Few people have a thorough knowledge of United States history. Mostly, we are familiar with the people and places repeatedly mentioned in the history books and referenced in the names for many U.S. buildings, streets, and cities. But, there are near countless more American people and events that have shaped our country’s evolution and influenced world history — but are seldom mentioned. Specifically, although many African-Americans have made tremendous contributions to the growth and development of the U.S. and the world, we are often left out of the history books and discussions about humanity’s greatest accomplishments.
On September 24, 2016, the Smithsonian Museums in Washington, D.C., opened its 19th museum — the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), which is located within steps of the Washington Monument. According to the museum’s website, the NMAAHC “is the only national museum devoted exclusively to the documentation of African-American life, history, and culture.”
On February 23, 2017, I visited NMAAHC for the first time — a trip sponsored by the Black Alumni Chapter of my alma mater, Old Dominion University. Faculty and staff at Rappahannock Community College asked that I share my thoughts about my visit to the NMAAHC with our community. As an African-American woman, when I reflect on my tour through the NMAAHC, I describe that experience as disturbing and educational but also inspirational.
The NMAAHC tour begins with an informational journey into the U.S. slave trade. A timeline on the museum’s elevator wall lists the years of history between the present and the beginning of the U.S. slave trade as visitors descend into the museum’s basement to begin the tour. I have seen artifacts from the U.S. slave trade in other museums, but the NMAAHC exhibit was particularly heart-breaking. As we toured the dim rooms and shadowy exhibits, recorded voices representing African slaves narrated the tour describing the misery and suffering they endured as they were torn from their homeland; transported in filth and squalor on slave ships, where many of them died; and sold to slave owners — often never able to see their families again.
The tour rooms’ haunting artifacts from the slave ships and auctions, such as wrist and ankle shackles and torture tools, were disturbing as I thought about the cruelty and inhumane treatment our ancestors had suffered at the hands of other human beings. During the tour, the NMAAHC slave-trade exhibit room was quiet except for a few visitors’ whispered conversations and the narrators’ solemn voices. After just a few minutes, I had to leave the NMAAHC basement’s exhibits because I was too filled with sadness to continue the journey.
Next, I rode the elevator up to the building’s top floor and worked my way back down through several floors of exhibits. We sometimes hear about African Americans’ successes in the entertainment industries, such as dance, film and television, music, literature and poetry, and sports, and the NMAAHC exhibits reiterated those accomplishments. But, the NMAAHC also educated visitors about African Americans’ nearly 500 hundred years of leadership in academics, activism, business, engineering, government, journalism, mathematics, medicine, painting and sculpture, philanthropy, politics, science, technology, and more.
The NMAAHC exhibits reminded us that some African Americans were often first in their field. For example, the NMAAHC’s Shirley Chisholm exhibit reminded us that in 1972 Chisholm was the first African-American woman elected to Congress and to campaign for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination.
And, of course, there were some popular exhibits I expected to see at the NMAAHC, and those were there as well. For example, the NMAAHC had a complete slave shack reconstructed inside the museum. Another exhibit had stools from the Greensboro, N.C., Woolworth’s department store’s restaurant lunch counter where African Americans staged a sit-in to protest segregation in 1960. The museum had Oprah Winfrey’s first stage set. They dedicated an entire room to boxer Muhammad Ali’s athletic and activism-related accomplishments. NMAAHC performers re-enacted some historical events in some exhibits to help audiences understand the significance of those events. And, I was among the crowd of excited visitors taking pictures of the exhibit celebrating Barack Obama’s presidency and Michelle Obama’s work as first lady.
The NMAAHC provides its diverse crowd of visitors with unique opportunities to learn about how much the U.S. has evolved and how lucky we are to be surrounded with so many talented people within our country. The museum has more artifacts and information than most people can view during a single visit. The NMAAHC is not just a celebration of African Americans’ accomplishments; it is a celebration of our nation’s accomplishments and reminds me that although our nation’s history is not perfect, we should still feel proud to be Americans.
Leslie Norris, Ph.D., is a Professor of English at Rappahannock Community College. Dr. Norris earned her doctorate from Old Dominion University and is a resident of Lancaster County, Virginia.