Families, Institutions Donate Exhibits, Heirlooms to New Museum


WASHINGTON – African Americans gave hundreds of millions of dollars so the new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture could open.

In addition to their financial support, black families and institutions donated numerous artifacts. Some were preserved in other collections across the country, while some were tucked away in families’ homes. 

The gifts and loans include signage from the Nation of Islam headquarters in Chicago, jazz pioneer Louis Armstrong’s trumpet, a dress made by civil rights icon Rosa Parks and the leotard gold medal-winner Gabby Douglas wore in the 2012 Olympics.

Howard University in Washington was one of the academic contributors. The university’s Moorland-Spingarn Research Center loaned over $70,000 in items belonging to entertainer Paul Robeson and anti-slavery activist Charlotte Grimke.

One of Charlotte Grimke’s many dairies can be seen at the new museum. Her writings chronicled the daily life of Grimke, a free black woman living in the North in the 1850s prior to the Civil War.

Kenvi Phillips, an assistant curator of for Moorland-Spingarn, said Grimke was important in telling the story of African Americans during that period.

“Grimke’s observations and musings on the realities and social injustices facing African-Americans are considered a cornerstone in history,” Phillips said.  “She made clear the moral imperative that blacks deserve equality.

“She’s giving a first-hand account as someone who experienced it."

The university  loaned Robeson’s, scripts, jewelry and costumes. Robeson was a world-class athlete, intellectual, singer, actor and civil rights activist

“We have a silk vest that he wore; we have scripts from plays that he acted in,” Phillips said.  “We have one of his passports. We know he had his passport taken from him by the government because of the civil rights activities that he engaged in.

“Robeson is this guy who you look up to as a celebrity, but he’s also very intelligent and he wasn’t afraid to expose injustice and champion equality.”

Donated items from other institutions and individuals include dresses, musical instruments, books, bibles and numerous items representative ofvarious stages of African-American history.

There is a large section depicting African American’s participation in the Olympics filled with donated items, including track star Carl Lewis’ many medals and the clothing and shoes dozens of athletes wore when they competed in the games.

Peter L. Robinson Jr. and Marie Robinson Johnson donated the binoculars their ancestor, Lt. Peter L. Robinson, used as part of the 368th infantry in France during World War I. 

Avis, Eugene and Lowell Robinson donated a bison fur overcoat  from 1869 that was used by black soldiers who later became known as the Buffalo Soldiers. 

The Liljenquist Family Collection donated wrought-iron shackles left behind by formerly enslaved men who joined the Union Colored Troops during the Civil War.

Phillip, and Dwayne Brashear donated items from their father, Carl Brashear, the first African-American U.S. Navy diver, including his prosthetic leg.

Brashear was the first African American to attend and graduate from the Navy’s Diving & Salvage School.  

During a bomb recovery operation in 1966, a line used for towing broke loose, causing a pipe to strike Brashear's left leg below the knee, nearly shearing it off. His lower left leg was eventually amputated.

In 1968, after a long struggle, Brashear was the first amputee diver to be re-certified as a U.S. Navy diver. In 1970, he became the first African-American U.S. Navy Master Diver.

“We were more than delighted to donate the prosthetic leg, and cane my father used after his accident to the museum,” Dawayne Brashear said. “This is a big part of who he was. Our hope is to inspire African Americans to persevere, no matter the challenge.”

A 2000 movie titled “Men of Honor” and starring actor Cuba Gooding Jr., chronicled Brashear’s achievements.

The museum reached out to the Brashear family two years ago in regards to the father’s legacy and any items the sons  thought would be a good fit for the exhibit.