The story of African Americans in the development of the United States of America has finally been recognized in an institution worthy of its stature: the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Opened on September 24, 2016, and sitting on a five-acre site on the National Mall in the nation’s capital, the distinctive bronze-color building in the shape of a traditional Yoruban crown, shares the pain, oppression, and triumphs of African Americans. Fittingly situated next to the Museum of American History and opposite from the Washington Monument, it connects the United States’ painful past with current events, and proposes ways to live as an inclusive society in the future.
After waiting patiently to enter on opening day, visitors descended 70 feet below ground, going past reminders of various important dates in United States’ history, recorded on the wall in descending order, until they begin the journey with the Atlantic slave trade. This virtual reality exhibit makes visitors feel they are in the slave ship, being lashed by waves, and confronted with implements of torture, such as the cat-o’-nine-tails that was used to whip slaves. Other shocking sights included shackles for babies and the coffin of 14-year-old Emmett Till, whose brutal murder in 1955 gave energy to the nascent civil rights movement.
Educational exhibits include Harriet Tubman’s hymnal, and a shawl England’s Queen Victoria gave to her, circa 1897, in recognition of her work on the Underground Railroad; a list of names of more than 2,200 people lynched from 1882 to 1930; medals awarded the crew of the U.S.S. Mason, the first Navy ship with a predominantly Black crew during World War II; and areas of African American achievement.
Not all galleries follow a chronological framework. “Community and Culture” exhibits are themed around music, art, and sports, and recount how African Americans overcame discrimination and oppression as they strove to make of the United States a more perfect union.
Upsetting and uplifting, the museum brings America’s diverse peoples together to learn how our shared history can help us to share a better future in each other’s company.
Joan Francis is chair of the History and Political Studies Department at Washington Adventist University in Takoma Park, Maryland.