Will Bowen | Downtown News
“Democracy and equality are ideals that I live for and, if need be, am ready to die for.” —Nelson Mandela
There is a KPBS/Union Bank “Local Hero” living and working in Old Town who will educate you, inspire you and warm your heart.
His name is Professor Chuck Ambers and he runs the African Museum: Casa del Rey Moro, located on Congress St.
An educator all his life, Ambers began his career at Fremont Elementary in Old Town, then spent 30 years at Chula Vista schools and today, in addition to the museum, teaches at Mesa and Palomar colleges.
“People told me, Chuck, you have collected so much stuff in your travels you have got to open a museum — so I did,” Ambers said.
“My museum is here to fill the void and illuminate the missing pages,” he said. “My goal is to help educate the 4—6 million tourists that come through Old Town every year [that along] with the first Spanish and Europeans who came here to found our city, the Plymouth Rock of the West Coast, were people of African descent.”
A self-described “change agent,” Ambers said he recently had his DNA tested and found out he is 51 percent African, 44 percent European and 4 percent Native American.
Inspiration for his museum, which actually deals with 6,000 years of African world history, was Dr. Charles Wright, who opened an African American museum in Amber’s hometown of Detroit in 1965. It’s the second largest such museum in the world.
“San Diego is the eighth largest city in the United States and doesn’t have a city-funded museum for African Americans,” Ambers said. “My museum fills in the void. Students from all the different grades come through here to get the true picture of the cultural diversity and cultural history of our city and our country.”
According to Ambers, many of the soldiers that came up from Mexico with Father Sierra to found the Missions and the Presidios were of African decent, and 26 out of the 44 people who left Mission San Gabriel to found the city of Los Angeles had African blood, as did Alta California governor and Old Town luminary Pio Pico.
Ambers said he makes it a point to not limit the direction of his educational efforts.
“I desire to educate all people,” he said. “If you just educate African Americans about their heritage, while it will help them shake off their inferiority complex, they will still run into the brick wall of racial prejudice if people of all races don’t know the true story.”
Bonnie Rhodes is Ambers’ assistant curator and has worked with him for the past 29 years.
“I was Professor Ambers’ teaching assistant in Chula Vista for 12 years,” Rhodes said. “When he retired and opened this museum, I followed him here.”
Born and raised in the border town of San Ysidro, Rhodes — a caucasian — said growing up she was acquainted with Hispanic and African American families, but knew nothing of their history in America.
“I feel that my education short-changed me,” she said. “I didn’t get the true picture. Professor Chuck has helped me have a better picture of America and the world.”
Rhodes said she has been most inspired by Bessie Colman, a barnstormer and wing walker who was flying 12 years before Amelia Earhart.
“Bessie Coleman was the first black woman to get a pilot’s license,” she said. “She had to go to France to do it.”
According to Rhodes, people from all over the world come into the museum and 9 out of 10 of them acknowledge they learned something that they didn’t know. She said she’d like to see the museum continue to expand.
“I would like to see our museum grow into a research center where we have space for students to come in to study and do research.”
Monserrat Barbosa is a student in Ambers’ Black History I class at Mesa College. She stopped by the Old Town museum, like many other students often do, to pick up research materials for a class project she is working on.
“I like the way the museum is divided up into different rooms, each with its own focus, such as Spanish African, Latin American African, and/or American African,” Barbosa said. “The museum has helped me learn about different cultures and not just my own.”
There is plenty to look at, learn about, or to purchase at the museum. Things like an elephant hair bracelet reminding one not to buy ivory, or a 1946 Brooker T. Washington 50-cent piece, or a 1998 silver dollar commemorating Crispus Attucks, an African American who was the first person killed by the British in the Revolutionary War.
At the museum you also learn that the White House was built by black slave labor, and that Dory Miller, a black cook from the days when most people of color could only be a cook or a janitor in the military, pulled his captain to safety, then shot down four Japanese airplanes at Pearl Harbor. Then there’s the picture of Major Arnaldo Tamayo-Mendez, an African Cuban who was the first person of African ancestory to go into space on the Russian Soyuz 38 spacecraft in 1980.
“I think it is important that we here at the museum have one foot in the public schools and one foot in African studies,” Ambers said. “I think it is important to educate young people, who are more open to learning. You have to reach them before junior high. That is the way to change society.”
Professor Chuck has an African grey parrot at the museum that is also very wise. When the Professor was asked if he thought Africa should unite, before he could answer, the parrot, who had been silent all afternoon, sibilantly squawked out, “Sure!”
The African Museum Casa del Ray Moro is located at 2471 Congress St. in Old Town. For further info, visit africanmuseumsandiego.com or call 619-220-0022. Professor Ambers can be reached at email@example.com