Our place in America
New Smithsonian museum portrays the furious flowering of black history and culture
On Saturday morning, multitudes gathered to celebrate the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture on the National Mall, the first African-American president of the United States dedicated the space, and a chorus of voices sang a jubilee.
In the centuries leading to that great gettin’-up morning, there have been fights for freedom, marches for dignity and hopes for children unborn. The descendants of those enslaved at the birth of this nation struggled to be seen and understood, producing a furious flowering of creativity that is the first language black people use to talk to God.
And all of that will be on display.
Twelve inaugural exhibitions move from slavery and segregation through music, fashion, sports, activism, art and more. From abolitionist “General” Harriet Tubman’s shawl to boxer Muhammad Ali’s headgear. There is a guard tower from Angola prison in Louisiana and a Cadillac from Chuck Berry. Nearby, the “Holy Mothership,” from Parliament Funkadelic, helps make Smithsonian’s funk the P-funk.
The museum traces its origins to efforts to memorialize black Civil War veterans more than a century ago. That modest goal has transformed into a $540 million, 400,000-square-foot building that spans five acres adjacent to the Washington Monument. It stands as a fully realized iteration of the American imperative: to form a more perfect union.
In 2003, after the museum was authorized by Congress, there were millions of dollars to raise and a building to construct on a site yet to be determined. It would house a collection that did not yet exist, in a nation that remains in a state of convulsive unpreparedness for racial dialogue and reckoning.
The country had yet to erect a national memorial etching the ideals of Martin Luther King Jr. in the permanence of stone. Had not yet elected Barack Obama president.
Yet, soon the museum will open its doors. “I can feel the weight of community expectations,” founding director Lonnie G. Bunch, 63, said, sitting inside the museum’s sports gallery a few weeks ago. A video history of blacks and baseball played on a continuous loop nearby and mixed with the whine of construction tools. “You feel the weight of thousands of people coming up to you saying, ‘Yes, yes, yes!’”
Those expectations sometimes wake him up after midnight, but he has always used history to settle down. “Right in my office is a picture of a woman who was born a slave and she is walking up a hill, carrying a hoe that’s taller than her. A basket that’s heavy.” And when the pressures and obligations of building this American museum have seemed like too much, “I look at her,” Bunch said. “And I think if she’s still walking tall, well, so can I.”
It’s the triumph of keep on keepin’ on, of looking back and pressing forward. America’s front porch has been opened anew, and it’s a fact especially understood by those who had to jostle mightily for their place on it.
In the early 20th century, momentum for a monument to “the memory of Colored Soldiers” waxed and waned. Later, the push for a museum, had its moments — especially after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. — and champions, including Mary McLeod Bethune, James Baldwin and Jackie Robinson. But it faced limited political support, disagreement over where it should be located, worry from small African-American history museums about competition, and always — always — more pressing battles over lynching, segregation and voting rights.
The year after U.S. Rep. Mickey Leland (D-Texas) enlisted U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), a hero of the civil rights movement, to help sponsor legislation in 1988, Leland died in a plane crash. “I realized it fell to me,” Lewis said as he sat in his Capitol Hill office, surrounded by photos from the movement. For 15 years, in every session of Congress, Lewis introduced bills to establish the museum, and they were repeatedly defeated. In 1994, museum legislation passed the House of Representatives. But Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) launched a filibuster against it — claiming that every group in the country was going to want its own museum — and the measure failed in the Senate.
Racially charged debates centered around whether there should be an African-American museum, or merely a wing at the National Museum of American History. A project announced in 1989 to examine the form and content of an African-American presence on the mall avoided “buzzwords” such as “museum.”
By the early 2000s, Republicans such as then-Oklahoma Rep. J.C. Watts, and then- Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback, provided enough muscle to pass the bill and President George W. Bush signed the legislation into law in 2003. “Despite the fact that Lewis and I might have had differences, we were not disconnected from each other,” Watts recalled. “Black history is American history.”
