National Museum of African American History & Culture: A Rave Review

The National Museum of African American History & Culture is one of those museums that pulls you in and keeps pulling you in. From the outside, it stands out, strikingly different from all of the other museums, monuments, and buildings on the National Mall, creating a welcome visual focal point. Entering feels like going into a sacred space. The museum is chock full of artifacts that bring stories to life. It was one of my favorite museum experiences ever (and I’ve had a lot). Many have written about why this museum is important and how it came to be. Below is my experience visiting the museum as a white museum professional. It did not disappoint on a professional or personal level and all of its hype is well deserved.

Note on Tickets & Logistics

When my husband and I began planning our trip to DC to visit my brother, one of the first things decided on (after the concert that sparked the conversation) was that I had to go to the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC). The NMAAHC opened in 2016 to lots of interest, high visitation, and big impact on not only the world of public history & museums, but on so many individuals. I had heard so much good buzz about the museum but hadn’t been able to visit yet so it was high priority on our list.

We knew advance tickets would probably be necessary and we planned to go on the Friday of our trip to help cut down on weekend crowding, but I misunderstood the ticket release system and we missed our opportunity to get advance tickets! 😦 The other option was to try and get day of tickets first thing in the morning when they would be released for the day, but after arriving in DC in the wee hours of the morning we missed that opportunity as well. Walk-ins (without advance tickets) are allowed after 1 pm.

Worried that we would be standing in long lines and concerned about the chances of maybe not being able to get in at all, we decided to spend the morning at the National Air & Space Museum (you can read about our visit here) and then go to the NMAAHC after lunch (we ate in the Pavilion Cafe in the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden which you can read about here). Because of hiding out from rain and how busy the Pavilion Cafe was we didn’t get to the NMAAHC until about 2:00pm on a Friday in April. There was absolutely no line and we were able to go right in and get started. The museum was plenty busy but not overcrowded and we were able to maneuver through exhibits with minimal waiting and crowding. The NMAAHC has changed its ticketing policy already in its 3 years and likely will continue to adjust so if you plan to go, check out their website for the latest. We lucked out on being able to easily get in without waiting, but I would still recommend the advance ticketing system so you can get in in the morning and have more time to view the museum. I have to go back as we only grazed the surface of this museum’s impressive exhibits!

The Museum

Upon entering, we picked up a map which advised that in order to make the most of your time (and we were already limited on time having gotten there in the afternoon) you should start at the top and work your way down. We didn’t realize until later that this meant we would miss the museum’s main history exhibits which traces African American history from slavery through the present. These history exhibits are all below ground (where 60% of the museum lies). Where we began was with the museum’s culture exhibits which all come off of a central area called Cultural Expressions. This circular area is so immersive with exhibits around the outside, seating in the middle, and large screens encircling above head with images, video and quotes about various forms of cultural expression including writing, music, dance, sport, film, etc. featuring famous or trailblazing African Americans in their respective fields. We began with the exhibit about music.

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The music exhibit was full of information and artifacts about African American musicians and singers who have made lasting cultural impressions in American popular and musical culture. Jimi Hendrix, Ella Fitzgerald, Celia Cruz, Whitney Houston, James Brown, Louis Armstrong, and more well-known artists were represented, but so were lesser-known names and contributions to American music including black country and bluegrass artists. The exhibit included an interactive “record store” room in which you could flip through “albums” and learn more about artists and select music on a digital touch screen. It was a rich visual experience with so much to take in.

The next exhibit was all about acting, from the stage to the screen. The final exhibit we toured in full was about sports. All of these exhibits showcased the cultural contributions of African Americans to American culture, highlighting inequalities overcome, civil rights advanced, and culture enriched. Black history and culture is American history and culture and these exhibits make that clear by focusing on how African Americans have been a part of it all by focusing on these overarching categories of music, film, sport, relatable categories for people of all backgrounds. 

I wish we could have stayed longer but tired brains and feet won out. We skipped the rest of the regular exhibits in favor of checking out the educational area which has a large digital, interactive kiosk of touch screens from which you can browse the museum’s collection. You can select items based on a wide variety of intersectional topics. This was a truly impressive digital resource that had information on so many artifacts both on exhibit and not.

I can’t wait to return to this museum and tour more of the exhibits. The importance of this museum for celebrating African American history and culture, for educating the public on the history of systemic racism, for educating the public on the history of black Americans, and for showcasing the important role African Americans have and continue to play in the development of culture in America cannot be overstated. I highly recommend visiting, taking your time, and taking it all in.

