African-American history museum holds a story for us all

The Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, first proposed in 1915 by black veterans of the U.S. Civil War, opens a century later on September 24.

The museum’s exploration of U.S. history through the lens of African Americans is woven into its very construction. The building’s tiered shape resembles a Yoruban crown from West Africa, a nod to the ancestral homeland of many African Americans who came to North America on slave ships. And its exterior is clad in bronze-colored metal that recalls the ironwork of enslaved blacksmiths in 19th-century Charleston and New Orleans.

From the new structure, one can look west across Washington’s National Mall to the Lincoln Memorial steps where in March 1963 Martin Luther King Jr. addressed 250,000 people gathered for one of the largest civil rights rallies in U.S. history.

Building exterior (© Alan Karchmer/Smithsonian Institution)
A close-up view of the museum’s exterior reveals lattice-like patterns. (© Alan Karchmer/Smithsonian Institution)

Historian Lonnie Bunch, the museum’s founding director, recently spoke with NBC-4 TV as the museum was undergoing final preparations for its debut. The museum, he said, illuminates a vital part of America’s story and offers a fresh perspective on what it means to be American.

In many ways, “African-American history is the quintessential American story,” highlighting resilience, optimism and spirituality, he said. “The African-American experience has made America whole [because] it forces America to live up to its stated ideals.”

Iron shackles (Smithsonian Institution)
These iron shackles, from before 1863, were used to restrain enslaved people on a slave ship. (Smithsonian Institution)

Twelve permanent exhibitions are spread across the museum’s below- and above-ground levels, taking visitors on a journey through the eras of slavery and segregation, the civil rights movement of the 1950s–1960s and the achievements of African Americans in all walks of life.

The sweeping narrative is made possible, in part, by the scale of the new museum. Housing some 34,000 artifacts in its 37,000 square meters, the building is twice the size of the nearby Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.

Starting below ground, visitors will walk from slavery to freedom, Bunch said. They’ll encounter a reconstructed slave cabin from South Carolina’s Edisto Island and hear audio recordings based on actual slave chronicles. They’ll see abolitionist Harriet Tubman’s hymnal (circa 1876) and, further on, a segregation-era railway car (circa 1920), a 1940s airplane used to train black pilots during World War II, and a dress made in the 1950s by seamstress Rosa Parks, a civil rights heroine.

Dress with yellow flowers (© Alex Jamison/Smithsonian Institution)
The dress Rosa Parks was sewing the day of her 1955 arrest for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white passenger (© Alex Jamison/Smithsonian Institution)

Ascending to the museum’s upper levels, visitors will find galleries covering contributions of African Americans to sports, the arts, science, business, music and literature. The collection highlights jazz legend Louis Armstrong’s trumpet, dresses worn by singers Marian Anderson and Ella Fitzgerald, rock star Chuck Berry’s red Cadillac and memorabilia from sports champions Jesse Owens, Muhammad Ali, and Venus and Serena Williams.

Red car in museum (© AP Images)
Chuck Berry’s 1973 Cadillac Eldorado, which he donated to the museum, is an emblem of U.S. pop culture. (© AP Images)

But the past is only part of the story. “The museum is as much about today and tomorrow as it is about yesterday,” Bunch said. To that end, curators also examine Barack Obama’s presidency, the Black Lives Matter movement and other contemporary issues.

The culture of African Americans has profoundly shaped the U.S., Bunch said, and “what we want is to have the richness of this culture available to the world.”