Touring the National Museum of African American History and Culture

National Museum of African American History and Culture
National Museum of African American History and Culture (Photograph: Alan Karchmer/NMAAHC)

By Ryan Hugh McWilliams

New museums don’t open very often, so when the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture opened in September last year I jumped at the chance to go. Unfortunately, so did everyone else and admission was sold-out for months. Luckily, they released a new batch of tickets in January and I scooped up a few for the soonest date I could get…in April. The museum is proving to be a huge hit and still only has limited availability. If you want to go you’ll need to plan way in advance. If you’re already near Washington, D.C., a few same day passes are released each day at 6:30am. Advanced entry tickets are given away monthly, the next set for August are released on Wednesday, May 3rd.

Established by an act of congress in 2003, after years of lobbying by numerous advocates and civil rights leaders including James Baldwin, Robert L. Wilkins, and Oprah Winfrey. Construction began in 2012 and took four years to complete. The building encompasses 409,000 square feet and five jam-packed floors of 600 years of history, artifacts, photos, and video. Designed by Tanzanian-born David Adjaye and lead architect Philip Freelon, the building is massive and appears as a sort of a modern-day fortress of glass and steel. Adjaye designed the building after a classical Greco-Roman shaft and base structure with an ornamental three-tiered corona, modeled after the crowns on a wooden sculpture by an early 20th-Century Yoruban craftsman. The bronze-colored steel lattice work panels that make up the corona’s façade pay homage to the intricate metalwork of the south created by enslaved African Americans.

Façade of the National Museum of African American History (Photograph: Alan Karchmer/NMAAHC)

Beautifully imposing on the outside, the building is open and bright on the inside, naturally lit by the sun shining through glass walls hidden behind the metal lattice exterior.

Interior of the National Museum of African American History. Photograph by Douglas Remley, courtesy of the NMAAHC.
Interior of the National Museum of African American History (Photograph: Alan Karchmer/NMAAHC)

The history portion of the exhibit is divided into three sections: Slavery and Freedom 1400-1877, The Era of Segregation 1877-1968, and A Changing America 1968 and Beyond. The amount of information to process is immense and way too much to cover in one visit. My friend who joined me was there on a return trip to view the second and third sections of the history portion after spending her entire previous trip in just the first. She made late dinner reservations giving us six hours to go through it all, which I thought was a bit excessive. It wasn’t. We left at closing time and could have spent another six hours poring over the Culture portion, which could have been its own museum in and of itself.

Here are just the highlights.

To begin, you enter a giant glass elevator that lowers itself into the basement. The elevator passes by significant years in African American history that are painted on the walls outside, taking you back in time as you descend. 2008: The election of the first African American President, Barack Obama; 1955: Rosa Parks and the Montgomery bus boycott; 1857: Dred Scott Supreme Court case legalizing slavery in the new American Territories; 1400: non-race based slavery widely exists in Europe. When you exit the elevator, the space is purposefully dark and cramped, putting you in the mindset of the oppressive conditions of the era. The building opens up and gets brighter as you move through history and achievements in civil rights are made.

Outside a room containing a small recreation of a ship’s hull are diagrams of how captured Africans were stowed in the slave ship’s lower level. There was debate on how to ‘pack’ them, loose versus tight; the former to improve conditions slightly so more would survive or the latter where they would bring higher numbers to make up for the loss of life on the journey. It is extremely disturbing. Inside the hull’s recreation are a small pair of rusted shackles for a child next to a larger pair for adults.

A rebellion occurred on one in ten transatlantic voyages and enslaved Africans would jump into shark infested waters rather than live through the conditions of the trip and what awaited them on the other side.

Illustration of the transatlantic slave trade
Illustration of the transatlantic slave trade

The next section is divided into the regions of North America where the slaves ended up and explores what their living and work conditions were like. At first enslaved Africans, Native Americans and indentured servants worked together, socialized, intermarried and rebelled together. As the Chesapeake region began to develop, the concept of “whiteness” began to take hold as planters became fearful of interracial alliances. Slaves became a cheaper and safer workforce. A glass display case filled with sugar and a giant five-foot wide iron pot used for processing sugar cane into refined sugar illustrates why the slave trade began. Sugar was more valuable than gold as it could be grown and thus provided unlimited wealth for plantation owners. With free labor, costs were kept low and profits were maximized for the greedy slave owners. The job was grueling and life expectancy for slaves was only seven years once they started working.

