Smithsonian’s African-American History Museum an ‘Opportunity for Understanding’

February 22, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Ground was broken Wednesday on the National Mall for the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture, set to open in 2015. Jeffrey Brown discusses the pivotal moment in the long, $500 million effort to showcase the stories and experiences of black Americans with journalist and author Isabel Wilkerson.

JEFFREY BROWN: And finally tonight, a new institution to help tell America’s story.

AUDIENCE: Three, two, one.

WOMAN: Break ground.


JEFFREY BROWN: An official ground-breaking today marked a pivotal moment in a long journey, to build the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African-American History and Culture on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

Given a final push by an act of Congress in 2003, and now scheduled to open in 2015, it will stand next to the Washington Monument and cost around $500 million, half covered by Congress, half by private donations that are still being raised.

Lonnie Bunch, a former curator at the Smithsonian and president of the Chicago Historical Society, is the museum’s founding director.

LONNIE BUNCH, director, National Museum of African-American History and Culture: The greatest chasm that has divided us has been the issue of race. And in some ways, we want to create a museum that will allow us to understand the full, rich, diverse history of America.

And by doing that, we want to create an opportunity for sort of reconciliation and healing. So, ultimately, while I want to do a great building and great exhibitions and wonderful artifacts, I really want this museum to mean more.

I have said I am not interested in creating an African-American museum for African-Americans. What I’m interested in is taking this culture and using it as another lens to understand what it means to be an American.

JEFFREY BROWN: To do that, the museum is collecting artifacts from far and wide to illustrate aspects of life and history, from the African slave trade to our own time.

Some 25,000 items have already been acquired, among them, a Spirit of Tuskegee World War II biplane that was flown across country during a monthlong trip in August. The owner, a young Air Force captain, donated the plane, which had been used to train the Tuskegee Airmen in the 1940s.

And the family of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old murdered in Mississippi in 1955, donated the casket in which he was buried. There are other artifacts from historic figures: Harriet Tubman’s hymnbook, Rosa Parks’ dress, Nat Turner’s Bible. And many from popular culture: Chuck Berry’s red Cadillac, Michael Jackson’s fedora, Louis Armstrong’s trumpet.

But the vast majority, says Bunch, will be from the unheralded and everyday life.

LONNIE BUNCH: Many museums start with thousands of objects. We started with zero. So what we had to do was really think of different ways to basically suggest that so much of the 20th century and most of the 19th century is still in the basements, attics and homes of people.

So we created an array of programs where we have gone around the country to get people excited and engaged. And we have found amazing things.

JEFFREY BROWN: When completed, this new national museum will join some 300 other museums around the country devoted to African-American history, including the African-American Firefighter Museum in Los Angeles, the Wright Museum of African-American History in Detroit, and the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis. Several new ones, including in Atlanta and Charleston, are under way.

The new museum in Washington will no doubt be the most prominent.

And, at today’s ceremony, President Obama spoke to its larger meaning.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: It’s also fitting that this museum has found a home on the National Mall. It was on this ground long ago that lives were once traded, where hundreds of thousands once marched for jobs and for freedom. It was here that the pillars of our democracy were built, often by black hands.

And that’s why what we build here won’t just be an achievement for our time. It will be a monument for all time.

JEFFREY BROWN: When the museum opens, officials it to draw some three to four million visitors a year.

And for more on this and other museums and the quest to tell the African-American story, we’re joined by Isabel Wilkerson, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author of the book “The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration.”

Isabel, it’s good to talk to you again.

It occurs to me that you must have gathered many artifacts and lots of stories for your book. How do you define the importance of a national museum like this?

ISABEL WILKERSON, “The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration”: Well, I see it as representing an opportunity to understand the experiences of people who have been in this country for longer than there’s even been a United States, and who have been central to its development, but who over the years and over the centuries have been marginalized.

And so this is an opportunity for understanding and for healing for all Americans, and a sense of being able to understand and to see what the experiences of people have been like, and focusing beyond the big dates and the big names and the big heroes and icons, and to see what it’s like to humanize the experiences of people.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes, that was interesting, because you hear — we talk about the famous people and events, and then Lonnie Bunch is talking about the stuff in people’s attics and basements. That’s what you’re talking about?

