James Cameron, who survived an attempted lynching by a white mob and went on to found America’s Black Holocaust Museum, died Sunday at the age of 92.
Cameron had suffered from lymphoma for about five years, said Marissa Weaver, chairwoman of the Milwaukee-based museum’s board.
In 1930, in Marion, Ind., Cameron and two friends were arrested and accused of killing a white man during a robbery and raping the man’s companion.
A mob broke them out of the local jail and hanged Cameron’s two friends, then placed a rope around his neck.
“They began to chant for me like a football player, ’We want Cameron! We want Cameron!,” he recalled in a 2003 interview with The Associated Press. “I could feel the blood in my body just freezing up.”
The 16-year-old shoeshine boy was spared when a man in the crowd proclaimed his innocence.
In 1988, he opened the museum in a small storefront room in downtown Milwaukee. Six years later, he took over an abandoned 12,000-square-foot gym the city sold him for $1. The museum explores the history of the struggles of black Americans from slavery to the modern day and was considered one of the first of its kind in the country.
“It’s the most important thing in the world to me to carry on this fight, to explain the history that’s been hidden ... from black people,” he told The Associated Press in 2003.
Cameron said in interviews that he was inspired to create the museum by a 1979 trip to Israel and Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial.
Weaver said Cameron counted one of his defining moments in June last year when the U.S. Senate issued an apology for not standing against the lynching violence that killed more than 4,700 people from 1882 to 1968, three-fourths of them black.
“I was saved by a miracle,” Cameron said at the time. “They were going to lynch me between my two buddies,” he said, with thousands of people “hollering for my blood when a voice said, ‘Take this boy back.’”
Cameron was convicted of being an accessory before the fact to voluntary manslaughter and spent four years in prison, but was granted a pardon in 1993. He said he had been beaten into signing a false confession.
Cameron stopped participating in the museum’s daily operations about four years ago but continued attending special events and making speaking engagements, Weaver said.
“The museum is his legacy,” she said. “That was his life’s work — to share with the world the injustices that African-Americans have suffered while at the same time, and most importantly, providing an opportunity to repair bridges that have been suffered because of our history.”
Cameron is survived by his wife, Virginia, and three of their children.