Leading off the section on the American Revolution is a detail of John Singleton Copely’s painting, The Death of Major Peirson, 6 January 1781, showing a black Loyalist soldier in a British uniform fighting against the Patriots. Outnumbered by the British, the Patriots began to recruit slaves as soldiers to help turn the war. They were promised their freedom in exchange for enlisting, but were denied their freedom once the war ended. Instead slavery only expanded after the war. With thirteen colonies fighting to win their freedom the irony of them practicing slavery is most apparent with the principal author of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson. A pile of 609 bricks engraved with the name of each slave he owned sits in piles 20 high towering over a bronze statue of the founding father, casting a literal shadow on his legacy.

Bronzes of African American revolutionary figures stand next to Jefferson contrasting their impact and influence.

Phillis Wheatley was the first African American poet to be published with her 1773 book, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. Sold into slavery as a child, she mastered classical English, Latin, and Greek and was a symbol of achievement by the international anti-slavery movement. Elizabeth Freeman, known as Mum Bett, was one of the first people to successfully sue for her freedom. After hearing the newly ratified Massachusetts constitution read aloud, she sued for her freedom and won based on the law’s guarantee of liberty in 1781. In August of 1832, Nat Turner led a group of rebels across plantations in Southampton County, Virginia, murdering around 65 whites and freeing enslaved people along the way. Though they were eventually captured and executed, the rebellion brought national attention to the debate over slavery. A Baptist preacher known as “The Prophet,” Turner’s bible lays open to Revelations.

Replicas of the Mound Bayou and Freedman's Town historical markers
Replicas of the Mound Bayou and Freedman’s Town historical markers

After the Civil War, Federal Troops remained in the south keeping the peace until 1877. Once they left southerners began to undermine African American’s newly achieved freedoms with violence and intimidation. As a result, many all-black towns began to form in order to escape the oppression of the “Jim Crow” South in places like Eatonville, Florida; Guthrie, Oklahoma; and Nicodemus, Kansas. Replications of historical markers from Mound Bayou, Freedman’s Town and Nicodemus explain the origins of these towns and sit in front of the Jones-Hall-Simms House, a small wooden cabin that was one of the first homes in another all-black community at Jonesville, Maryland.

The Greensboro lunch counter, site of the infamous 1960 anti-segregation sit-in, is reimagined as an interactive exhibit on the civil rights movement. Next to an original stool from the “whites-only” establishment, the counter consists of a row of large touch-screen TVs with a “Menu of Movements” on it of which you can explore. Choices range from ‘Grassroots Leadership’ to ‘Black Power’ and include ‘Bus Boycotts,’ ‘Freedom Rides,’ and ‘Marches.’ Choose ‘Sit-Ins’ and instructions on how to participate in these non-violent protests are given: dress in your Sunday best, sit quietly behind the counter, violence will not be permitted. Next, photographs are shown of young activists undergoing Passive Resistance Training which teaches would-be protesters how to resist non-violently. It becomes a ‘Choose-Your-Own-Adventure’ type narrative where you can decide how you would respond if someone blows cigarette smoke in your face or begins to physically harass you. With each choice you make the consequences of your actions appear. Would you abandon your guidelines and fight back, curl up into a ball on the floor and take your punishment, or sit non-violently and ignore your attackers? It is an eye-opening testament to the fight these activists had to wage to secure their everyday freedoms.

Madam C.J. Walker's hair care products
Madam C.J. Walker’s hair care products

A section on African American owned businesses follows, showcasing the work of many different inspiring entrepreneurs. Madam C.J. Walker became America’s first self-made millionaire by developing a line of beauty products specifically for African American women, some of which are on display. Long before Mary Kay, she began selling her pressing oils and Wonderful Hair Grower door-to-door and eventually built a company of more than 20,000 women that still exists today. She even visited the White House to lobby for anti-lynching legislation and encouraged her employees to be politically active. A brass and stained glass sign and clock for the Citizens Saving Bank & Trust Co. stands in front of a photograph of the Nashville building it once advertised. Created by Richard H. Boyd and originally called the OneCent Savings Bank, it is the oldest continuously operating African American bank in the country and was created in 1904 specifically to serve the needs of the community, as traditional banks would not allow them to open accounts.

