I was recently able to attend a conference earlier this February in the nation’s capital, and the hottest ticket in town is the National Museum of African American History and Culture, or NMAAHC for short. In the span between its opening (September of 2016) and Valentine’s Day, 2017, 1 million visitors have walked through the door. What makes this number so astounding is that walk-ins have been prohibited, and advance tickets have been practically impossible to secure. In fact, acquiring same-day tickets is almost an equally difficult task, and I was lucky enough to be granted 3 so that two colleagues and I could take in the collection.
And we weren’t disappointed.
When we first entered the building, we were quickly ushered downstairs to wait in line for the impressive historical collection. Tucked neatly into 3 floors, visitors will find an array of tastefully collected artifacts, words, tributes, videos, and questions to ponder. Any visitor attending the museum should begin here, because it is where you’ll find the most provocative, grave items in the collection. The story begins with the origins of slavery in the Americas, resting on the slave trade ushered into the New World by the old European powers. It ends with President Barack Obama’s Inaugural Address in 2009.
In between those moments is as much of the untold story as they could collect. Some of the highlights include:
The Paradox of Liberty section, which shows Thomas Jefferson holding the Declaration of Independence with a “brick wall” behind him containing the names of his slaves, including his own mistress and children
A working Eli Whitney cotton gin under a huge emblem of “King Cotton”
One of the few known photos of Harriet Tubman, her hymnal, and some of her personal belongings
Blackface vaudeville poking fun at the African Americans; one that that is etched in my memory is a song called: “The Coon’s Trade-Mark: a watermelon, razor, chicken, and a coon”
A “coloreds only” water fountain next to a normal, working one
The dress that Rosa Parks was sewing the day she was arrested on the Montgomery Bus Boycott
A biplane of the Tuskegee Airmen
And the powerful, sobering casket of 14-year-old Emmett Till, a young black boy who was mauled and murdered for looking inappropriately at a white girl in 1955
After seeing this collection, you’re going to need to see something lighter, so head to the top floor where you can take in the Culture Floor, focusing on art and music. While here, it’d be difficult to not grow up in the 1960’s and not experience a time warp of what the Civil Rights Movement meant to Americans, especially those who had a darker complexion. I’m not just talking about the history of the time period, but rather the impact it had on Americans. Some of the remarkable things in this collection involve some brilliant abstract art (it’s an acquired taste), beautiful collections from a multitude of musicians (hard not to walk past the James Brown and Michael Jackson parts without doing a double-take), Chuck Berry’s famous Cadillac (love this man, his music, and this car), and more.
The next floor down is the Community Floor, where the focus is primarily on sports and military service. I’m a huge fan of Muhammad Ali, so the room set aside just for him was quite special. I spent a good 20 minutes in there, taking in all the controversy and magnanimousness that poured out of his body like sweat in the ring. I also enjoyed learning of several athletes whose stories aren’t so widely told as Ali, Jackie Robinson, and Jesse Owens. That especially holds true for those who served this country in our nation’s armed forces, fighting wars abroad for ideals that they believed in but hardly experienced back at home. Standing in the room of Medal of Honor recipients fitting that bill is so much greater than anticipated.
Now those soldiers are American heroes.
And so are so many of the African Americans enshrined in this sacred historical site. If you’re a middle-aged-white-guy like me, don’t worry – you won’t leave her with a sense of regret and white privilege. The only thing you’ll leave with is a better understanding of the untold stories of American that history that span the ages, the colors, and spectrum of our world. When you get the chance, wake up at 6:30a to try and reserve yourself same-day-tickets. You won’t be disappointed.
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