Defining the Vision
In July 2005, Bunch, who had been president of the Chicago Historical Society, became the new museum’s founding director. His first job was to get into his Washington office. The security guards had never heard of him. He borrowed a crowbar from a maintenance man and broke in.
His next job was to have faith in his hopes for the new museum, based on the evidence of things much of America had never seen.
“In some ways, I felt that everything I had ever done was pointing in this direction,” Bunch told me in 2014. He had to have a clear vision as a counterweight to the museum’s uneven history. And to brace himself and others for the challenges ahead. They included tensions around the kind of place the museum would be. What stories would it tell and how plainly could it tell them? How could you detail the horrors of slavery and the injustice of segregation without them overwhelming the rest of the museum?
For instance, “there were some people early on saying ‘Don’t do sports, it’s stereotypical. Everybody knows that.’” How could the museum approach something people think they know, but take them in a different direction? he wondered. “The key was to say sports is more than athletic achievement. It is more than see how fast they ran. It really was a central way to demonstrate you are worthy of equality. A central way to change America. I said that’s how we want to tell it.”
Curators took a similar path in looking at the ways black people engaged with education, Bunch recalled. “Education was one of the tools blacks used to both improve their status, but then, to force America to change.”
In talking about blacks in the armed forces, the museum would honor service but also help visitors “understand how African-Americans use the military as a tool to gain equal rights. To prove that they were worthy of citizenship,” he said.
That approach allowed him to win over, or simply outmaneuver, critics who said the government shouldn’t be funding a history they alleged was narrow. Bunch always found the intersections that put African-American history into the biggest possible frame.
Bunch, who had helped build the California African American Museum in the 1980s, formulated two parts of his vision for the museum and they have remained constant. One side “allows people to get a rich, deep, insider’s perspective of African-American history. To wrestle with America’s tortured racial past,” he said. The other side is getting people to recognize that they are “using African-American culture as a lens to understand what it means to be an American.” Black history offers a specific hymnal, but it sings to everyone.
In that vein, the museum has, almost from the beginning, worked with other institutions to demonstrate the global reach of the African-American experience. It launched a traveling exhibition of black photography in 2007. It collaborated with Monticello on an exhibition on President Thomas Jefferson and slavery. With programs on recognizing and conserving artifacts. And it mounted exhibitions in its own gallery at the National Museum of American History.
Acting like it existed before it actually did was part of how the museum willed itself into being. Keeping it real, before they were, helped soften the ground for the work to come.
Part of which included putting together a collection from scratch.
Assembling the Collection
William Pretzer, senior curator for history, collected artifacts for an exhibit called “A Changing America: 1968 and Beyond.” One of the most instructive objects there is a photograph of a young black soldier, weapon in hand, serving in the Vietnam War. A Jeep and white servicemen can be seen in the background, but it’s a copy of the message on the back that catches the eye: “This is base camp. Me and my girlfriend, Sweet 16. M-16 that is. We call them black power.”
“Here’s a man in 1968 who proclaims himself, ‘I’m a patriot. I have this sense of humor about being here, but I’m also about black power,’” Pretzer said. “To me, that was pretty telling.”
Pretzer focuses on the post-civil rights movement, “Black Liberation” era of American history from the Black Panthers to the election of Barack Obama. For the past seven years, he has scoured the country — including at Obama’s second inauguration — in search of artifacts that could help document the period from “I Have a Dream” to “Black Power,” through mayoral elections and demographic changes. As a way to not present Obama’s two terms as the end of the African-American struggle, the Changing America section ends with a large video board highlighting the Black Lives Matter movement, complete with video snippets of writer Ta-Nehisi Coates and activist DeRay Mckesson, along with a gas mask from Ferguson, Missouri, and a rake and broom from the cleanup efforts after the unrest in Baltimore.
“It’s that back-and-forth between the idea, the object and then the audience. It’s really a tricorner,” Pretzer said. Besides scholarship, he employs a complex calculus that leans on personal judgment and emotion when choosing artifacts.
