History, History Column

National Museum of African American History and Culture

By Sarah Becker

smithsonian-african-american-history-museum-994x559On September 24th, the long awaited Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture opens to the public. Its five acre site, located in the District of Columbia on Constitution Avenue between 14th and 15th Streets NW, is “a place where everyone can explore the story of America through the lens of the African American experience.” President George W. Bush gave his approval in 2003; President Barack Obama will cut the Saturday ribbon.


“After 13 years of hard work, I am thrilled,” founding Director Lonnie G. Bunch III said. “The Museum is a place for all people. We are prepared to offer exhibitions and programs to unite and capture the attention of millions of people worldwide.” The $500 million museum opens with 11 inaugural exhibitions.

The Museum’s more than 34,000 objects illustrate the major periods of African American history. All were acquired after 2003 and highlights include: an 1800s South Carolina slave cabin; Virginia slave and insurrectionist Nat Turner’s 1831 Bible; Maryland underground railway conductor Harriet Tubman’s 1876 hymnal; a 1920 segregation-era Southern Railway car, and pop-singer Michael Jackson’s 1992 fedora.

The building’s exterior bronze finish contrasts sharply with the nearby George Washington Memorial’s white marble. It is intentional. Americans increasingly are People of Color and coexistence has not always come easily. George Washington’s adopted grandson, slave owner George Washington Parke Custis of Arlington House explains slavery as the “unhappy error of our forefathers.”


The 400,000 square foot Museum stands five stories tall. Four additional stories are located underground. Among the building’s signature spaces: a water and light-filled Contemplative Court; a theater; café and store; an education center and library. The Museum’s educational standards are tied to Standards of Learning, standards which favor historical knowledge; its application, analysis and evaluation.

Slave preacher Nat Turner’s 1831 rebellion was among the most frightening in American history. He believed God had chosen him to lead a slave revolt. His Southampton County, Virginia uprising began on August 21, 1831 and lasted for two days. Turner murdered his master and maybe 60 others. He was executed and 30 of Turner’s disciples were either hanged or expelled. Harsher slave laws followed.


“The dreadful events of August [1831] in our State [of Virginia], the want of confidence & insecurity produced by these horrors, compel me to address you,” Woodlawn’s Nelly Custis Lewis wrote Boston’s Mayor Otis Gray. “To a wretch outraging the laws of God & Man, to the Editor of the ‘Liberator’—one of your community,—protected by your Laws, we owe in greatest measure this calamity…Your Southern Brethren incurred this curse by no act of their own, they are endeavoring by degrees & consistently with their safety, & even existence to remove it…We cannot leave our State, our only means of subsistence is here [and] we cannot dispose of our property to any advantage. We must therefore risk the horrors that may be impending.”

How—through the lens of—is freedom finally defined? Freedom ostensibly was granted with the passage of the 13th Amendment in 1865.

Abolitionist Harriet Tubman’s portrait will soon grace the $20 bill. Is it because in the summer of 1859 John Brown sought, and successfully secured, her support to map his attack on the Harpers Ferry Armory; to steal enough materiel to equip yet another army of rebellious slaves? How—through the lens of—should justice be defined?

In 1866 the federal government tried to remedy civil wrongs with passage of the 14th Amendment. The Amendment, as ratified in 1868, overruled Dred Scott v. Sanford of 1857.

The 14th Amendment, Section 1: “….No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive…without due process of law; nor deny…equal protection of the laws


After Reconstruction, America passed the Civil Rights Act of 1875. Short-lived, the U.S. Supreme Court declared the Act unconstitutional in 1883. With Plessy v. Ferguson America’s African American population was again contained. On May 18, 1896 the U.S. Supreme Court, by a vote of 8 to 1, ruled that “all railway companies carrying passengers in their coaches…shall provide equal but separate accommodations for the white and colored races.”

“The object of the [14th] Amendment was undoubtedly to enforce the equality of the two races before the law,” majority Justice Henry Billings Brown wrote, “but in the nature of things it could not have been intended to abolish distinctions based upon color, or to endorse social, as distinguished from political equality…If one race be inferior to the other socially, the Constitution of the United States cannot put them on the same plane.”


“The white race deems itself to be the dominant race in this country,” dissenting Justice John Marshal Harlan wrote. “And so it is in prestige, in achievement, in education, in wealth and in power…But in the view of the Constitution, in the eye of the law, there is in this country no superior, dominant, ruling class of citizens…Our Constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens. In respect of civil rights, all citizens are equal before the law…In my opinion, the judgment this day rendered will, in time, prove to be quite as pernicious as the decision made by this tribunal in the Dred Scott case…[that blacks are] a subordinate and inferior class of beings.”


How—through the lens of—was the notion of social equality righted? Plessy v. Ferguson remained law until the Brown decision in1954.


“These [Brown] cases come to us from the States of Kansas, South Carolina, Virginia and Delaware,” U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren said. “They are premised on different facts…but a common legal question justifies…this consolidated opinion. Segregation of white and Negro children in the public schools of a State solely on the basis of race…denies to Negro children the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the 14th Amendment.”

“Does segregation of children in public schools solely on the basis of race, even though the physical facilities and ‘tangible’ factors may be equal, deprive the children of the minority group of equal educational opportunities?” Warren asked. “We believe it does…the policy of separating the races is usually interpreted as denoting inferiority of the negro group.”

“Equal,” NAACP Attorney Thurgood Marshall maintained, “means getting the same thing, at the same time and in the same place.”


Not until Virginia NAACP attorney Samuel W. Tucker’s 1968 Green v. School Board of New Kent County, VA—a case argued one day before Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination—did Virginia School Districts implement full desegregation. Tucker heeded the call because he was “born black in Alexandria.”

If injustice is defined as a lack of fairness, and fairness is defined as Just and equitable, then how—through the lens of—is the re-segregation of today explained? For what reason(s) do feelings of racial inferiority remain? Or do they?


In 1939 “matchless contralto” Marian Anderson gave an “enthralling” concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial; 75,000 persons attended. She sang at the corrective invitation of Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes. Anderson’s request to use Constitution Hall, a privately-owned nearby facility, was racially denied. Her performance outfit is on display.


“The Museum is a place to remember; how much we as a country have improved and been made better by the African American experience,” Bunch concluded. For more information, visit www.nmaahc.si.edu. Microsoft Corporation donated $1 million as did Alexandria’s historic Alfred Street Baptist Church, an African American church established in 1803. In 2007 the Virginia House Rules Committee unanimously expressed “profound regret” for the state’s role, and by implication the city of Alexandria’s role, in the slave trade.


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