#19forthe19th: Women Abolitionists

Fittingly, the US National Archives Instagram Challenge in honor of the centennial of the 19th Amendment has assigned the theme of Women Abolitionists to fall on June 19th, Juneteenth, the day that remaining enslaved people were emancipated in the state of Texas in 1865 after the end of the Civil War. The celebration of freedom on Juneteenth has spread across the United States.

The long road to freedom and the abolition of slavery was paved by many people working towards that goal, including men and women, black and white, Northerners & Southerners.

Today I want to focus on a few women abolitionists and their roles in the movement.

Many African American abolitionists were former slaves, who had either gained freedom through “official” means (were emancipated by those who enslaved them) or had escaped slavery. Free blacks in the north were often part of the abolitionist movement as well.

Harriet Jacobs was born into slavery in Edenton, North Carolina in 1813. She is most well-known as the author of a series of newspaper articles later turned book entitled Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl which was a memoir of her life in slavery. The book was published in 1861 and is one of the earliest accounts of the struggles women especially faced when enslaved including sexual harassment and abuse and roles as enslaved mothers without legal rights to their own children. Harriet escaped into hiding in 1835 and then in 1842 was able to flee to the North. She became involved in the American Anti-Slavery Society, giving talks to support the cause and raise money. Her later memoir was also used to raise awareness, encourage the Civil War to be rightfully seen as a war against slavery by Union backers, and to especially appeal to white women by focusing on how slavery impacted black women’s ability to remain chaste and to be good mothers. During and after the war, Jacobs worked with fleeing refugees, and former slaves helping to provide food, shelter, etc. in the Washington, D.C. area where she lived the rest of her life.

Whites who were involved in the abolitionist movement were often members of liberal religious groups, such as the Quakers, which saw all souls as equal. White women, especially those of middle and upper classes had more ability to be involved in the movement than black women owing to being allowed more education, more freedom of movement, and access to resources and financing that allowed them to concentrate their time on the effort. Many northern abolitionists are well known such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B Anthony, and Harriet Beecher Stowe and many went on to also be prominent in the women’s suffrage movement.

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The false-bottom wagon is now kept at Mendenhall Homeplace.

Southern white women abolitionists are less often spoken about. One such woman was Abigail Stanley. She and her husband, who were part of a Quaker community in Guilford County, made their home part of the Underground Railroad and owned a wagon with a false bottom that they would use to help enslaved people escape. When many Quakers left the state as the debate over slavery grew increasingly heated, Abigail and her husband Joshua remained in North Carolina. Abigail petitioned the North Carolina legislature in 1838 to abolish slavery and worked to that end through her participation in the Underground Railroad and her writings.

Check out the hashtag #19forthe19th and #rightfullyhers to see more posts about women abolitionists and to follow along with the US National Archives challenge.

The full text of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs is available through the University of North Carolina’s Documenting the American South here: https://docsouth.unc.edu/fpn/jacobs/jacobs.html 

#MusicMonday: The Campaign for the Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday in 3 Songs

Having grown up in an era when Martin Luther King, Jr. Day was already established as a national holiday, it can seem as if the holiday was a no-brainer, a day to celebrate this important man’s contributions to civil rights, equality, and our nation. However, the holiday was, and still is by some, debated and contested by those who didn’t feel Dr. King’s contributions were important enough and by white supremacists.

The campaign to create the federal holiday began in the 1970s, shortly after King’s death (1968). The idea did not come up for a vote though until 1979, when it was introduced by a bipartisan partnership, but the bill fell 5 votes short of passing. Arguments against the holiday included cost (it would cost too much to have an additional paid federal holiday), and tradition (holidays for private citizens as opposed to public officials were not tradition). However, by this time, Columbus Day was already a federal holiday (1934).

The King Center then began campaigning for the national holiday by directly gathering support from the public. Music factored into the campaign to make Dr. King’s birthday a federal holiday, with musicians stepping up to sway public opinion through song. Artists also used song to celebrate Dr. King and the federal recognition of a day to honor him. Later musicians used their platform to push back against states that tried to remove the holiday. Below are three songs that help to tell the story of this campaign, the success of having the day named a federal holiday, and the continued struggle to have all 50 states recognize the holiday.

