MET Alum Leads Museum of African American History to Greater Heights

In a recent interview with Bostonia: Boston University’s Alumni Magazine, Leon E. Wilson (MET’75), the president and CEO of the Museum of African American History, explains the ways his nonprofit organization found growing success even amid the challenges of operating during a global pandemic.

Wilson, who earlier in his career earned his degree in business administration and management by studying part-time at Metropolitan College, came into leadership at the New England institution just weeks before 2020’s pandemic shutdown. Only a few short months later, public demonstrations against the harms done to Black lives through police brutality and systemic injustice broke out across the nation, renewing the Boston museum’s mission to bring light to Black contributions and experiences across American society.

The museum’s locations—the African Meeting House, built in 1806 and the oldest Black church building in the country, and the Abiel Smith School, built in 1835, the oldest building to be used as a public school for Black youth, with an additional campus on Nantucket—are themselves a testament to the essential nature of Black stories to American history. Exhibitions feature the likes of photographer Hamilton Sutton Smith, who illuminated late-19th and early-20th century Black life in Boston. Wilson felt a responsibility to find ways to keep its doors open during the tumultuous time.

With a long and successful track record in finance in the world of nonprofits, notably with Bank of America’s Philanthropic Asset Management Group, Wilson got to work on a stabilizing plan. He forged partnerships with organizations keen to dedicate resources in support of Black institutions, invested in new customized educational programming that increased the income stream’s returns fivefold, and adopted a hybrid in-person/remote model that allowed the museum to substantially increase its reach in 2020 compared to 2019. In July 2020, Wilson helped secure for the museum a $1 million grant from Liberty Mutual Foundation dedicated to funding a new social justice initiative.

“I hope to leave the museum as an organization that can endure for centuries to come,” the MET alum says. “You can’t lose these buildings, this history. They are irreplaceable.”

Read more in Bostonia.