The Crusader Newspaper Group

Painful but crucial: Why you’ll see Emmett Till’s casket at the African American museum

By Krissah Thompson,

Among the most difficult decisions that Lonnie G. Bunch III had to make as he searched the world for objects to tell the story of African Americans was whether to include a casket that once held the mangled body of a murdered black boy.

“I remember struggling with, ‘Should we collect that?’ ” said Bunch, the founding director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Even after he accepted Emmett Till’s casket, which Till’s family gave to the museum long after his remains had been exhumed and reinterred, Bunch grappled with the idea of including it in an exhibit. “Was that too ghoulish?” he wondered.

As leaders of the new museum, Bunch and his curators must strike a delicate balance.

Every year, millions of tourists come to Washington to seek inspiration — in marble monuments to the nation’s heroes and leaders, in temples of democracy and civic power. Now, for the first time, Americans will have a museum on the Mall celebrating black pioneers and highlighting the success stories of African Americans.

Excitement surrounding the historic institution propelled its boosters through 11 years of collecting artifacts and fundraising to the tune of $315 million. It will open Sept. 24 with a dedication attended by President Obama and with an invitation-only Kennedy Center gala.

But for such a museum to claim scholarly integrity, uplift is not enough. In the years preceding next month’s celebration, Bunch has had to consider how much of the dark corners of American history to expose. He and the museum’s curators say they are ready to tell what African American historian John Hope Franklin called the “unvarnished truth” of the nation’s racial past.

The question is: Are visitors ready to hear it?

As painful as it may be, Bunch said, it’s essential that his institution delve into stories such as that of Till, the Chicago teenager who was murdered for whistling at a white woman during a visit to Mississippi — an event that galvanized the civil rights movement.

“You couldn’t tell the story of the African American experience without wrestling with difficult issues, without creating those moments where people have to ponder the pain of slavery, segregation or racial violence,” Bunch said.

But he said he also knew “that this was not a museum of crime or guilt or holocaust.”

And so the museum’s airy upper floors — the Culture and Community galleries — will feature the uneven-bar grips used by gymnast Gabby Douglas in the 2012 Olympics and a terry-cloth robe worn by Muhammad Ali. Visitors will be able to gawk at Chuck Berry’s red Cadillac and wax nostalgic through an exhibit on the birth of hip-hop.

Feel free to go straight up there if you want — it’s fun. But the museum has been designed to nudge you to descend first into its lower levels. Take one of the elevators down. Move through a dark and low-slung concourse. You will find the remains of the São José, a Portuguese slave ship that sank off the coast of South Africa; a narrow South Carolina slave cabin; and a set of shackles so diminutive they could only have been used on a child.

The effect is haunting. It’s meant to be.

“It’s a lot to take in,” said historian Noelle Trent, who helped train the museum’s docents. “It is very emotional to have so much history interpreted in a confined space.”


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