The Museum That Chuck Ambers Built
Black History Month: 2013 Honoree
Wednesday, January 30, 2013
Take a walk down Congress Street in Old Town and you’ll pass shops selling souvenirs, jewelry, and postcards. You may see a restaurant or two. But, walk too quickly and you’ll probably miss the little house near the corner of Congress and Conde Street.
The house, which is actually a museum, has a most unassuming façade, but step inside and you’ll find a treasure trove of African art. Oodles of memorabilia that include African clothing, décor, coins, books, stamp collections, and other artifacts tucked into every nook and cranny of the 1,000 square foot structure. All told, the items on display represent 6,000 years of African history, collected from all over the world.
Known as the African Museum Casa del Rey Moro, the museum is the brainchild of Professor Chuck Ambers, a 2013 Local Hero honoree for Black History Month. As Executive Educational Curator, Ambers founded the museum 15 years ago, with one goal in mind: to ensure that every visitor know the significant contributions Africans have made throughout history.
The roots of Ambers’ interest in African history hail back to his youth, when he was attending Cass Technical High, a school for gifted students, and where one of his classmates just happened to be Motown’s own, Diana Ross. Back then, his plan was to work for one of the “Big Three,” otherwise known as Ford, General Motors and Chrysler.
“During my junior year,” Ambers recalls, “Detroit’s automobile companies had a contest. I wanted to be a draftsman, and I just knew I was going to be designing automobiles for the industry, and I won. The winning projects were displayed in the Detroit Institute of Art and the Detroit Science Museum. I had posters and graphics on display there. That’s what got me first going to museums in Detroit.”
Visiting the museums to see his work gave him an opportunity to explore the other exhibits. But, it wasn’t until some fellow students, who lived on the Canadian side of the Detroit River, reached out to Ambers, that his passion was sparked.
“Some of the Canadian students invited me one day to an Emancipation Day Parade that Canada celebrates every year. I said, ‘What?’ But that’s how I learned Canada had outlawed slavery long before the United States did, and that’s why the Underground Railroad went to Canada. I went to the parade, and while I was there I saw this magnificent African museum and its collection impressed me.”
For Ambers, the seed had been planted. After graduation, in 1962, a basketball scholarship brought him to Oceanside, California to attend California Western University, which later became U.S. International University. Ambers also earned degrees from Pt. Loma Nazarene, and La Universidad de las Americas.
But, it wasn’t until he was teaching sixth grade in the Chula Vista school district that his zeal for African history and his vast collection of art truly began.
“When I was teaching, I had a Spanish-speaking assistant. Her daughter was a student at UCSD (University of California, San Diego) and she participated in a bilingual play about Africans coming into Veracruz, Mexico on slave ships. I was skeptical, and said to myself, ‘What kind of African slaves came into Mexico?’ But, I found out that Mexico had slaves, and also that Mexico had African Conquistadors that came with Columbus, Cortez, Pissarro, Balboa. I learned about the Moors who controlled all of southern Europe for 700 years. I started going to Mexico to learn Spanish and to learn more about African history. From Mexico I went to Columbia, Venezuela, Cuba, Brazil, and Haiti. I took a semester off without pay from Chula Vista (school district) and as a Vietnam veteran, I was able to get paid to go to school in Mexico. I started buying books, videos and artifacts and I traveled to 13 countries in 15 months.”
Today, Ambers lives and breathes the history his museum embodies. In fact, on the day we met, he was dressed like Frederick Douglass, the American social reformer, orator and statesman who escaped from slavery. Douglass is just one of several personas that Ambers brings to life. He has also reenacted the Buffalo Soldier; Fred Coleman, the first person to discover gold in San Diego; Pio Pico, the last governor of California when it was still under the Mexican government’s control; and his current favorite, the Moorish king, for whom the museum is named.
Ambers, who says, “I’m not just into art, I’m into art history,” has traveled around the world discovering the rich, vast, and often, little known history of the African people. He has poured his personal funds into the museum and because of it, he lives a humble, simple life.
When I ask him which piece in the museum is most important to him, he flinches for a moment. There’s also a strain in his eyes, as if I’ve asked him to pick which one is his favorite child.
Finally, pointing to some carvings, he says, “This is hard. I used to sit and hug some of these stone carvings, which are from Zimbabwe and among the hardest rocks in the world. I handpicked those and shipped them back. Before I had the museum, I used to sit and hold them and just feel the energy of all those ancestors who carved them 200 years ago. “
Ambers’ museum is a celebration of all that is African—African Spanish, African-Mexican, and African-American. For this Local Hero honoree, building the museum from the ground up has truly been a labor of love, and all he wants now is for his legacy to grow and live on.
“I’m looking for the next generation to move the museum forward so that the museum will not die with me.”