Commentary

A trip through time at the National Museum of African American History and Culture

Astounding array of material at national African American history museum provokes a range of emotions, teaches some new lessons.

It’s been a week since I wore off my shoe leather at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture — almost six hours of trying to take in everything that had been carefully curated about the black experience in America.

As you would expect when looking at centuries of a group’s history, it’s an astounding array of material. So much to see, too much unseen, too many emotions to sort through. As I moved from floor to floor, exhibit to exhibit, my emotions ranged all over the place. I felt proud, disgusted, angry, frustrated, joyful, tired (not just physically), and disturbed that I was hearing echoes today of decades-old struggles for justice.  But at the end, it all boiled down to this: “Nevertheless we persisted.”

Here are some photos from my incredible day surrounded by my unyielding ancestors.

To be free or not to be…

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The museum has a rough draft of the Declaration of Independence on exhibit. I pored over it, trying to read between the scribbles of the aged parchment, looking for some mention of slavery — or its deletion. But no dice. Later a Google search would show me the passage on slavery that was cut. On the wall nearby was a quote from a petition sent to the newly elected Congress on Dec. 30, 1799, by a coalition of free blacks led by the Reverend Absalom Jones. He noted the absence of consideration for blacks — slave or free — in the U.S. Constitution. The quote on the wall is a partial quote — see the bold text in the full quote below.

In the Constitution, and the Fugitive bill, no mention is made of Black people or Slaves—therefore if the Bill of Rights, or the declaration of Congress are of any validity, we beseech that as we are men, we may be admitted to partake of the Liberties and unalienable Rights therein held forth—firmly believing that the extending of Justice and equity to all Classes, would be a means of drawing down, the blessings of Heaven upon this Land, for the Peace and Prosperity of which, and the real happiness of every member of the Community, we fervently pray.”

Did you know?  Absalom Jones was born a slave and later purchased his freedom. He co-founded, with Robert Allen, the Free African Society and the African Church of St. Thomas in Philadelphia and became the first black man to be an ordained Episcopal priest.

Hopes, dreams, achievements …

Photo collageMultiple photo collages line the walls as you await your journey into the past — just an elevator ride away. I was drawn to the picture of Thurgood Marshall, which seemed to jump off the wall. I’m just now noticing the picture with Bill Clinton in it. Two of my favorite authors are pictured in the lower right — James Baldwin and Zora Neale Hurston.

Did you know? Marshall was the first black U. S. Supreme Court Justice. Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the second woman to be appointed to the High Court, has been called “the Thurgood Marshall of gender equality law.”

Give me liberty or ….

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Did you know? By the end of the Civil War, 16 black soldiers had been awarded the Medal of Honor for their valor. Read more

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I was fascinated by the interactive “lunch counter” exhibit, where you could pull up a menu of historical facts about the Greensboro sit-ins or Freedom Riders, for example. Above the counter, rotating clips kept playing over and over, and I will probably never forget the sheer fatigue and frustration in Fannie Lou Hamer’s voice as she said, “I am sick and tired of being sick and tired.”

Did you know? Three black S.C. State College students were killed by state troopers during a February 1968 protest against a segregated bowling alley. That incident is known as the Orangeburg Massacre.

Nevertheless

We persisted, creating our own churches, towns, colleges, and ran for office, and …

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Did you know? Princeville, NC, the oldest town incorporated by African Americans in the United States, was originally called Freedom Hill.

Make my funk the P Funk

Funk came of age during my college years and I spent many weekend nights sweating out my perm to the music of Parliament-Funkadelic and all the other “funketeers.” I’m pretty sure I squealed with delight when I saw the Mothership, flanked by a George Clinton outfit and a Bootsy Collins get-up. And I’m not a bit ashamed.

MothershipYou can’t miss Chuck Berry’s Cadillac when you step into the Culture Galleries. Berry passed away Saturday (March 18) at the age of 90.

My sisters, Deborah Bell, left, and Marilyn Wise, and I had a picture taken of Chuck Berry's Cadillac. The car is so long, we couldn't get it entirely in the frame and still see our faces.

My sisters, Deborah Bell, left, and Marilyn Wise, and I had a picture taken in front of Chuck Berry’s Cadillac. The car is so long, we couldn’t get it entirely in the frame and still see our faces.

 

Tips if you go:

There’s no covered area outside for waiting, so take the weather into account. There are some lockers inside; you’ll need a quarter to open a locker, but you get it back when you’re done.

Go with a small group. You’ll want/need to discuss some of the things you learn.

Seriously, wear comfortable shoes; we “walked” four miles during our nearly seven hours in the museum.

Museum staff suggests you start at the bottom with the three floors of history, then make your way to the arts, sports and culture floors above ground. I suggest you take a meal break in the cafe between history and culture. Use the meal break to discuss and recharge.

The museum shop gets crowded later in the day, and you may have to wait in line to get in, so don’t leave your souvenir shopping until the last minute.

Check your phone’s photo storage. It’s a real drag when you realize you quickly have to delete photos to free up space. And you will likely take lots of photos here.

RELATED ARTICLE: Travel through ‘a people’s journey’ at the National Museum of African American History & Culture

James Baldwin quote

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