On Wednesday, President Obama spoke at the formal groundbreaking for Smithsonian’s newest museum, the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. The museum, Obama said, has been “a long time coming” and will serve “not just as a record of tragedy, but as a celebration of life.” Obama said he hopes that the museum’s visitors will see the artifacts of the African American experience and understand that “ordinary Americans could do extraordinary things” — whether they are inspired by Louis Armstrong’s trumpet, the plane flown by Tuskegee Airmen, or Harriet Tubman’s shawl.
Museum director Lonnie Bunch remembers seeing an extraordinary photograph of Tubman wrapped in that shawl two days before she died. The shawl was a gift to Tubman from Queen Victoria — the queen had heard about the escaped slave who freed so many other African Americans that she earned the nickname “Moses.”
The museum’s collection also includes Tubman’s hymn book, which she had for 50 years, using songs to alert slaves that it might be a good moment to flee. “The rivers and creeks and streams played a vital role in the Underground Railroad,” says historian Charles Blockson, and references to those waterways were coded into spirituals: “Wade in the water. God’s gonna trouble the water. … The water, the underground, the flow … her spirit is flowing into the National African American Museum,” Blockson says.
When Tumbman died in March 1913, her friends gathered at her bedside to sing her favorite spirituals. Blockson says he was touched by the hymnal of this spiritual woman: “They said that she was illiterate, but she attempted to write her name in the book.”
Blockson donated 39 items that belonged to Tubman to the museum. Tubman’s great-great niece, Mariline Wilkins, left the objects to him in her will. Their families, he says, have a connection. “Several of my relatives from the Eastern shore of Delaware and Maryland escaped with Harriet Tubman,” Blockson explains.
The collection includes artifacts ranging from Tubman’s homemade knife, fork and spoon to photographs from her funeral.
Visitors to the museum, which is expected to open in 2015, will also see shards of brightly colored glass from the 16th Street Baptist church in Birmingham, Ala., where four little African American girls were killed in a Ku Klux Klan bombing. But the items the museum has been collecting since 2005 also include Louis Armstrong’s trumpet, Funkmaster George Clinton’s mothership, a Jim Crow railroad car, and a Tuskegee airman bi-plane from World War II.
“That’s the greatness of this museum,” says Tony Award-winning actress Phylicia Rashad, who was the master of ceremonies for the groundbreaking. It is important to know that the sum of the history of African Americans is not encompassed by bondage and segregation, she says. “African American people have contributed much to American culture: in medicine, in education, in art, in music, in dance. Name someplace where we have not been!”
The museum’s collections, exhibitions and programming are being designed to showcase the richness of the African American experience. There will be theaters where films and documentaries are screened — and also live interviews with scholars and history makers. The museum’s director, Lonnie Bunch, says almost every moment of major transformation in this nation has been shaped by issues of race. The African American experience is central to the American experience, he says, so the stories this museum will tell are for everyone, of every race.
“The time will come when few people remember drinking from a colored water fountain, or boarding a segregated bus, or hearing in person Dr. King’s voice boom down from the Lincoln Memorial,” Obama said at the groundbreaking ceremony. “That’s why what we build here won’t just be an achievement for our time, it will be a monument for all time.”