in the Administrative Services department, and remembers earmarking funds for the museum to purchase the building where it still stands today on the corner of Sacramento and Fulton Street.
“They recognized folks from all walks of life in the African American community and that’s unlike anything else we have,” Daniel said.
The museum hosts different exhibits and events to highlight Black life in the San Joaquin Valley. Its latest exhibit – ‘Black History Into the Future” – a partnership with the Fresno Superintendent’s Office, displays students’ artwork alongside work from professional artists. In the exhibit are paintings of civil rights leaders, like Harriet Tubman and Martin Luther King, Jr.
Donning the walls of the museum’s second floor are photographs and artwork depicting the history of Black people in the Valley, including a photograph of Julia Ann Bell, a Black woman who started the progression of Black people into Fowler, California. Another photo shows a group of church singers in 1901.
‘It’s Too Good To Lose’
Today, the museum is doing well – community donations and grants have kept the lights on; it is under the fiscal sponsorship of the Fresno Arts Council, and the upcoming Trailblazer Gala, now in its 12th year and honoring 13 Black people in the Valley who are impacting the community, is sold out.
The museum was recently recognized by the City of Fresno at a recent City Council meeting.
Despite its current success, people weren’t always optimistic about the museum. Past controversies surrounding the leadership eroded community’s trust.
“My uncle started this museum and wanted, more than anything, for it to be by the people and for the people, but, as time went on, it wasn’t operated like that. So the sustainability was compromised,” said Sabrina Kelley, who now sits on the museum’s board.
Kelley says that along with the issues of leadership, a lack of investment from local governments also compromised the museum’s potential for success.
“We’ve also seen the disenfranchisement and disinvestment that happens when African-American art and culture is not top of mind for some elected officials,” she said.
Yisra’el recalls her first few months as the director and how doubtful the members of the community were.
“People were telling me ‘there’s no point in doing this,’ ‘It’s not going to succeed,’ ‘you can’t get the Black community in Fresno to work together,’ ‘nobody really wants to support it,’ but this place is just too good to lose,” she said.
While a lot of Yisra’el’s job involves raising money, curating exhibits and other museum-typical tasks, she also sees her duties as focused on repairing broken bridges in the community.
“With all this stuff, I don’t see politics, I see relationships.”
Currently, she’s teaming up with Fresno Unified School District to put together a summer program and an after-school program for young people. She also hopes to bring in quilters to teach young people traditional art customs of African-American culture.
‘I’m Selling a Dream’
On the inside, the museum is still in need of a lot of work — the ceiling is marked by water damage; the paint is faded and chipping, and a problem with its ventilation keeps the museum from keeping art for long periods of time, without ruining it.
Across the street, in the museum’s park sits a decrepit fire pit and a fence that’s coming apart.
But what may turn most people off of the space doesn’t deter Yisra’el. She sees this museum as an opportunity, and she chooses to focus on what could be.
Yisra’el posted pieces of paper on various closet doors that say things like, “The Closet or maybe Artist Studio,” or “Museum store (and cafe?).”
“I’ve been selling a dream since I stepped in here,” she said.
She’s been selling it to the community, potential donors and even city officials. Yisra’el hopes to raise $10 million in the next five to 10 years to invest in events, maintaining the building and acquiring more robust exhibits.
Yisra’el sees all of this – the fundraising, the countless board meetings and grant applications – as part of her artistic process.
“I take broken things, and I put them back together in a creative way,” she said. “In a lot of ways, this is like me doing art, so it’s exciting for me.”