See How Black History Shaped the American Experience through Washington’s New Black Museum


From September through June, yellow buses filled with schoolchildren descend on the nation’s capital. The students travel with backpacks carrying lunch, a composition book, and the ubiquitous smartphone. No matter their points of departure, they share a common itinerary: They have come to Washington, DC, to visit museums, historic sites, and, of course, the monuments built to honor our past presidents.

The educators and principals who travel with them have one goal in mind: to teach the youngest citizens of the nation about their history—and more specifically, about the founding of the United States. The hope is that these school trips will inspire them to learn about the past in experiential ways, supplementing dry textbooks by allowing them to stand on political holy ground. Visiting places like the White House and the Capitol, students are exposed to the seats of political power; and when they tour museums, they encounter America’s past, its greatness, and its vulnerabilities.

On September 24, the itinerary of these trips to the capital permanently changed. A new institution, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, celebrated its opening with much fanfare, including public concerts and the attendance of some of the nation’s most famous celebrities and dignitaries. Amid the celebrations, a particularly poignant moment marked the importance of this new museum.

Seated onstage with her family, 99-year-old Ruth Bonner listened attentively to President Obama’s opening remarks. Dressed in a plum-colored pantsuit, the near-centenarian watched the first African-American president shed tears as he shared his thoughts about visiting the museum with his future grandchildren. First lady Michelle Obama did likewise as she listened to her husband recognize the courage of children like Ruby Bridges, the first black student to attend a formerly all-white school in New Orleans, and the despair surrounding the 1963 murder of four little girls by segregationists in Birmingham, Alabama.

Bonner’s face remained composed as the president detailed the violence of the Jim Crow past and the racial inequalities of today. Flanked by her family, Bonner kept her hands clasped in her lap as she waited for the president and Mrs. Obama to make their way across the stage. They would join her in ringing the Freedom Bell, which was carefully restored for the occasion. The bell, which dates back to 1886, was owned by the First Baptist Church in Williamsburg, Virginia, a congregation founded by enslaved and free blacks in 1776. The same year that the founders of the new nation signed the Declaration of Independence, members of the First Baptist Church defied the law by congregating and worshipping in secret outdoor church services. It seems that in 1776, the spirit of freedom was contagious.

Reminiscent of the small schoolhouses whose bell used to ring in the beginning of each school day, the Obamas and Bonner formally opened the museum by tugging on a simple rope. As the Freedom Bell rang, it triggered a communal bell-ringing by schools and churches across Washington. Bonner’s presence at the ceremony was both emotional and emblematic. The daughter of a formerly enslaved man, she stood with the president to demonstrate the possibilities of progress. Bonner’s father, Elijah Odom, managed to escape enslavement in Mississippi, lived through the tumultuous years of Reconstruction and segregation, and found a way to educate himself and graduate from medical school. His story epitomizes the sweeping arc of history commemorated by the museum, which tells the long and complicated story of slavery and freedom in America.

The ringing of the Freedom Bell was a signal to teachers, students, and the general public: This new museum had opened its doors to introduce a new and powerful narrative among the city’s tourist attractions. It was built to teach African-American history, and just like the nation’s capital, its existence grew out of a specific need: the need to be recognized and respected.

The museum’s first director, Lonnie Bunch III, left his post as president of the Chicago Historical Society and started his new position in July 2005. His original staff consisted of just one assistant, and when he first reported to work, no one was available (or willing) to open his office door. He borrowed a crowbar from the maintenance staff and muscled his way into his new job. The mission that confronted Bunch was herculean, but he’d been trained as a historian, so he knew that he wasn’t the first person to build something from nothing in Washington. He could simply look over at the Washington Monument for inspiration: If the nation’s first president could get the capital constructed in a decade, Bunch could surely build a museum.

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Source: The Nation |  Erica Armstrong Dunbar