A wide-eyed Lance Spencer, 12, stood against the wall, between a stone block once used to auction slaves and a glass-boxed gallery where a worker was adjusting the lights on a shawl that belonged to abolitionist Harriet Tubman.
“It’s cool!” the seventh-grader at Eliot-Hine Middle School in Washington, D.C., exclaims. “That’s what I think is interesting so far. … I wanted to see our history. I’ve learned so much, but there’s more that I want to know.”
Lance, two classmates and his broadcast-media teacher, Mandrell Birks, were threading their way through a nearly impassable gallery choked with reporters, curators and construction workers as the National Museum of African American History and Culture offered a preview of its collection.
“This lesson here is something that can change their lives forever,” says Birks. “An entire museum to speak about what’s not in the books is completely amazing to me!”
It’s also still amazing to founding director Lonnie Bunch, who stood grinning on the stage in the theater named for Oprah Winfrey, which was filled with a standing-room-only audience for the first time. Despite the frantic construction continuing during the tour, Bunch insists the museum will be ready for its close-up when it opens Sept. 24 on the National Mall.
“Stress was standing … on empty land trying to figure out how we were going to raise $30 million to get going!” Bunch declares. “We are so ready, it’s ridiculous. Ten days? Piece of cake!”
What’s not cake is the level of emotion some of the more than 3,000 artifacts on display evoke in even the most casual of viewers. Staff here have been trained to handle visitors who may be overwhelmed by items ranging from Underground Railroad conductor Harriet Tubman’s hymn book, to ankle shackles used to restrain slaves crossing the Atlantic to the Americas during the Middle Passage, to a slave cabin used at the Point of Pines Plantation on Edisto Island, S.C. Museum specialist Mary Elliott says that the cabin was leaning when she first saw it on the island, and a team took the building apart “like a puzzle,” restored it and preserved the wood. She saw it again in Richmond, Va., before they put it back together.
“It was like seeing a person come back to life. That was the most powerful moment for me,” Elliott says, her eyes shining. “I just went and stood inside and just looked around. Even without the siding, I could see the walls, I could feel the people. I could hear their voices.”
Many things in this museum hold lives and have voices, explains curator Nancy Bercaw.
“We have a bull whip on view. The first time I saw it in storage, I just looked at it and had to turn away. The level of emotion of seeing that object was something I’m having a hard time explaining,” says Bercaw, curator of the “Slavery and Freedom” exhibition. She chokes up a little when asked how she felt the first time she saw an auction block that was put in its case just yesterday.
“On that stone block, people would have been sold away and never see their loved ones again,” Bercaw says slowly. “You know these people and honor them, so it’s a question of really seeing, really recognizing; it’s a question of saying these were human lives, and focus on the person who once stood on that block.”
Along with cool artifacts such as the fedora Michael Jackson wore during his 1992 Victory Tour and rock ’n’ roll star Chuck Berry’s bright-red Cadillac are more disturbing pieces such as an 1835 bill of sale for a 16-year-old Negro girl named Polly, for $600. There’s also an entire segregation-era Southern Railway car, which is so large, it had to be lowered into the museum before the building was complete.
“We want to make the whole concept of segregation and discrimination not abstract, but concrete and real,” explains Spencer Crew, curator of the “Defending Freedom, Defining Freedom” exhibition. “We want people to understand what that means in the lives, particularly, of African Americans in this country. … It really meant you were seen as different. You were seen as not having the same level of importance as other individuals, and it was something that was put in your face whenever you would travel, especially on trains.”
Crew suggests that people also see a plane used to train the Tuskegee Airmen, the renowned African-American pilots for the Army Air Corps service during World War II, and the lunch-counter stools from Greensboro, N.C., as well as the interactive counter that tells the history of the sit-ins.
Director Bunch says that the African-American experience is the American experience, and it is the story of the nation, not just of one community.
“This building will be available for the public to engage this rich history for as long as there is an America,” Bunch says.
Allison Keyes is an award-winning correspondent, host and author. She can be heard on CBS Radio News, among other outlets. Keyes, a former national desk reporter for NPR, has written extensively on race, culture, politics and the arts. Follow her on Twitter.