Sojourner Truth African Heritage Museum is teaching Sacramento the story of Black America • Sacramento News & Review

By Casey Rafter

Drumbeats bounce happily off the walls of the Florin Business Arts Complex’s African Marketplace. The sounds come from the Hakili African Roots Drum and Dance Company, which leads a circle of pounding percussion as the halls and shops of the structure fill with rapturous chatter. In the central foyer, Shonna McDaniels, founder and director of the Sojourner Truth African Heritage Museum, lays out bright yellow fabric for visitors to make Kwanzaa-themed pillows.

McDaniels has run the Florin Square Museum celebrating African culture for 27 years. Since 2005, she has worked with various artists to cover almost every wall inside the complex with paintings depicting historically significant black men and women. A muralist herself with her name on multiple walls, McDaniels hopes to continue adding to this visually arresting collection of community-led murals.

“We’re trying to apply for a grant to do public art in the parking lot and outside,” she says. “It will help spruce up the corner of 24th and Florin and Tamoshanter. It’s kind of a horror right now. We have worked with many young emerging artists doing murals for us. We have a group of them working on murals on Mack Road…sponsored by the City of Sacramento.

The museum, also known as the SOJO museum, has a remarkable group of young guides who are active there. Their age range is middle school to college. McDaniels also recently launched an annual membership program with tiers named after significant historical figures in African American history.

The artifacts, art, and clothing inside SOJO speak to an essential part of the American experience. Photograph by Casey Rafter

Leading a museum with a unique and important message, McDaniels was able to collaborate with larger partners, including the Crocker Art Museum. SOJO worked with the Crocker as part of the latter’s “Block by Block” initiative, with the goal of instilling a stronger museum presence in low-income communities.

Crocker was kind enough to put us on their big grants, so we could have a collaborative partnership,” McDaniels acknowledged. “We have worked together to bring arts programming and exhibits to the community festivals we have created with entertainment and arts activities.”

Crocker’s director of education, Stacey Shelnut-Hendrick, noted that since her institution began coordinating with the SOJO Museum, McDaniels has shown unwavering support for the arts and for her community.

“Over the years, one of my greatest professional pleasures has been our partnerships with the SOJO Museum – Shonna is a role model and a true inspiration,” Shelnut-Hendrick said. “We started working with SOJO on our Kwanzaa celebration over a decade ago, and it has blossomed into many other initiatives. Shonna will always live up to her commitments, giving 200% all the time. She positioned the [SOJO] museum to operate and think differently.

In February, SOJO will work with the California Museum to present “The Green Book: Navigating to Freedom.” The event was recently postponed to February 26 due to a recent surge in local COVID-19 cases. McDaniels said there will be an African market there, as well as keynote speakers, story time and a screening of a documentary called “The Green Book: A Guide to Freedom”.

Different corners of the SOJO explore the American pioneers. Photograph by Casey Rafter

When the pandemic brought business to a halt in Florin Square, McDaniels didn’t miss a beat. Through the museum, she and 24 other nonprofits have worked with the Center for Sutter Health in a bimonthly event called “Sacramento Youth PopUp.” The partners organized movie nights or took groups of young people to a bowling event; the Heritage Museum has created in-person and virtual activities focusing on traditional art.

“This will be our third year: [That program started in response] to the murder of Stephon Clark,” McDaniels explained. “There were a lot of young people in the community who were doing things out of rage. We wanted to be able to provide a solution and redirect that rage into something positive. Every first and third Friday – even though we were closed – we prepared over 200 hot meals and up to 100 bags of art to make and take away.

In March 2021 — amid the pandemic — the museum received funding from SMUD to add 1,700 square feet to its space, allowing McDaniels to spread its exhibits over a total of 3,000 square feet. What was once just a room and a gift shop is now a portal to several wings of artifacts and art.

The Dr. Samella Lewis Gallery, curated by artist and musician Unity Lewis, is one of the exhibits that has been added as part of the expansion. The installation is named after the artist and art collector known as the “Godmother of African-American Art”. According to Lewis, it will be updated with other work every three months. From his point of view, Sacramento has nothing to do with the SOJO museum.

“I did an exhibition called Black Artists on Art Liberation for Juneteenth and [Sacramento artist and gallery owner] Faith McKinnie recommended that Shonna be on the show, so I put her on it,” Lewis said, adding that any collaboration with McDaniels is an honor. “All the care she puts [the museum] and the personal attention and detail she gives to this space – she really is not just a deep artist, but a deep curator. He’s someone we need in the community, who keeps the culture going the way it does.

The Dr. Sanella Lewis Gallery, curated by Sacramento artist and musician Unity Lewis. Photograph by Casey Rafter

The Sacramento Region Community Foundation’s annual Big Day of Giving on May 5 provides an opportunity for arts organizations and nonprofits to achieve otherwise ambitious financial goals: In 2020, SOJO received a donation of $45,000 from a local company – a big step towards his goal of expanding the space enough for an installation exploring African-American history in music.

“We are trying to raise enough funds for our third expansion,” McDaniels said. “We are praying about this. Originally, Big Day of Giving was aimed only at artists or arts groups, not non-profit organizations. We were the very first. We usually only make $200-500 while other organizations make $50,000-$100,000. We have worked just as hard in this community for a long time.

In addition to holding African markets every first and third Saturday, the museum joins fellow black business owners at the center every second Saturday. McDaniels mentioned that the museum always has tables at these special events with free arts or crafts for families to engage with – another avenue to experience and celebrate African culture.

“We’re trying to make it an attraction that people will be drawn to, and not just downtown,” McDaniels said. “We are trying to change that. people know [Florin Square] like Black Wall Street because of the percentage of black business owners here. The original intent…was for black business owners…to help each other with resources and build together. We have never lost sight of this mission.

The complete mural by artist and museum director Shonna McDaniels. Photograph by Casey Rafter
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