The museum was established in 1974 by Dr. Harry Robinson as Southwest Research Center and Museum of African-American Life and Culture. The museum was located in a single room on the second floor of Bishop College's library. Thanks to Robinson's efforts, the museum's collections grew rapidly with major gifts of art as well as several matching grants. Bishop College experienced a financial crisis in the late 1970s that led to the museum becoming an independent organization in 1979. When the college declared bankruptcy in 1988, the museum moved to a series of temporary facilities throughout the city.
Thanks to a number of donations, grants, and a bond, the museum's directors were able to purchase land and hold a groundbreaking ceremony for their new facility on November 4, 1989. Plans for the building grew as a growing number of donations came in from around the country. Thanks to over 50,000 individuals and major corporate sponsors, the original $3 million construction plan was expanded to a 38,000 square foot facility that cost a total of $7 million.
The central lobby serves as a gateway for four individual vaulted galleries that offer a variety of art and history exhibits. The museum holds one of the largest and most significant African American Folk Art collections in the United States, as well as a small research library.There is also a studio and a theater for classes, lectures, and performances.