“When the white woman gives you the glass shards from the 16th Street Baptist Church, it’s a different story from if a black man had given me that. And yet, if we had bought it at an auction, yeah, they’d be great, but not as great.”
The Smithsonian’s 19th museum was established without a single object. It now has a permanent collection of 37,000 artifacts, more than 3,500 of which will be on display at its opening. Perhaps as much as 60 percent were donated.
Before becoming associate director for curatorial affairs, heading a team of 14 curators, Rex Ellis served on the museum’s Scholarly Advisory Committee, which includes artists, historians and writers. The committee created a “bible of possibilities,” not only about the existential questions of what the museum needed to be, but “it also helped us determine what we wanted to collect,” Ellis said.
In 2009, the museum launched “Saving African-American Treasures,” a 15-city tour inviting people to bring in family heirlooms. At a Chicago event, for instance, a woman donated a rare white Pullman porter’s hat that will help tell the story of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters.
“I’ve had more people say to me I’ve waited for a place that cared,” Bunch said. “Basically, the job of this museum is to take people’s culture and handle it gently in our hands.”
The museum established an online form for people who thought they might have items of significance to donate. Each thing they collected suggested other items, and the visibility of the Treasures program inspired people to call. Ellis got a call from a woman in Virginia Beach, Virginia, and when he arrived at her home, she went into the closet and pulled out an old book wrapped in a dish towel. That book was Nat Turner’s Bible. “We knew that it needed to go somewhere that could tell the story,” Ellis recalled the woman saying. “We wanted it to be there rather than here because there’s so much blood on it.”
Simeon Wright was asleep next to his cousin Emmett Till when the white men came for him in Money, Mississippi. Wright donated the glass-topped casket that Till’s momma insisted her son be buried in so the world could see what hatred had done to her son. When Ellis and Bunch visited Wright in Chicago, where Till’s funeral took place, “Simeon looked at Lonnie and all of us and said, ‘I can die happy now knowing that this story about Emmett will be told.’”
“Sports and popular culture were, in some ways, the hardest thing to collect,” Bunch said. “I’ve had people say to me, ‘I want to give it to you, but this is my kid’s legacy. Give me a million dollars.’ I’ll say, ‘Good to see you.’
“Some athletes were great,” he said. Carl Lewis, for example, “said not only will I give you some of my track suits, but here are my Olympic medals.” He understood his story was bigger than his story and that it deserved to be made accessible to a broader audience, Bunch said.
“What’s going to happen, candidly, is once it’s open, there’ll be so many athletes saying, ‘Where’s my stuff? You want this?’ and that’s OK. That’s a good thing.”
Of the $540 million cost for the museum’s design, construction and exhibitions, half was appropriated by Congress. Museum officials had to raise the other $270 million from private donations, and much of that work had to be done during and after the Great Recession. Much of it was accomplished by crisscrossing the country in a grueling series of fundraising trips — roughly 608 total, Bunch estimated.
Call it Amtrak equity.
The top 21 donors, which account for the majority of the museum’s private funds, include Robert Frederick Smith, philanthropist and chief executive of Vista Equity Partners, one of the world’s largest investment firms; the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation; and the Rhimes Family Foundation, whose $10 million gift was announced at a donor party hosted by actor Denzel Washington and his wife Pauletta last spring. The 350-seat museum theater is named for Oprah Winfrey, whose series of donations, make her the largest donor at $21 million. Last month, Michael Jordan’s $5 million gift became the largest from a sports figure, and a section of the sports gallery will be named for him.
Black sororities, fraternities, civic groups and churches were asked to donate. The Links Inc., a black women’s volunteer service organization, gave $1 million. So did the Alfred Street Baptist Church in Alexandria, Virginia, making it the museum’s largest faith-based donor. Virginia businessman Earl Stafford and his wife Amanda gave $2 million, part of which helped establish the museum’s Center for African American Media Arts, which carries their name.
The museum also wanted to make regular people feel like stakeholders, Bunch said. It created a membership program with contributions of as little as $25. “I have people that send me emails: ‘I sent you 52 bucks last year, next year I’m going to send you another $52,’” he said. “That sense of ownership from average people has really meant so much to us.”
