Icabod Flewellen founded the first independent African American museum in the United States. In his home at 8716 Harkness Avenue, Flewellen chartered the Afro-American Historical and Cultural Society in 1953. His vision was the preservation and dissemination of information regarding the contributions of individuals of African descent. He hoped to educate young people about the positive contributions of African Americans to the cultures of the world, and to eliminate distorted portrayals and images of African Americans.
At age 13, Icabod Flewellen began collecting newspaper clippings about African American history. He drew inspiration from the writings of the Jamaican author J. A. Rogers, a self-trained historian, novelist, and journalist who spent most of his life debunking pseudo-scientific and racist depictions of people of African ancestry while popularizing the history of persons of black people around the world. Flewellen’s passion was also inspired by the lack of African American history in American classrooms. As he told the Cleveland Plain Dealer, “My daddy, who was a railroad brakeman, used to tell me of the great black inventors on the railroad. Every now and then we found a self-motivated teacher who would throw in a few things that weren’t in the textbooks, but still, we got very little Black history.”
Flewellen graduated from high school in the mid-1930s and began working for the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), a New Deal program created in 1933. At the age of 23, Flewellen went to West Virginia State University and enrolled in the National Youth Administration (NYA), another New Deal program, but ended up switching to the Civil Pilot Training Program. In 1942 Flewellen was drafted into the U.S. Army and served in North Africa in the quartermaster's service.
His first collection, located in his West Virginia home was, he said, “exceedingly rich with historical material.” While Flewellen served in the military, he asked his neighbor Mr. Pryor to store his collection in his garage. Unfortunately, most of the collection was lost when a firebomb thrown by white supremacists destroyed the garage. Flewellen was honorably discharged from the Army in 1945 and he moved to Cleveland. After his return from the military, Flewellen stated, “They were people who did not like what I was doing.” Undeterred, within a few years after moving to Cleveland, Flewellen had essentially transformed his home into a museum. It was so stuffed with portraits, letters, documents, books, busts and sheet music that he barely had room to sleep and eat. Seeking to institutionalize his activity, Flewellen helped organize and became president of the Afro-American Cultural and History Society, the first such organization in the U.S. With the help of the AACHS and his neighbors, Flewellen’s collection continued to grow.
In 1964, Flewellen’s and the AACHS’s accomplishments were recognized by the “Parade of Progress,” a national exhibition held at Cleveland’s Public Hall. A portion of Flewellen’s collection was on display as one of fifty displays set up by the National Service Center. Flewellen never tired of his role in bringing African American accomplishments to the public’s attention, including Garrett Morgan’s invention of the traffic light, Charles Drew’s work in perfecting blood plasma, and John Green’s role as the father of Labor Day. As Flewellen observed, “The Negro child doesn’t realize how great is his heritage. My goal is to let the Negro child know his ancestors were something besides just slaves.” Flewellen hoped his exhibition at the “Parade of Progress” would help create interest in the museum he wanted to build.
Flewellen opened his first museum outside of his home in a tiny classroom in the old school building behind St. Marian Catholic Church at 2212 Petrarca Avenue near Cedar Avenue and Fairhill Road in 1968. The next location was briefly located at the old Bell building at 1839 East 81st Street. Finally, in February 1983 it moved to the Cleveland Public Library’s decommissioned Treasure House building at 1765 Crawford Road in Hough.
By the 1970s, African Americans were being heard. Yet in spite of the fact that Black culture and history were increasing in popularity, the Afro-American Cultural and Historical Society faced extinction in a month’s time unless support and a benefactor could be found. The AACHS became a victim of the Black movement’s success. “It’s a really big thing these days,” said Flewellen. “There’s so many people jumping on the bandwagon with Black movements at universities, colleges, and other things who have much more funds and facilities than we do, we don’t find it easy to get support like that.” After seventeen years of struggling to keep his organization going, Flewellen's fortunes still appeared dim.
By 1985, a rift between founder and museum board over managerial and financial concerns forced Flewellen out. The group disbanded, which broke his heart. He saw his life’s work wasted. When his dream could not be a reality, he arranged for his entire collection to be donated to the East Cleveland Public Library upon his death, which came in 2001. Much of his life’s work lies in a wing of the library called The Flewellen Collection.
The African American Museum has provided cultural awareness, education about Black history, and community events, in addition to a collection of artifacts that represent a holistic view of the African Diaspora experience. Because of the vision and sacrifices made by Icabod Flewellen and countless others to document and display the accomplishment of African Americans and people of African descent, the National Museum of African American History and Culture was born. President Barack Obama spoke at the groundbreaking ceremony February 22, 2012, and on September 24, 2016, the museum opened – a long-imagined dream come true that would have made Flewellen proud.