Will White People Go to the National Black Museum?

The Smithsonian's new national black museum hasn't integrated Washington, D.C.'s whitest address yet, and it's already dodging spitballs from Congress.

Rep. Jim Moran (Getty Images)

The Anacostia Community Museum is one of the Smithsonian Institution's grand, federally chartered Washington, D.C., museums, but it is located miles from the Mall's gleaming white marble monuments where millions of eighth-grade history students pilgrimage each year.

It is a world-class museum charged with interpreting and preserving the black experience. But it is tucked away in a remote corner of Washington's poorest, blackest ward. Since it was established in 1967, the museum's surrounding Ward 8 community has served as a glaring metaphor for the black experience: segregated, under-resourced and disrespected. A few weeks ago my husband got lost while driving to meet me there. He rolled down his car window, and flagged pedestrian after pedestrian. "Where's the Anacostia Museum?"

Person after person he stopped replied with blank stares.

In a rant on Capitol Hill earlier this month, Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.) railed against these kinds of federally supported ethnic museums -- calling them un-American. According to U.S. News and World Report, Moran went off about the burdens of funding them during a Capitol Hill Appropriations hearing:

Every indigenous immigrant community, particularly those brought here enslaved, have a story to tell and it should be told and part of our history. The problem is that much as we would like to think that all Americans are going to go to the African American Museum, I'm afraid it's not going to happen. The Museum of American History is where all the white folks are going to go, and the American Indian Museum is where Indians are going to feel at home. And African Americans are going to go to their own museum. And Latinos are going to go their own museum. And that's not what America is all about … It's a matter of how we depict the American story and where do we stop? The next one will probably be Asian Americans. The next, God help us, will probably be Irish Americans.



But unlike the beautiful Anacostia Community Museum, which is safely out of sight for the most part, the symbolism of the new museum will be impossible to ignore. In addition to usual questions about black worth and legitimacy, it will carry the additional burden of integrating our nation's most elite historic neighborhood.

The eminent cultural historian Fath Davis Ruffins chronicled the decades of fits and starts of establishing a black museum on the Mall in a 1998 article in the Radical History Review. Ruffins pointed out that historians have a lot of catching up to do when it comes to fully documenting the black experience. For centuries, black historic documents and artifacts have been largely discarded or passed down to descendents and often lost to history. 

To wit: Years ago, I wrote a Washington Post article that mentioned the existence of a diary of a Maryland slave named Adam Plummer that historians believed was lost to history. One of his descendants, living in Maryland, read my article and came forward with the diary of perhaps the only real-time accounts of a slave life, written by a slave beginning in 1841. She promptly pulled it out of her attic, and eventually donated the diary to the Anacostia Community Museum, which has marshaled the considerable resources of the Smithsonian Institution to preserve and guard it like the Constitution. (Plumgood Productions has done a short documentary about the discovery of the diary.)