What Does The National African American Museum Mean To America?

Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture
President Barack Obama, with first lady Michelle Obama and Ruth Odom Bonner, center, ring the bell opening the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture on the National Mall in Washington, Saturday, Sept. 24, 2016. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

With the opening of the new National African American Museum on September 24 in Washington, D.C., at the Smithsonian Institute, we add a new day to Black history.

The National Museum of African American History and Culture was officially opened with Ruth Boner, a member of First Baptist Church of Williamsburg, Virginia, ringing the Freedom Bell from 1886 from one of the oldest Black Baptist churches in the United States.

Mrs. Boner is a direct descendant of a slave. The Boner family, representing four generations of Black life, rang the bell with the assistance of President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle.

Ruth Boner is 99 years old and the family’s youngest member was a young girl who appeared to be no more than seven. They rang the bell for us.

This was a special moment of the opening ceremony that made me reflect and cry. The United States as a nation finally officially recognizes the deeds, the contributions, the history, the accomplishments, the achievements of African Americans – Black people from Africa who were transported here against our will, who lost our identities to become the unpaid slaves that provided the free labor base that built America.

The bell rings for a people who lost their culture and their families. Finally recognized, the bell tolls for us, on the very mall where the beautiful voice of Marian Anderson sang after being denied a major Washington auditorium, because then First Lady Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt changed the venue because of racist behavior.

The bell rang for us, we the Black people of America. It was a clarion call in these challenging times as the first Black President leaves office and we wonder about the direction of our country. Will we progress or will we move dramatically backwards?

We see the steps that have been made for a people who have been so denied in its forced land. We have had to fight for our very rights to be human, to become full citizens, to vote, to marry, to be educated, to live the American life of freedom.

National Museum of African American History and Culture
Opening day of National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington DC

This museum represents so much – the strife, the denial, the hardships and the progress. It tells a story of a people hidden, often forgotten. It is truly the people’s museum, never to be forgotten. There are so many stories, beginning with the slave narratives, and now it is housed in a single building in Washington where the story can be told to the world.

Congressman John Lewis, the veteran Civil Rights activist, put the bill forth for the new museum 15 years ago. It was Republican President George Bush who signed it to make it a reality.

As President Barack Obama spoke at the opening, I really thought about others who have served in his seat. Seven American presidents owned slaves while in office. Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Jackson, Tyler, Polk, and Taylor all owned slaves while living in the White House.

Jefferson was the first to bring his slaves – a dozen of his household servants from Monticello – to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. After Jefferson, Madison brought slaves from his Virginia estate. The earliest known account of slavery in the White House, Paul Jennings’ A Colored Man’s Reminiscences of James Madison, comes from that period.

White House Slaves

I wonder if the names of the slaves who built the White House and other Washington government buildings will be housed somewhere in the new museum.

Construction on the President’s House began in 1792 in Washington, D.C., a new capital situated in sparsely settled region far from a major population center. The decision to place the capital on land ceded by two pro-slavery states – Virginia and Maryland – ultimately influenced the acquisition of laborers to construct its public buildings.

The D.C. commissioners, charged by Congress with building the new city under the direction of the president, initially planned to import workers from Europe to meet their labor needs. However, response to recruitment was dismal and soon they turned to African Americans – both enslaved and free – to provide the bulk of labor that built the White House, the United States Capitol, and other early government buildings.

This museum represents so much – the strife, the denial, the hardships and the progress.

I am pleased to know what goes in the museum, like Chuck Berry’s red car, a dress sewn by Rosa Parks, a Tuskegee Airman’s airplane, slave chains and Emmett Till’s casket.  It is a work of genius to have much of the museum built downward to give you the feeling of the slave ship experience.

All of this is the stuff that Black history is made of, but I wonder, too, if captured somewhere is what the denial of Black America’s collective meant that this country missed. If that denial were absent, what would the Black experience be?

But that is conjecture. Reality is that we still fight and strive for equality and freedom at major levels. Today, we drive scared of the police stop, especially the Black male. We still tell our children how to act with White authority.

What is the real progress made? Will the museum exhibit it? What has the pain really been? That cannot go on exhibit. Even with the progress, the wealth gap is great and in my thinking will never be rectified, unless African Americans can get 250 years of free labor, or be paid for the 250 years of labor we were forced to contribute for free.

Lonnie Bunch, the builder of the museum, is to be applauded. He started from scratch, with a vision but no money, no artifacts, no budget. He made it happen. He will go down in history as a great one.

The museum is a beautiful building and while we applaud, it still makes me wonder about the reality of what America still confronts and that is Black men getting killed with their hands up.

The museum will showcase the history, but I also hope it will help rid the racism that still exists now. Ms. Ruth Bonner rang the bell. It rang for thee.

Hermene Hartman
Hermene Hartman

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