Before the doors even open, the museum has 100,000 members, which is not only touching, it’s “also, quite candidly, helped us politically,” Bunch said. “Once I got those members, I broke them down by congressional district. Every time I went on the Hill, I said, ‘Madam member of Congress, look at how many people we have in your district that care about this museum.’ It was really both a wonderful personal matter, but it was also a political matter.”
Lining up funding within the context of the Smithsonian’s 18 other institutions, getting it from a divided Congress that has routinely struggled to pass budgets and constantly faces threats of government shutdown, the historian had to be a deft politician. Working in Chicago may have prepared him for that.
Bunch likes to tell the story of how Aflac gave $1 million within his first week. That early success helped balance out darker moments. “What I’m not as good at is the notion of pushing people when I think I’ve done the best I could and they still don’t buy it. There’s a part of me that was raised never to be rude,” Bunch said. “You don’t always want to take that extra step and say, ‘Why not? Why aren’t you supporting us?’ ’’
He was once asked to visit a company (he won’t say which one) and caught a 5 a.m. train from Washington. He waited an hour and a half before a woman came out and said the name of the person he was supposed to see. “I start to follow her back to the offices and she basically ignores me. Doesn’t say, ‘Hi, how was your trip? You want a coffee?’ Nothing.”
After Bunch waited for another half-hour, a man came into the room and told him that he didn’t have time to listen and he wasn’t really interested in donating. “Then, as he’s walking me out, the woman that walked me in is covering her mouth, giggling. That was one of the lowest moments,” Bunch said.
But black history is full of people who “made a way out of no way.” It’s even the name of one of the museum’s inaugural exhibitions.
The museum has raised more than $315 million in private funds, far exceeding its congressionally mandated goal.
Building the Structure
When considering what kind of building the museum should have, Bunch knew this much: It had to be green. (It’s the first Smithsonian museum with solar panels, and it’s black!) He recalled being a Howard University freshman when he and three friends attended a celebration of the second Earth Day. A group of white women turned to them and said this wasn’t a civil rights march, and asked them why they were there.
“I remember thinking how sustainability was so important to African-Americans, being farmers, being people that had to ration to survive,” Bunch said. He wanted a building that would honor that history and be architecturally distinct, with a design informed by African-American culture. The building, of course, had to function as a space for exhibitions. But it also had to take advantage of the views onto the National Mall, with visitors able to see where the March on Washington took place, see the Lincoln Memorial and see where slave pens once stood in the nation’s capital.
By 2006, after years of wrangling between Congress, critics who contended the mall was too crowded to host another museum, and the Smithsonian’s Board of Regents, the National Mall’s last buildable site was chosen as the location. In April 2009, an architectural team led by Max Bond and Phil Freelon won the international design competition. Unfortunately, Bond, a seminal figure among African-American architects, died shortly after the selection. David Adjaye, the son of a Ghanaian diplomat who grew up in the U.K. and who designed the Nobel Peace Centre in Oslo and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver, became the lead designer. The final team, Freelon Adjaye Bond/SmithGroup, was a collaboration of four firms.
Ground was broken in February 2012. Bunch says the resulting building looks almost like a jewel box.
“The design’s signature element is its corona, the pierced bronze-colored crown that surrounds the top three levels of the exterior,” Bunch wrote in Smithsonian Magazine. Its function is to control the flow of light into the building, but its visual symbolism “has roots in Yoruban architecture,” and it is layered with meaning. The upward and outward slope of the corona mirrors the upward and inward slope of the nearby Washington Monument. It’s an angle that mirrors 1940s photographs of black women holding up their hands in prayer. And the detailed patterning in the dark aluminum pays homage to ironwork done by enslaved craftsmen in Charleston, South Carolina, and New Orleans.
