A Day at the Smithsonian: Black History Takes Its Place on the National Mall

The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them.
Ida B. Wells

Like many historians, I was thrilled that the newest Smithsonian museum would be focusing on African American History and Culture. The National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) opened in late September, and I reserved tickets two months early to visit with family and friends — this was lucky forethought, since free tickets are now sold out through March of next year. The day before Thanksgiving, we trooped into the District of Columbia for a daylong visit.

What we found was an incredible journey through 600 years of American history. You enter the building in the Heritage Hall, and take an escalator down to the concourse level. From there, you ride a giant elevator down 100 feet into the ground, passing through time to 1400. As you exit the elevator, a guide reminds you that “African American history is American history.” Three floors of history follow — Slavery and Freedom (1400-1877), Defending Freedom, Defining Freedom: The Era of Segregation (1876-1968), and A Changing America: 1968 and Beyond.

An exterior view of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, in Washington, DC. (Laura Ansley/Nursing Clio | CC BY-NC-SA)
An exterior view of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, in Washington, DC. (Laura Ansley/Nursing Clio | CC BY-NC-SA)

I can’t even begin to describe all of the artifacts and documents featured in these galleries. I’ll just share with you a number of the things that will stay with me.

A display with three sets of shackles: an amulet version, a set for children, and a set for adults. Nearby are wooden and iron remains from a slave ship. There are so few artifacts left from the Middle Passage that to see these pieces in front of you is just stunning.

A statue of Thomas Jefferson in the center of the room. Behind him, his words from the Declaration of Independence displayed in huge font on the wall. When you walk closer, you realize that the unfinished wall immediately behind him is made of bricks carved with the names of enslaved people that he owned over the course of his life. This is the image I will take away from this museum — the Founding Father who declared the natural rights of man, that all men are created equal, framed by the people he owned.

A photo of the "King Cotton" exhibit at the NMAAHC. (Laura Ansley/Nursing Clio | CC BY-NC-SA)
A photo of the “King Cotton” exhibit at the NMAAHC. (Laura Ansley/Nursing Clio | CC BY-NC-SA)

A huge stack of cotton bales, emblazoned with the words “King Cotton.” Hanging off the sides you see different symbols of slavery. A white bag that the enslaved would have stuffed with cotton while picking in the fields all day. A whip that would have been used to discipline, or torture, these workers. Embedded in one side is a giant cotton gin, the invention that helped Cotton to become King.

A slave cabin, imported from South Carolina, that was built in the 1850s and somehow survived until today.

A cradle, labeled: “Cradle, ca. 1830. A baby slept in this cradle made by an enslaved person who loved her.”

The actual gynecological tools used by J. Marion Sims, the notorious gynecologist who helped to revolutionize the field, but only by operating on the enslaved women he owned.

A part of the NMAAHC display of J. Marion Sims's gynecological tools. (Laura Ansley/Nursing Clio | CC BY-NC-SA)
A part of the NMAAHC display of J. Marion Sims’s gynecological tools. (Laura Ansley/Nursing Clio | CC BY-NC-SA)

A wall full of racist depictions of African Americans in advertising and toys, showing the blackened face and red lips so familiar from minstrelsy performance.

Glass cases, lined at the bottom with the names of African Americans who were lynched in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. These etched names follow you throughout the second floor, which covers 1877-1968. The effect of seeing these names on case after case is indescribable.

The broken pieces of a stained glass window, salvaged from the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, where four little girls died in a bombing in September, 1963.

A pink and gray concrete guard tower, brought to DC from Angola, the Louisiana State Penitentiary.

The only room in the museum where you can’t take pictures — an annex that holds the original casket of Emmett Till, a Chicago teenager lynched in Mississippi. Filing through that room, gazing upon that casket, feels like a reenactment of his open-casket funeral in 1955, when his mother allowed, demanded, that the public see what racism had done to her child.

