On a barren piece of land in Miami Gardens enclosed by a chain link fence, South Florida’s Nigerian community envision a cultural anchor, an African museum that will showcase the richness of their homeland and continent.
The goal is to build an institution that will debunk misconceptions and educate visitors about Africa but also to leave a permanent mark in South Florida.
“Since we are here, we might as well bloom where we are planted,” said Joseph Obadeyi, chairman of the Nigerian American Foundation. “We are trying to leave some type of legacy for our kids, something we can point to in the future and say, ‘Yes, we were here.’ ”
The Nigerian American Foundation, a nonprofit group, led the effort to lease the Miami-Dade County-owned parcel at Northwest 207th Street and 32nd Avenue. The foundation expects to spend $5 million to $6 million to build the center. Under the lease, it will pay $1 to the county per year.
The museum’s success will depend on effective fundraising and planning to meet the lease requirement to have the museum built by 2018. Otherwise the land reverts to the county.
A cultural institution is a sign that a group has made inroads in a community, organizers say.
“It’s taken some time for people to know that there is a Nigerian community down here. But I think people are starting to know who we are,” Obadeyi said. “Because of our coming together we were able to speak with one voice.”
That meant putting aside ethnic differences to lobby county hall for the land. In Nigeria, there are more than 200 ethnic groups with their own languages and customs. That rich diversity is reflected on a smaller scale among the more than 1,000 Nigerians in Miami-Dade and Broward counties.
“People see the value in what we’re doing,” said Miami Gardens councilman Erhabor Ighodaro, a member of the foundation. “It’s presently surprising that Africanness is not a fad, people are still conscious today. Just like other communities have been able to erect monuments to symbolize their groups, why not the African community?”
South Florida’s Nigerian community does not have a home base similar to what Haitians have in Little Haiti and Cubans in Little Havana.
In the late 1970s and ’80s, hundreds of young Nigerians called the Opa-locka and Miami Gardens areas home while they attended Florida Memorial University. At the time, there was talk of renaming an area of Opa-locka Little Lagos, after a populous city in Nigeria, but the idea fizzled and the students dispersed to other communities after graduation.
“There would have been a Little Lagos, but one thing about we Nigerians, once we start to move up, we move,” Obadeyi said.
Nonetheless, there is a central hub just outside of Opa-locka that draws about 100 Nigerian families together each week: Christ Apostolic Church Miami.
The mostly Nigerian parishioners are excited about the proposed museum that will hold African artifacts and artwork. The museum is also slated to have a lecture hall and performing arts center.
On a recent Sunday, the congregation robustly clapped and danced during a service where the women wore traditional, colorful head pieces called geles and the men dressed in flowing agbadas with intricate embroidery.
“When you say Haitian American, they know Haitian American. When it comes to the Nigerian community, they’re not really exposed like the rest of the communities,” said Deaconess Fola Adeleke of Christ Apostolic. “The rest of the black, the Spanish people are recognized, and we want to be recognized as well.”
And so planning for the museum moves ahead.
“What I would like to see is a real traditional museum of Africans and of those in the diaspora,” High Priest Osemwegie Ebohon said at a recent town hall meeting. “The building should incorporate designs from palaces and homes of nobility in Africa, not just a regular building.”
Ebohon, a spiritual herbalist who lives in Nigeria, is the founder of Ebohon Cultural Centre, a private museum in Benin City that has loaned artifacts to the African-American Research Library and Cultural Center in Fort Lauderdale.
During his Miami visit, Ebohon said the African museum will be a historic marker that connects the past and present.
“A museum is a building where you put artifacts telling the history and origins of a people,” he said. “It’s like a preservation house for their history.”