Bunch “really loved this idea of a dark presence on the mall,” Adjaye said in an interview with NPR earlier this month. “It matched his philosophy. In a way, the museum, for him, is about the way in which the African-American community is absolutely integral to understanding the American identity, but somehow has been always in the back room. So this is a kind of coming to the front, sitting on the front sort of lawn with all of the other monuments.”
Design and engineering challenges and problems with the water table meant delays — the building was originally supposed to open last year. But it had to be finished this fall so that Obama could dedicate it in the final months of his historic presidency.
Five stories of the building space, about 60 percent, are underground. The subterranean exhibitions include a slave cabin, a segregation-era railcar, and a plane flown by the Tuskegee Airmen. Standing on the ramp that leads to those objects and others, Zena Howard, a Freelon architect who coordinated the work between the architecture firms and the Smithsonian, said the team focused on how it wanted visitors to feel in the museum.
For the architects and the museum exhibition design firm, Ralph Appelbaum Associates, the challenge was “how are we going to tell these stories, and that involved bringing in some very large artifacts — a plane, a train, a guard tower,” Howard said. Digging deep also allowed them to place them in a manageable scale without dwarfing other buildings on the mall.
On the upper floors, the designers wanted views of the Washington Monument, the White House and the Capitol, Howard said. “We took a bolder move in allowing light to come into those galleries,” she said. “All of that enhances the notion that this is the African-American experience to the American way.”
Making a Lasting Connection
As the end of the long process of willing the museum into existence — much as black people have had to will themselves into everything they’ve ever had — comes to a close, the new process of shaping what the world’s newest museum will be looms ahead.
Ask Bunch how he feels right now and he says, “that’s a hard question. I don’t know. I’m probably exhausted.” Or at least he would be if he had time to think about it. “Right now, the work is all-consuming. I feel unbelievably humbled and honored by the way people are responding to this. Candidly, we knew this was a big deal, but the way the public has demanded tickets or want to be on this event, go to that event, I’m stunned by it.”
What “the Smithsonian expects, what the people who work with me expect, what the community expects is for us to do a great job,” Bunch said. And if he’s tired, or worried or the work is hard, it’s all in the tradition. The picture of the enslaved woman in his office, carrying her burden in the heat of the day, pushes him to not dwell on his weariness.
“What we all have to realize, those of us who have worked on this, that the opening of the building is the beginning, not the end. That all of this is really the prelude,” Bunch said.
Exhibitions, books and public programs have given it a presence in the world, but now that they’re corporeal, now that they have their building, Bunch said the staff is planning “amazing” programming about issues such as Black Lives Matter. “Our greatest strength ought to be that we can contextualize the issues we wrestle with today,” he said. “Sometimes things are better by helping people remember things they didn’t know. Other times it is really saying discussions about police violence are part of a long history. But we need to be the place, because one of the great strengths of this museum, the great strengths of the Smithsonian, is we’re the great convener.”
He wants the museum to bring together scholars and average citizens of all races to interrogate the times in which they live.
He wants it to be a place that allows you to understand and revel in the past, but “then allows you to say, what does it really mean that you’ve had an African-American president? What does that tell us? What does it mean that this museum began under Republican help, and opened under a Democrat? What does that tell about the possibilities of America?” he asked.
The vision: that the museum becomes a pilgrimage site for Americans of all races.
And helps further that demand for a more perfect union.
A few weeks ago, Bunch drove to the National Air and Space Museum, where he always parks for work. As he was walking out, a number of the maintenance workers saw him and lined up in an impromptu honor guard. “They said, ‘We want to salute you. We want to make sure nothing happens to you. We want to make sure you know you’re protected. We got your back,’” Bunch recalled. He has yet to be comfortable with that kind of prominence. The notion of average folks, whose jobs are to vacuum floors and clean windows, “who realize this building is about them,” stepping in with such a humble offering, was almost too much. He was so choked up, he could hardly work the rest of the day.
But he found a way. A way out of no way. It’s the work that has kept him moving, kept the museum moving, kept black people moving, for many, many years.
Senior researcher Martenzie Johnson contributed to this report.
Caleb Wilkerson produced the videos for this piece