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Urban League and Griot Museum join forces to keep African-American history alive in St. Louis

This photo of the Griot Museum of Black History at 2505 St Louis Ave. is from February 2016.
Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
The Griot Museum of Black History at 2505 St Louis Ave.

The Urban League of St. Louis and the Griot Museum of Black History are forming an alliance that the museum’s founder hopes will keep the museum going for generations.

Lois Conley has watched her wax figures fall into disrepair and the bills pile up as the number of visitors plummeted over the past decade or so.In its early years, the Griot saw 35,000 visitors a year. But the numbers have since dropped to 4,000.

In recent months, the museum has seen a slight uptick in visitors and supporters. But that hasn't been enough to sustain it. When the Urban League agreed to be a partner, Conley felt excited and hopeful for the first time in years.

“More than anything, [there's] a sense of relief and a sense of some real acknowledgement of the fact that people care about what we do,” Conley said.

Conley launched the institution in 1997 as the Black World History Wax Museum. Dignitaries came for the grand opening and visitors poured in to learn about local African-Americans who were left out of the history books. The figures include a man named York, an enslaved African who was promised his freedom in exchange for his instrumental role in the Lewis and Clark expedition. But the promise was broken and York returned to slavery.

The museum changed its name seven years ago to better reflect its mission. “Griot” is a West African term for storyteller.

File photo. Lois D. Conley poses for a portrait in November 2016 at the Griot Museum of Black History, 2505 St. Louis Ave.
Credit Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Lois D. Conley poses for a portrait at the Griot Museum of Black History, 2505 St. Louis Ave.

Conley hopes the new arrangement with the Urban League will preserve the museum and its mission indefinitely.

“It was always intended to be an institution that would be around forever, that would always be here to make sure our stories would be told,” she said.   

Conley’s not sure yet about details of the partnership. But she hopes the alliance with the venerable Urban League will result in more funding and a solid future for the Griot.

“We’ve been here 20 years; they’ve been here over 100, and they are a mainstay in this community,” she said.

Members of the two institutions plan to meet later this month. The Urban League could not be reached for comment.

Follow Nancy Fowler on Twitter: @NancyFowlerSTL

Nancy is a veteran journalist whose career spans television, radio, print and online media. Her passions include the arts and social justice, and she particularly delights in the stories of people living and working in that intersection.