  1. “Happy Birthday” by Stevie Wonder (1980)
“You know it doesn’t make much sense
There ought to be a law against
Anyone who takes offense
At a day in your celebration cause we all know in our minds
That there ought to be a time
That we can set aside
To show just how much we love you”
“I just never understood
How a man who died for good
Could not have a day that would
Be set aside for his recognition
Because it should never be
Just because some cannot see
The dream as clear as he
That they should make it become an illusion
And we all know everything
That he stood for time will bring
For in peace our hearts will sing
Thanks to Martin Luther King”

To support the campaign for Dr. King’s national holiday, Stevie Wonder released the song “Happy Birthday” in 1980. He also hosted the Rally for Peace Press Conference in 1981. These efforts helped lead to the collecting of 6 million signatures to pass the law. After extensive debates in Congress and an attempted filibuster, the law was finally passed in 1983 with a veto-proof margin and was signed into law by President Ronald Reagan on November 2, 1983. The holiday would be observed for the first time on January 20, 1986.

 

2. “King Holiday” by King Dream Chorus and Holiday Crew, which was a Supergroup [King Dream Chorus: El DeBarge, Whitney Houston, Stacy Lattisaw, Lisa Lisa with Full Force, Teena Marie, Menudo: Charlie Masso, Roy Rossello, Robi Rosa, Ray Acevedo, Ricky Martin, Stephanie Mills, New Edition, James “J.T.” Taylor; Holiday Crew: Kurtis Blow, The Fat Boys, Grandmaster Melle Mel, Run–D.M.C., and Whodini

“Once a year we celebrate
Washington and Lincoln on their birth dates
And now a third name is added to the list
A man of peace, (Drum Major for Justice)
Now, now, now every January on the third Monday
We pay homage to the man who paved the way
For freedom, justice and equality
To make the world a better place for you and me
It’s a holiday, it’s a gathering
For the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King
Dr. King tried to love somebody
(Do you wanna love somebody)
For his sake put your hate away, take a day
(Take a day to love somebody)
Don’t play on the Holiday, work to find a better way
(Everybody love somebody now)

He had a dream now it’s up to you
He had a dream now it’s up to you
To see it through, to make it come true
Now do it”

This song was released on January 13, 1986 to commemorate the first Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. All proceeds from the song were donated to the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change. The project to record the song was led by Dr. King’s son, Dexter Scott King. The original video was low budget, but there is better audio of the song available via Apple Music and probably other streaming services as well. The song defines what the holiday is all about and suggests what you might do on the day- “work to find a better way.”

3. “By The Time I Get to Arizona” by Public Enemy (1991)

“He try to keep it yesteryear
The good ol’ days
The same ol’ ways
That kept us dyin’
Yes, you me myself and Indeed
What he need is a nosebleed
Read between the lines
Then you see the lie
Politically planned
But understand that’s all she wrote
When we see the real side
That hide behind the vote
They can’t understand why he the man
I’m singin’ ’bout a king
They don’t like it
When I decide to mike it
Wait I’m waitin’ for the date
For the man who demands respect
‘Cause he was great c’mon
I’m on the one mission
To get a politician
To honor or he’s a goner
By the time I get to Arizona”

While the federal law went into effect in 1986, many states resisted passing state level laws to make the day a holiday for state employees. Some states combined the holiday with others, named the day something other than Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, or did not make the day a paid state holiday.

Utah became the last state to name a holiday after King when “Human Rights Day” was officially changed to “Martin Luther King Jr. Day” in 2000. South Carolina was the last state to make Martin Luther King Jr. Day a paid state holiday, also in 2000. Prior to then, state employees could choose between celebrating MLK day and celebrating one of three Confederate holidays.

Controversy erupted in Arizona when the governor, Evan Mecham, undid his predecessors executive order which had made MLK day a paid state holiday in 1986. Instead, Mecham declared the 3rd Sunday as the state holiday, naming it Martin Luther King, Jr. Day/Civil Rights Day, of course, making it unpaid. In 1990 citizens were asked to vote on giving state employees a paid holiday for the day, but the two options to vote on both included doing away with another paid holiday to make room for MLK day and neither passed. This result caused the National Football League to move the Super Bowl from Arizona to California, which they had threatened to do if the MLK day was not passed. Finally in 1992 a referendum passed making Martin Luther King, Jr Day a paid state holiday in Arizona.

Many saw Mecham’s opposition to making MLK Day a paid state holiday as racist, or disrespectful to Dr. King’s legacy. In response to the controversy in Arizona in 1990, Public Enemy recorded this song in 1991. However, the accompanying music video was criticized as being violent and running counter to Dr. King’s nonviolent message.

The struggle over Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a day meant to honor, remember, and uphold the legacy of a man who practiced and preached non violent means in order to bring about racial equality continued well into the 2000s with various states combining MLK Day with days to celebrate Robert E. Lee and renaming the day. This struggle highlights the continued need for education about the history of civil rights, racial (in)equality, and the systems of oppression that have historically undermined people of color in the United States.