What the historians on my trip found most impressive were the clear arguments that follow you through the museum. On the first floor, the museum makes a strong argument that the idea of race in America was founded upon the institution of slavery. We could see the influences of Ira Berlin, Phillip Morgan, Walter Johnson, Deborah Gray White, and other scholars. In the antebellum section, they demonstrated how slavery built America — it was the foundation of American wealth, the cornerstone of the nation. But they also did an excellent job of highlighting the agency of enslaved people. Throughout the slavery period, resistance and rebellion both played a role alongside labor. We marveled at how wonderful it is for a federal museum, which will be visited by countless school children in the future, to be so deeply engaged with historical scholarship.

Photo from an exhibit at the NMAAHC displaying shackles used to bind enslaved Africans in America. (Laura Ansley/Nursing Clio | CC BY-NC-SA)
Photo from an exhibit at the NMAAHC displaying shackles used to bind enslaved Africans in America. (Laura Ansley/Nursing Clio | CC BY-NC-SA)

After slavery, a number of themes come to the fore. The importance of community, family, institutions, and culture is featured as they show the progress that the African American community made after emancipation. Reconstruction gets glossed over — a big oversight, I think — but there is plenty of space to show the different ways that African Americans built their lives in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. A segregated railroad car and an interactive lunch counter show the visitor what discrimination would have been like at the time, and extensive galleries on the decades-long civil rights fight goes beyond the typical story. You see the big names in there, but there are also mentions of people like Claudette Colvin and Recy Taylor, again showing an engagement with newer scholarship like Danielle McGuire’s stunning book on sexual assault and civil rights.

Jacket proclaiming "Black Unity - Vietnam," created by the Saha Union Group, Thailand (founded 1961), c. 1971-1972, on display at the NMAAHC. (Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture)
Jacket proclaiming “Black Unity – Vietnam,” created by the Saha Union Group, Thailand (founded 1961), c. 1971-1972, on display at the NMAAHC. (Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture)

The final history floor is the smallest, taking you from 1968 to the present. I appreciated that they illustrate the path from protest in the past to the Black Lives Matter movement of today. It was incredible to see a BLM t-shirt just a few feet down from a display on President Barack Obama. The curators demonstrate that the struggle is not over, that the first black president doesn’t put us in a “post-racial” society. And it’s clear that the visitors picked up on this message.

The crowds were overwhelmingly black, which was wonderful to see in a city where the black population is huge but often ignored. I witnessed one mother with her children, standing in front of a display on the first Ku Klux Klan. She asked them, “Is this in the past?” The children chorused, “No.” She pointed to the text on the glass, “What kind of climate do we still live in?” “A Climate of Fear.” I wanted to hug those little children. The museum was filled with young and old, and everyone in between. And this could not be a better time for Americans to learn about this history, as civil rights again come under attack.

After lunch at the cafe (I couldn’t resist fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, and cornbread), we headed to the cultural and community galleries above ground. The cultural galleries featured the artistic, musical, and performance achievements of African Americans throughout the modern era. The music section felt like a mini-Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, with outfits, instruments, and even Chuck Berry’s Cadillac on display. The community gallery had big exhibits on sports, the military, and “The Power of Place” — a hall featuring different African American communities around the United States. The Chicago Defender, the Tulsa Riots, Martha’s Vineyard, and a Philadelphia millinery shop, among others, showed the diversity of experience of African Americans across the nation.

It will take at least two or three more visits to the museum for me to see everything there. I can imagine spending hours in the historical galleries, reading every label, and seeing the curators’ narrative play out. It is captivating to walk around this building, surrounded by black struggle and also black excellence. In a city with many world-class museums, this one stands out. As soon as you have a day to visit, and can get your hands on tickets, you must go. You won’t regret it.

Further Reading

Ira Berlin, Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1998).

Phillip Morgan, Slave Counterpoint: Black Culture in the Eighteenth-Century Chesapeake and Lowcountry (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 1998).

Walter Johnson, Soul By Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999).

Deborah Gray White, Ar’n’t I a Woman?: Female Slaves in the Plantation South (New York: Norton, 1985).

Danielle McGuire, At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance — A New History of the Civil Rights Movement, from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010).

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One Comment

Laura Ansley

I would love to know what others who have visited the museum thought – what were your favorite artifacts? Were there certain images or pieces you’ve continued to think about long after you left? Was there anything missing? If you haven’t visited yet, what are you most excited about?

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