The line went down the steps, cut left along the tree-lined sidewalk and stretched halfway to where Gov. Nicholls and North Villere streets meet in historic Treme.

A few, wearing business clothes, had come alone after their workday ended. Others, in jeans and tennis shoes, held fast to the hands of their children, who they hoped would learn a valuable lesson.

"We came to check it out, just so the kids can learn the history," said Naomi Carter, 34, after she and her crew finally joined the 200 others inside the building. "And I had never been ... I want to do more trips like this."

All were there Thursday night to celebrate the reopening of the New Orleans African American Museum of Art, History and Culture, an institution that has amassed broad support over its two-decade history but has also been plagued by numerous problems that forced its closure more than once.

Its newest backers hope its latest fresh start will be its last.

"This will be the dawn of a new day," board Chairman Michael Griffin said in an interview. New programs are in the works "to really highlight what this organization was founded to do: honor the contributions of the African American community to New Orleans, to Louisiana, to the region, and to the world," he said. 

The museum opened in 1998 both to highlight local African-American history and to spur economic development in the struggling Treme neighborhood.


Then-Mayor Marc Morial said the $1.2 million renovation of the original museum building — a 19th-century Creole mansion known as the Villa Meilleur that is across the street from the museum's current location — was an example of his administration taking "something from blight and making it right,” according to news accounts.

Federal grants paid for that project and continued to fund the museum’s operations during its first six years. And a nonprofit formed by Morial soon took control of several adjacent buildings, with the goal of forming a museum complex.

The only problem was that the federal money was never supposed to be used to run the museum's daily operations. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development demanded that the museum pay back $1 million early in Mayor Ray Nagin’s administration, prompting Nagin to cut off any further money to the museum.

With no funding, the museum fired its staff and padlocked its doors in 2003.

That pattern of financial and management challenges has more or less held true throughout the museum's history.

A 2007 reopening was followed five years later by the termination of the museum's executive director and eventual closure, for example, after the museum's revenue dropped drastically and a review showed it would cost far more to repair damage to the historic buildings from Hurricane Katrina than the museum had on hand.

Real estate investor John Cummings sought to help recently by taking over a $1 million loan the museum owed to the now-collapsed First NBC Bank. But relations between Cummings and the museum's board had soured so much by last year that Cummings' group filed suit to force payback of its money and regular financial audits.

Cummings said he was in Chile last week and offered no further comment. But Griffin said all is forgiven between the museum and its benefactor and a payment plan is underway.

"We are working as partners together to really restore the whole campus," Griffin said.

The lone part of the museum's multi-building complex open now is its administration building, a two-story former residential building where the opening-night crowd gathered last week to view its latest exhibit. A $2 million renovation of that building, at 1417-19 Gov. Nicholls St., was made possible by federal grants, tax credits and private donations.

Griffin said it will cost at least $12 million to renovate the museum's other buildings. A "brick campaign" has been launched to raise private funding to help make that a reality.

The former main building across the street had mold and water intrusion that had been happening for years and was too costly for the museum to repair without additional funding, Griffin said.

Griffin, president and CEO of Daughters of Charity in New Orleans, is one of the board's more than a dozen mostly new members. A national advisory committee is being headed up by Morial, now president and CEO of the National Urban League.

And the museum has found a new curator and executive director in Gia Hamilton, who spent five years as director of the Joan Mitchell Center, an artist-in-residency center on Bayou Road.

The museum's latest exhibit, created in partnership with Tulane University's Amistad Research Center, features such images as a young Louis Armstrong and photos of the black nuns in the Sisters of the Holy Family convent, which managed as many as eight Catholic schools in Louisiana.

Carter and others also marveled at learning more about the old neutral ground on North Claiborne Avenue that served, as one attendee put it, "as the Canal Street for blacks in its day," until an elevated expressway was built over it. 

Standing on the back porch of the early 20th century administration building, Hamilton, addressing the dozens who came to laud the museum's reopening, struck a positive note about its latest direction.

"We want to make sure that all of the people who put energy into this place have the opportunity to see it come alive again," she said.

The museum is open Thursday, Friday and Saturday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., or by appointment.

The first public exhibition, "Everywhere We Are | Everywhere We Go: Black Space and Geographies," runs through the end of 2019. 

Follow Jessica Williams on Twitter, @jwilliamsNOLA​.