Vietnam tour jacket with black power embroidery
Vietnam tour jacket with black power embroidery (Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture)

Entering ‘A Changing America: 1968 and Beyond,’ the exhibits are broken up by decade and showcase the various approaches African Americans have used to combat racial discrimination and explores how these efforts have impacted the wider cultural landscape. A Vietnam tour jacket is on display, customized with a Black Power fist on the back that a soldier had embroidered while on leave in Okinawa. About 60,000 troops in the Vietnam War were African American and proudly served to demonstrate their citizenship and advance civil rights back home. There are campaign buttons and a poster from Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm’s 1972 run for President, which made her the first African American candidate for a major party’s nomination for President of the United States. Audience chairs and Oprah Winfrey’s interview couch are on display, along with one of the dresses that she wore on “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” which reached 48 million viewers each week in 150 countries over the 25 years it was on the air. A giant red and black banner created by Chuck D shows how the image of an African American man in the crosshairs of a gun became the logo for the hip-hop group Public Enemy, after he created it in school as a graphic design student.

The end of the history portion covers the last three decades of the 20th Century in what seems like a condensed rush. In the seventies, affirmative action gave rise to enrollment by African American students in universities, expanding employment options; while the introduction of cheap drugs into neighborhoods in the eighties increased violence and incarceration. The nineties saw a rebirth in activism and political discourse. A grey sweatshirt with four diverse African American men in front of the Capitol building and Lincoln memorial that was sold at the 1995 Million Man March dwarfs a small button from the 1997 Million Woman March below it.

The era of 2000 briefly explores the disaster that was Hurricane Katrina, the recession, and foreclosure crisis that crippled poor and middle-class African American families. It ends on an odd, but uplifting note; the election of Barack Obama as the first African American President of the United States. Situated prominently in that case is Michelle Obama’s black and red poppy flower dress that she wore to the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, surrounded by Barack’s numerous campaign buttons, newspaper, and magazine covers. The emphasis is a little misplaced. What seems like an afterthought was the coverage of the Black Lives Matter movement and the rise of police violence that has occurred in the past decade.

Dorothy and Tin Man costumes from 'The Wiz' on Broadway.
Dorothy and Tin Man costumes from ‘The Wiz’ on Broadway

To digest the 600 years’ worth of history, both brutal and courageous, it is necessary to take a snack break at the Sweet Home Café serving authentic and traditional meals from African American culture in the main concourse. Afterward, make sure to head to the fourth floor to view the culture galleries for an uplifting desert. While also crammed with artifacts and ephemera, the culture portion of the museum seems somewhat abbreviated and once again could easily be its own museum. Of my favorite pieces in the entertainment area are: the piano with carved wooden legs from the 1990 film of August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson; original costumes from the Broadway production of The Wiz (upon close inspection the tin-man’s metal leg armor is made to look like they came from 40 ounce beer cans); pointe shoes from Dance Theatre of Harlem’s Creole Giselle which were hand dyed to match their skin tones; James Brown’s chestless black jumpsuit with SEX spelled out in jewels on the belt; Ella Fitzgerald’s saffron and canary yellow, spaghetti strap dress she wore for numerous performances; Chuck Berry’s hot red Cadillac driven on stage during Hail! Hail! Rock and Roll!; and last but not least—The actual P-Funk Mothership, the holy spaceship of Dr. Funkenstein AKA George Clinton and his agents of Supergroovalisticprosifunkstication.

These historic items only scratch the surface of the amazing memorabilia and photos in the culture portion. After three floors of really tough and emotional history, make sure to give yourself enough time in the culture exhibit to take in the truly awe-inspiring spirit of these entertainers who have turned their troubled history into moments of sheer joy and celebration.

P.S. – Make sure to visit the Contemplative Court just to the right up a small ramp when exiting the history galleries. The name says it all and the space is a not-to-be-missed meditative spectacle that I won’t spoil here.

Click here for more information on the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.

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