This month’s Smithsonian magazine is dedicated to African American history. It’s a special issue to celebrate the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, in Washington.
The museum took 101 years to come to fruition. That’s not a typo. It was first suggested by African American Civil War veterans in 1915. President Coolidge agreed to it in 1929 and then the Great Depression hit, meaning funds disappeared.
In 2003 it was green-lighted (that’s right – by George W. Bush) following a report entitled “The Time Has Come.” Two years later the director was appointed: Lonnie G. Bunch III.
And what happened next? Bunch, an extremely distinguished, eloquent, black 60-something armed with a Ph.D and a sharp suit, was offered a temporary office on the National Mall in Washington. He showed up and asked for a key. The custodians’ response? “We don’t know you and we’re not giving you one.” He eventually had to break in using a crow-bar borrowed from a maintenance worker. Oh the irony. African Americans have been locked out of decent schools, decent housing, and decent jobs for generations. And now the African American director of the museum that celebrates his own history is locked out of his office.
Bunch was a pretty good sport about it. In an essay in September’s Smithsonian magazine, he didn’t dwell on this indignity. Instead, he focused on the museum: “… in many ways African-American history is … American history. Most of the moments where American liberty has been expanded have been tied to the African American experience.” The message is to people of all colors: “this is your story, too.”
After 400 years of slavery, plus Jim Crow laws, the KKK, and the history of virulent racial prejudice, how can a museum about African Americans be anything but a holocaust museum? The answer is that it includes artifacts and images of resilience, famous firsts, and other African American triumphs. The 35,000 artifacts include a shawl sent by Queen Victoria to the great abolitionist Harriet Tubman, an inkwell used by James Baldwin, one of the earliest dolls with brown “skin,” and a bus station waiting room sign from 1957 – Whites Only, of course.
The museum is long, long overdue. It opens on September 24th, 2016. Too late for the Civil War veterans who first suggested it, but maybe not for their great-great-grandchildren.