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African-American history museum does justice to women

Bundles Alelia
A'Lelia Bundles, author of "On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker," donated items from her great-great-grandmother to the museum.

Like a tsunami, the highs and lows of the past rush over visitors to the Smithsonian’s new National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. It isn’t so much that the information is news to us, but we aren’t used to being hit with so much of it at once.

As one misty-eyed woman visitor put it, “They told it all”—from Black Power to #BlackLivesMatter.

They told the good, the bad, and the downright ugly, but it’s an inspiring kind of sensory overload that makes you want to come back for more.

The curators start the story below ground, evoking the feeling of being in the bowels of slave ships that stole our ancestors from Africa. Through a glass wall of a descending elevator, time travels in reverse as the years roll back to the 1400s.

Walls on the lower level tally the millions of Africans that Portugal, Spain, France, and other countries pushed through the Middle Passage. The evidence is also there in tiny shackles, a sparse cabin, slave narratives, and instruments of torture.

They told it all—deeply in some places, but with broad and sometimes light strokes in others. The museum displays only a fraction of its holdings, about 3,000 of 37,000 objects. And for the most part, it does justice not only to the whole of African-American history, but also to the stories and contributions of women within that history.   

A shawl belonging to Harriet Tubman. Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. Gift of Charles L. Blockson.

The early years pay homage to familiar women like Underground Railroad conductor Harriet Tubman and poet Phillis Wheatley, whose 1774 letter to a Presbyterian minister says:
“In every human Breast, God has implanted a Principle, which we call Love of Freedom; it is impatient of Oppression, and pants for Deliverance.”

Photos of abolitionist Sojourner Truth remind me that none of my Ohio history classes revealed that she gave her “Ain’t I a Woman” speech in Akron, my hometown. The new museum fills in similar gaps in our collective knowledge, adding faces to facts and noting women’s work, which often happened behind the scenes.

Visitors who know only of the connection of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rev. Joseph Lowery to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference learn that Septima Clark boosted voter registration through citizenship schools. A video highlights Ella Baker, SCLC’s first executive director and the force behind the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. Other noted “firsts” include presidential candidate Shirley Chisholm, AME Zion Church leaders Mary Small and Florence Spearing Randolph, Federal Judge Constance Baker Motley, and First Lady Michelle Obama.

“We made a concerted effort to make sure that women were represented throughout the museum,” said Mary Elliott, a museum specialist who co-curated the Freedom and Slavery exhibition. “Who’s the first person you see when you come off the elevator? Queen Nzinga”—who fought the Portuguese in 17th-century Angola.

She also cites Elizabeth “Mum Bett” Freeman, who sued for her freedom and won in Massachusetts, and Civil War teachers and nurses like Susan King Taylor and Charlotte Forten Grimké.

Members of the San Francisco chapter of the National Council of Negro Women demonstrate for voter registration in 1956. Photograph by Cox Studio. Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Frances Albrier Collection.

Elliott is one of many women who helped the museum take shape, from deputy director Kinshasha Holman Conwill to Ava Duvernay, who created the short film “August 28: A Day in the Life of a People,” which looks at several events of importance in African-American history that occurred on that date in different years. Elliott helped to curate the slave cabin from Edisto Island, South Carolina; an auction block; and a handmade tin case containing freedom papers.

As in the Holocaust Memorial Museum, there’s a place of respite when the going from gallery to gallery gets too tough. Visitors can regroup around a circular waterfall in the Contemplative Court after seeing remnants of the Portuguese slave ship São José, lynching photos, Ku Klux Klan uniforms, or shards of glass from the blast that killed four girls at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963.

Many people lingered around “Ashley’s Sack,” named for a 9-year-old sold away from her mother, Rose, during the 1850s. Rose hurriedly filled the sack with “my love always,” a braid of her hair, a tattered dress, and three handfuls of pecans, according to the description later embroidered on the front by Ashley’s granddaughter, Ruth Middleton. 

Other expressions of love range from a photo of voting rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer with her husband, Perry, to an expandable metal ring that numerous men and women used to marry over a period of three decades in the 19th century.

On the third floor, the sports gallery features life-size statues of Venus and Serena Williams; a display case on tennis and golf pioneer Althea Gibson, who paved the way for them; photos of gold medal-winning track Olympian Wilma Rudolph; and a video of gymnastics great Gabby Douglas in mid-flight. The military exhibition pays tribute to the Women’s Army Corps as well as U.S. Navy Admiral Michelle Howard.

On the top floor, a circular interactive display examines Cultural Expressions such as food, fashion, and fist bumps. An overhead ring offers a visual and aural feast with images of Judith Jamison and the Alvin Ailey dancers, steppers, and marchers moving in sync to layered beats and rhythms.

A gallery displays artwork by Elizabeth Catlett, Betye Saar, and Lorna Simpson. Entertainment exhibitions include MC Lyte’s door-knocker earrings and sneakers; Lena Horne’s vanity set; and outfits worn by Marian Anderson, Ella Fitzgerald, Whitney Houston, En Vogue, and Nona Hendryx of Labelle.

Judith Jamison. Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. Photography by Jack Mitchell © Alvin Ailey Dance Foundation, Inc. and Smithsonian Institution.

A’Lelia Bundles feels honored about the comprehensive tribute to her great-great-grandmother, Madam C.J. Walker, who helped legions of women go into business through her hair-care and cosmetics empire.

“It means a lot to me,” said Bundles, who donated 13 items directly to the museum and others through a previous gift to the Indiana Historical Society. “It’s important to know who she was as a pioneer, but she also was a force for economic independence and political activism.” Other activist-entrepreneurs featured in the museum include publisher Ida B. Wells; banker Maggie Lena Walker; and media mogul Oprah Winfrey, who donated $12 million.

Bundles said, “Madam Walker can certainly be an inspiration for any woman who faces ignorant attitudes—wherever they may come from.”

Like Bundles, Carol Hector-Harris stresses the importance of preserving family history and heirlooms. She donated a fragile letter discovered in her great-great-grandmother’s ledger. In 1851, William Lloyd Garrison, publisher of The Liberator, wrote the letter to help her ancestor, Thomas H. Jones, secure lodging and avoid arrest under the Fugitive Slave Law.

“It’s hard to give up family treasures, but we get to share the letter with the world,” Hector-Harris said. “Now we know it will be preserved forever.”

Elaine Thompson felt similar satisfaction after donating the freedom certificate in the handmade tin of her ancestor, Joseph Trammell, Elliott said. Thompson died of cancer two weeks after attending the opening ceremony in September.

Filmmaker Julie Dash, a visiting professor at Howard University who is celebrating the 25th anniversary of her landmark film, Daughters of the Dust, is pleased that her work is featured.

"From its finely crafted architectural lace exterior to its seven floors layered with our collective history and recollected memories, the NMAAHC celebrates our wonders to behold,” Dash said. “I'm looking forward to revisiting, often, and growing right along with the expansion of the museum's curated exhibits."

Hector-Harris agrees. “I’m sure the ancestors stood and applauded what we all saw,” she said. “Everything my eyes fell upon, I was saying, ‘Oh my God!’ I had my hand over my mouth. I had my hand over my heart.”

“What a tribute! What a tribute to us. I can’t wait to go back.”

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