American and African-American History Re-imagined

A Conversation with African American Museum’s Lonnie Bunch

Lonnie Bunch, the founding director of the Smithsonian Natiobnaal Museum of African American History and Culture, has overseen every detail of five-story $516 million facility.  His vision ahd the dreams of milions of Americans became real Saturday.   Courtesy Smithsonian.org

WASHINGTON — It was a day full of glitz and glamour as celebrities, elected officials, civil rights icons, three American presidents and tens of thousands gathered here Saturday to celebrate the historic opening of the The new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.

The museum features over 30,000 artifacts from the journey of the African-American in America – such as the shawl Harriet Tubman was given by Queen Elizabeth, Nat Turner's Bible, Michael Jackson’s fedora, Whitney Houston’s dress, Emmitt Till’s casket and pieces from actual slave ships. 

It also includes a 77-ton segregated vintage railway car from the 19 century, a prison guard watch tower from infamous Louisiana State Penitentiary Angola and an original Tuskegee Airman airplane that was used in World War II.

Prior to the opening, Howard University News Service reporter Maiyah Mayhan talked with Lonnie Bunch, the museum’s founding director, about its development and significance.

Why is this museum important for the younger generation?

LONNIE BUNCH: This museum is important for all, but especially the younger generation, because the goal of the museum is to give people historical tools to understand the world they're living in, to basically be motivated by struggle to make America better. One of the messages that you get in this museum is how young African Americans have died, sacrificed, marched, protested and changed American ways to the point where America could never go back to what it was.

The image of Thomas Jefferson against bricks with the names of his 609 slaves
makes a powerful statement at the begnning of the museum exhibit.  Courtesy Smithsonian.org

What’s your vision for the future of the National Museum of African American History and Culture?

BUNCH: I want this museum to be in the future, not a community center, but the center of the community. I want it to allow people, both locally and around the country, to come see the issues we raise and wrestle with them. Race has always divided us. What we want to talk about is that we realize black lives matter is standing on shoulders, but it is standing on them in very different ways.  So, we need to celebrate that as well. Part of what I'd like to do is make sure that this museum is part of the strategy to demand a freer and fairer America.

In the past, you’ve mentioned that Black history is American history. What are some of the responses you’ve received from that?

BUNCH: The goal was to say that while this is a story that gives an insider's perspective to African-American culture, it is also a story that basically is a broader story, that, in some ways, I've argued. the African-American culture is almost too big to just be in the hands of one community, that in essence, it shapes us all, and I want people to know that. In some ways, what I'm simply doing is harking back to Carter G Woodson and people in the 1920s who said African-Americans need to know their history beside it others.