One of the pleasures in having our Australian brother Gil visit is that I can become a “museum junkie” like him.
When we headed to Fairfax, Virginia, to celebrate our daughter Sara’s birthday, Gil and I determined in advance to spend a day or days in Washington, D.C., touring museums. Our chief focus was the National Museum of African American History and Culture, a new site for Gil who faced quarantines during COVID that prevented his visits to the United States.
Opening on Sept. 24, 2016, the museum “is a place of living history ... where collections, scholarship, and research illuminate pathways of understanding that connect the past to the present and future,” according to museum Director Kevin Young.
The journey to fruition of the goal to build the museum met many obstacles—financial, the Depression—though the design for the museum began in 1923. In 1929, the National Memorial Association Inc., which grew out of a group that honored Black soldiers who fought in the Civil War, asked Congress to approve a resolution for a memorial building, but the idea had died by the time of Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency.
The 1950s and ‘60s saw a resurgence of interest in Black culture. In 1968 a bill proposed in Congress stalled, but lawmakers in Ohio established the National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center near Wilberforce, where the nation’s oldest private historically Black university was situated. This site, though, lacked national attention that a location in Washington, D.C., would achieve. The plan to place the museum near the Washington Monument paid tribute to Washington’s giving his slaves their freedom upon his death, so the current museum lies in the National Mall between the Washington Monument and the Smithsonian Museum of American History.
The museum rises five stories high and descends 60 feet below ground. Its architecture differs from most of the buildings near it because of its three-tiered Corona or crown that recalls crowns of ancient African and Egyptian royalty. The architects designed the Corona based on crown-like structures in the works of Olowe of Ise, a Yoruba sculptor of the 1900s. The 17-degree angles of the Corona mimic people raising their arms in praise or joy.
The 3,523 bronze-colored, cast-aluminum panels that enclose the glass and steel exterior have a filigree pattern that imitates the ornate ironwork enslaved peoples made in southern cities like Charleston and New Orleans.
We in Goldsboro have a link to one of the museum’s architects, Phil Freelon, whose wife, Neena, served as Artist-in-Residence at Wayne Community College. A jazz and blues singer, Neena Freelon lectured and performed for students in classes and for the public in the auditorium during her two-year tenure.
Access to the collections begins with a curving staircase/rampway on the lowest level or Concourse that takes visitors to three parts of the Journey Toward Freedom: Slavery and Freedom, the Era of Segregation, and A Changing America. These galleries in the David M. Rubenstein History section review 600 years of history. The Slavery and Freedom section looks at slavery in the Chesapeake, the Carolina low country, Louisiana, and the Northern colonies.
The Era of Segregation covers 1877-1968, the end of slavery but the struggle for equality that came only with the Civil Rights Movement. The exhibit includes a dress Rosa Parks made. The museum has a stool from the Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro where four college students staged the first sit-in in 1960. A tape recorder Malcolm X used to record his speeches in the early 1960s has a place in this section. These constitute a few of the 3,000 artifacts on display of 41,000 in the museum’s collections.
A Changing America looks at 1968 and Beyond: “It examines the strategies African Americans have used to wrestle with racial discrimination, cultural exclusion, and economic inequality and considers how issues of immigration, class, and gender have reshaped the definition of African American identity at the turn of the present century.”
Visitors need days to explore the entire museum with its underground History Galleries, Concourse, Heritage Hall, Community Galleries, and Culture Galleries. While we didn’t go there, the scent of food from the Sweet Home Café entices with African American food traditions where 400 people can enjoy dishes from the North States, the Agricultural South, the Creole Coast, and the Western Range.
As Laura Bush said at the museum’s groundbreaking ceremony in 2012, ... “the stories preserved within these walls ... are the stories of African Americans. But they’re also stories that are forever woven through the heart of the fabric of our nation.”
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