By Erick Johnson, Chicago Crusader
WASHINGTON- It took me six hours to see over 3,000 pieces of Black relics. Ok I cheated. By the end of my tour, I was tired and worn out, so I skimmed over many artifacts. Despite the blisters and many breaks, I still didn’t see everything at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), which will open this weekend with the biggest party the nation has seen in recent memory. The place is incredible. Six times as big as the DuSable Museum and four times as big as the Detroit’s magnificent Charles Wright Museum, the Black museum in our nation’s capitol is truly a thing to behold.
Some 18 minutes away, President Barack Obama will leave his famous house on Pennsylvania Avenue on September 24 to dedicate the museum. It will be a ceremony steeped in symbolism when the country’s first Black president rings the 130-year-old Freedom Bell, which for this occasion, was temporarily removed from its perch at the historic First Baptist Church in Williamsburg, VA, located 154 miles away from the U.S. Capitol.
For 150,000 Americans who are expected to descend on Washington this weekend, the wait is finally over. The museum will officially open its doors at 1 p.m. on Saturday, September 24 after months of hype and anticipation. For Black Americans, it’s a proud and historic moment to showcase the contributions of a people who waited 100 years for this day to arrive. Despite the many sacrifices of Blacks, never in this country’s history has there been a Black museum of this scale and intrigue. The museum vividly tells the story of Black America, from the pain and horror of slavery, to the triumphs and contributions in nearly all professions, from the military to business, media, television, sports, fashion and yes culinary arts.
For those who are making the pilgrimage to Washington this weekend, the museum will be worth enduring huge crowds and long lines. It’s big and impressive. There is so much about Black history that many people don’t know about. The word in Washington is that this facility is the best of the Smithsonian’s 19 museums.
I joined nearly 600 journalists from across the country on a sneak preview during the museum’s media day September 14. I arrived by bus with members of the National Newspapers Publishers Association (NNPA), an organization that represents some 200 Black newspapers around the country. The mood was joyous and celebratory. Just a few blocks away at the Supreme Court, history was in the making as Carla Hayden prepared to be sworn in as the first Black librarian to head the massive Library of Congress.
After a 45-minute orientation at the Oprah Winfrey Theatre, the tours began. Taking the advice of curators, I started my tour from the bottom or below ground, where the slavery and political movements were located. As I walked down a flight of stairs, I saw a large mural that features Emmett Till and his mother. Coupled with dimmed lighting, it set a somber mood and tone as I descended into what is considered the centerpiece of the entire museum. Here, I experienced a range of emotions from sadness to anger as viewed objects and photos showed how their white slave masters treated my ancestors. An avid history buff, I occasionally delighted upon seeing amazing relics of Mary McCloud Bethune, Nat Turner and other Black pioneers who helped pave the way to freedom.
On Concourse 2, where the “Era of Segregation” exhibit was located, my heart began thumping as a bright red Klu Klux Klansman robe caught my eye. I let out a sigh and stared as a white photographer snapped a picture of me glued to something that represented evil in the most hideous way.
My spirits were lifted when I saw photos of the Civil Rights Movement and some of the unsung heroes of that era. One of them was of Bayard Rustin, who organized the March on Washington in 1963. One of my favorite activists in the exhibit, Medger Evers, had a generous exhibit about his life and his assassination on June 12, 1963.
Throughout these exhibits are numerous multimedia presentations on life for Blacks during slavery. There are also mini theaters where documentaries are shown. I didn’t spend too much time here. Although I had a whole day at the museum, I was concerned about not having enough time to see it all. Everyone was talking about the higher floors that celebrate the achievements of Blacks, but visiting the darkest period first helped me appreciate what was to come. The tour truly became a symbolic journey that gave me a powerful dose of reality, but left me enlightened and inspired.
Emotionally drained from the slavery and segregation exhibit, I took a break at the 400-seat Sweet Home Café. The Soul Food menu was off the chain! After consuming loads of catfish, shrimp and cheese grits, I resumed my tour. I saw a swarm of journalists and photographers around the Reverend Jesse Jackson Sr., who was giving his comments on the museum. His presence reminded me to look for people, historic events and objects from Chicago that may be featured in the museum.
They are many. In the “1968 and Beyond” exhibit on Concourse 1, there is a vintage movie poster of “Cooley High,” which was about a group of fast-talking, jiving teenage high school students on Chicago’s near North Side. There are two exhibits of “Good Times,” the 1970s sitcom about a struggling Black family who lived in the housing project (Cabrini Green) in Chicago. One exhibit includes the funky fashions that the Evans family wore on the show. The late Soul Train founder and former WVON disc jockey Don Cornelius has an exhibit in the stunning music section on the 4th floor. Just a few feet away is the piano that the “Father of Gospel Music,” Thomas Dorsey used as music director at Pilgrim Baptist Church in Bronzeville. There are also artifacts from former South Side residents Sam Cooke, authors Lorraine Hansberry and Gwendolyn Brooks. In sports, there’s a stature of four-time Olympic gold medalist Jesse Owens and former Bulls Michael Jordan. In media, there are exhibits of the Chicago Defender and Johnson Publishing Company’s Ebony magazine.
During her tour of the museum, our publisher, Dorothy R. Leavell, saw a campaign poster from the Negro Labor Relations League. The organization led a successful boycott of the Bowman’s Dairy, one of Chicago’s largest suppliers of dairy products. The company refused to hire Blacks, sparking protests that forced the Bowman’s Dairy to change its policy. Two activists from the Negro Labor Relations League, Balm L. Leavell and Joseph Jefferson tried to get leading Black newspapers to publish the story about the boycott, many of them refused. In response, The Negro Labor Relations League began a fundraising campaign to start a new newspaper called the Chicago Crusader, which started in 1940.
It’s hard to believe that this is just a small sample of the nearly 37,000 Black artifacts in the museum’s collection. Some important trailblazers are not in the inaugural collection. They include two famous Chicago residents, Mahalia Jackson and Albertina Walker. And while there is a fedora from the King of Pop, Michael Jackson, I never found any exhibit on another member of music’s royal family, Prince. There aren’t many interesting artifacts on Martin Luther King. His family is holding back in donating King’s items to the Smithsonian.
The NMAAHC is new, so I’m sure there will be some corrections and additions as time goes by.
I was determined to view the entire museum, but in the end, I was constantly skipping small exhibits and glancing over the big ones. After a full day in the facility, I was exhausted and struggling to continue a tour that at times seemed endless, but too addictive to stop.
For the end of my tour, I wanted to see the original casket of Emmett Till. It’s the one that was found in a shed during the Burr Oak Cemetery scandal. The casket is now in a special section near the Remembrance Hall, an area with a large flowing fountain. Two curators at the museum told me workers were rushing to get it done before the end of media day. As it turned out, the exhibit still wasn’t ready by the museum’s 5 p.m. closing time. Looks like another trip is needed, but it will be a while. I need some rest.