ISABEL WILKERSON: Yes, the idea that we are now two generations away from some of the harshest realities of a caste system known as Jim Crow that ruled the lives of so many Americans in the South, and that those people who are now the — the heirs or the people who are now the children and grandchildren of that era are removed now from the most heartbreaking aspects of it.

And they have a tremendous amount of curiosity. They’re also inheriting trunk-loads and attics full of memorabilia that they may not even understand or know exactly what it is. And there’s this curiosity and a desire to know, a desire to understand.

And if you think about it, there’s so much that we really don’t know and can’t possibly know, because all of these things have been hidden in people’s attics and in their memories. And so now this has been a chance for an unfolding of all of this for us to appreciate and to learn from and to grow from.

JEFFREY BROWN: You know, I mentioned the hundreds of museums already out there, and a spate of new ones, including this one in Washington. But we mentioned Atlanta, Charleston.  There is also one in Jackson, Miss., coming.

What accounts for that? What accounts for this sort of renaissance, if you will, of building and looking into this history in the last few years and in the years to come?

ISABEL WILKERSON: Again, I think it’s partly the fact that we have a generation that’s removed now from the harshest aspects of it.

And previous generations simply didn’t talk about it. And now their children and grandchildren are wanting to know. And they are — they have all these artifacts. And so they’re figuring out what to do with them.

And I think that one of the challenges will be and one of the joys of actually all of this is a greater awareness of the meaning and significance of little bits of memorabilia, old copies of long — long-gone periodicals and the Green Books that helped guide African-Americans as they were making their way across the country during an era where they could not stop and be assured of being able to find a place to rest or of food.

And so these things are now quite valued. And when people discover them, they’re trying to figure out what to do with them. And now they have a place to take them.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, you’re talking about different generations. I assume one of the important issues here is a civil rights generation that is beginning to pass away.

ISABEL WILKERSON: Yes. With the passing of each generation, all these things become even more valuable.

And, as we discovered — in my own case, I have discovered things from my own father, who’d been a Tuskegee Airman, and now there is a place to put these things. And I think that it raises the value and it makes an awareness for people who maybe had not realized it before.

It goes beyond just African-Americans. Clearly, this is a recording of and a saving and curating of American history. And I agree with the director that this has meaning far beyond just those people who are the people who are sifting through what they have in their attic. It means something for the whole country.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, speaking of that aspect of it — and we did hear Lonnie Bunch talk about it — but the question always comes up — and it comes up every Black History Month — and here’s a museum dedicated to black history — is it helpful to sort of put one set of history over here, and in some ways apart from American history?

And we heard the director, Lonnie Bunch, talking about how he doesn’t see it that way. It sounds like you don’t either. But talk about that — that little bit of tension there that does come up.

ISABEL WILKERSON: Well, obviously, there are two schools of thought.

I mean, one of them is that it’s American history, so, clearly, it should be embedded and a part of all — any reference to American history and American thought and culture. On the other hand, these things have been marginalized for so long that, even now, much of what we know about African-American history may be bits and pieces here and there.

And so until we get to a point where this history is fully embedded into all that we know as American history, there — would still, you know, very likely be needed. One would hope and look forward to the day when it won’t be necessary.

JEFFREY BROWN: I guess another question that comes up with all the museums and the new museum is just whether there will be enough visitors, whether there’s enough money to support all these places, enough artifacts for all these museums.

Is that something to worry about, or just celebrate, I guess, at the moment?

ISABEL WILKERSON: I think, at this point, there is so much that people don’t even know. They don’t even know what it is that they have. They don’t recognize or even — they don’t recognize, if they come across a Green Book, what that is and what the significance of it is.

I think the main concern and most important thing is to have something to curate to begin with. And the more awareness there is, the more that people know about the — a place to put them, that there’s now — there are now archival options for them, I think that that means that that’s a good problem to have.

JEFFREY BROWN: This is what you found after your book, right, when you reached out and other people started sending you even more stories, I gather.

ISABEL WILKERSON: I got letters. I continue to get letters. I continue to receive copies of now-defunct periodicals that were the mainstay for certain people, for African-Americans in California.

I receive these things, and I, myself, don’t know what to do with them. And so I’m grateful to know that there are many, many options now.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, this new museum opens in 2015. So there’s some time, and they will be collecting artifacts up until then and after, no doubt.

Isabel Wilkerson is the author of “The Warmth of Other Suns.”

Thanks so much.