By Leonard E. Colvin
New Journal and Guide
When the first phase of the 35,000 square foot Virginia African-American Cultural Center, Inc. (VAACC) in Virginia Beach opens, it will have several missions.
“It will be a center whose mission is ‘to collect, preserve, interpret, inform, celebrate and educate on Virginia’s African-American History,” said Dr. Amelia Ross-Hammond, who first conceived the center’s creation in 2016. “It will also share in educating the community about those contributions in all areas of endeavor.”
Ross-Hammond currently sits on the Virginia Beach City council, in addition to serving as the center’s visionary founder and promoter. She is a retired Norfolk State University professor of music.
The massive facility Ross-Hammond is spearheading will sit on 4.8 acres of land gifted by the city at Newtown Road and Diamond Springs Roads. Phase one, on completion, will house a central rotunda, called the “Drum,” for cultural performances, civic gatherings, and community events. Also, spaces will allow for meetings, educational and performing arts, a research library, souvenirs, and concession shops, as well as administration offices. Its second phase will house a 300-seat multi-purpose flexible theater, and an outdoor history walking trail.
Based on Pre-COVID Pandemic dollars, the first phase of the building was estimated to cost approximately $8 million, but that figure may easily rise to about $10 million due to construction costs.
Long before the walls of the facility are erected and its “doors” opened for business, Ross-Hammond and the VAACC have already established an engaging regional presence.
This includes, publishing a self-guided tour brochure of African-American history, which has received national reviews from AAA, AARP, the Philadelphia Enquirer, and recently, was listed on Ebony magazine’s top tourist destination.
It also has a new Executive Director, Tamara Smithers, who was recruited to Hampton Roads last September. She leads four other staff members at the organization’s first office on Bonney Road.
After a national executive committee search, Smithers was hired and now orchestrates the day-to-day operations of the organization and fundraising.
“I am lucky to have Tamar here,” said Ross-Hammond. “We were both born in May, so we are doers. I love her energy and respect for the mission. Our signature code words established by the Board are to ‘Curate, Cultivate and Communicate (share) Virginia’s rich African-American history with the community and those visiting our region.’
“For years, we were a volunteer working Board, and now that I’ve been reelected to city council, it is wonderful to have such a talented young woman continue the vision of our cultural center.”
With $1 million in grant funding from the state via the Virginia Tourism Corporation last year, along with grants awarded from Sentara, VB Arts and Humanities Commission, Virginia Commission for the Arts, the City of Virginia Beach, Dominion Energy, and generous local donors, the VAACC uses its grant awards to finance its “pre-opening” historical and cultural contents through programs, artistic performance, curated exhibits, and new health and nutritional welfare partnership initiatives in the surrounding communities.
Besides these outreach projects, the VAACC generously gives back to the community by donating supplies for youth and seniors, mentoring as guest lecturers for several schools and providing professional artists, and cultural in-person and virtual arts series performances.
VAACC also partners with local museums, theaters, and participates in civic and cultural panels, with local universities, other nonprofits, faith-based organizations, and libraries. For example, during 2023 Black History Month, VAACC, the New Journal and Guide and the Chrysler Museum collaborated on a civil rights photo exhibit and community program at the Chrysler Museum.
With a strong belief in giving back in support of the cause, the VAACC, under Ross-Hammond’s leadership, has provided mission-relevant subgrants to various organizations from its $1 miillion windfall, to pursue projects such as follow.
The City of Franklin’s recent inaugural Juneteenth three-days observance of its historic African-American-related heritage to this new federal holiday.
The New Journal and Guide’s photo preservation project that is digitizing its vast historic photo collection dating back to the 1930s, overseen by Publisher Brenda Andrews. The Guide, one of the nation’s oldest African-American newspapers, is in collaboration with VAACC, the Virginia Beach Archival Library staff and a renowned Richmond-based historian and curator to preserve the photos as a research resource for the next generation.
The “Your Neighbor’s Hood” civic and social rights organization’s podcast series titled “Truth Be Told,” overseen by Hannah Sobel and State Del. Jackie Glass, is interviewing persons in four historically Black neighborhoods and community members from around the state to record stories of the historic impact of structural and environmental racism, health and criminal justice inequities, and housing discrimination.
The completed series will be on the VAACC’s website for interested researchers.
The NSU’s Joseph Jenkins Roberts Center’s “Sold Down the River” project overseen by Dr. Cassandra Newby Alexander and a team of professors, along with students to research documents and share the history of slave migration in Virginia leaving the Norfolk ports, travelling Deep South.
Yet another subgrant was awarded to the “Arts for Learning, Virginia (A4L) organization to produce a series of up to fifty public performances/programs in Hampton Roads and on the Peninsula, highlighting African-American art and culture. A4L’s mission is to inspire and engage students in and through the arts. They are producing arts and storytelling performances.
The Vibes Creative District nonprofit was also awarded a subgrant to produce four large murals across Hampton Roads, one of which is four stories high and recently unveiled in Virginia Beach next to the Convention Center on the wall of the Ambassador Hotel. The next one will be painted in the City of Franklin in partnership with their nonprofit organization as part of its Juneteenth celebration.
In the future, the VAACC, Inc. will help fund a regional collaborative to promote a travel destination tour guide highlighting significant African-American historic and cultural sites in the region’s seven major cities.
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