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What the new Smithsonian means to African-Americans

Marina Strauss / kbm
September 23, 2016

A decade in the making, the National Museum of African-American History and Culture finally opens its doors in Washington, DC. It's a triumph for the black community and reveals some of the darkest moments in US history.

Washington NMAAHC Museum Außenansicht
Image: DW/M. Strauß

She has fought her whole life. Dorie Ladner was arrested because she opposed segregation and supported civil rights for African-Americans. During the legendary March on Washington in 1963, she demonstrated together with thousands of others on behalf of equality and freedom for blacks in America.

Now a museum dedicated to African-American culture and history is opening its doors in the US capital. For Ladner, that means more than just appreciation for her struggles."I feel happy, uplifted. I feel that the work that I've done in the civil rights struggle is manifesting itself in the form of the museum," said the 74-year-old.

Her apartment in Washington, DC resembles a miniature civil rights museum. Jimi Hendrix smiles in a portrait on the wall, and there are photos of Ladner as a young woman standing among activists. Books on freedom fighters line the shelves.

Civil rights activist Dorie Ladner, Copyright: DW/M. Strauß
Dorie Ladner's home resembles a small civil rights museumImage: DW/M. Strauß

One item has recently left Ladner's apartment. She donated the shirt she wore during the Million Man March in 1995 to the National Museum of African-American History and Culture. At that time, the civil rights activist was one of the few women to join the hundreds of thousands of black men who gathered in downtown Washington to demonstrate for unity.

Ladner's sweatshirt is one of nearly 40,000 objects now on display in the newest Smithsonian, which opens on September 24 to share the story of African-Americans - from oppression to resistance and even aspects of everyday life.

Museum director Lonnie Bunch emphasizes that the museum doesn't just recount African-American history. "For us this museum is a people's journey and it's also a nation's story."

Light and shadow under the roof

Nat Turner's Bible at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, Copyright: DW/Marina Strauß
Nat Turner's Bible is a highlight of the exhibitionImage: DW/M. Strauß

For the past 10 years, Bunch has been a museum director without a museum. Together with his curators, he traveled all over the United States in search of hidden treasures that represented different aspects of African-American life. And they were successful.

The museum has a collection representing all facets of the story - from slavery to segregation and black pop culture.

One of the most significant objects on display is a tattered book. It's a Bible that belonged to the slave Nat Turner, who instigated a bloody slave uprising in Virginia in 1831. Turner was very religious and had learned to read, which was not typical for slaves at that time. From reading the Bible he had learned that all people deserve to live in freedom.

Among the nearly 60 victims of Turner's rebellion were ancestors of Mark Person. Over 100 years ago, the Bible landed in his family's possession. Now Person believes it belongs in the Washington museum.

"I think Nat Turner would want the Bible there," he said. "It think about it a lot,  about Nat Turner and the people he was associated with. There's no hard feelings, it was a different time, 200 years ago. They stood up for a cause."

Mark Person in front of his church in Southhampton, Virginia, Copyright: DW/Ashutosh Pandey
Mark Person, pictured in front of his family's church in Virginia, contributed Nat Turner's Bible to the museumImage: DW/A. Pandey

The museum exhibits evidence of struggles African-American were forced to endure to stop being treated like animals and, step by step, to gain equality with white Americans.

The creation of the museum itself was a struggle that went on for years. The organizers had trouble acquiring enough funding for the over $500-million project, sufficient political support, and a suitable location.

It's a symbolic victory that the museum now stands next to the Washington Monument on the famous National Mall. According to early plans, it was originally to be built on the outskirts of the capital.

Coronation of the Mall

No longer just a dream, the building housing the National Museum of African-American History and Culture really stands out. Most of the other Smithsonians and institutions on the Mall have marble facades.

David Adjaye, a British architect with Tanzanian roots, designed the building based on West African textile patterns. The result resembles a three-tiered crown - weighty from the outside but airy on the inside.

Inside the National Museum of African American History and Culture, Copyright: DW/Marina Strauß
Inside, the museum is more spacious than it looksImage: DW/M. Strauß

It is also symbolic that the African-American museum is opening during the final months of the first black president's time in office. Many exhibits reflect on Barack Obama's eight years in the White House, including magazine covers and the dress Michelle Obama wore to the 50th anniversary celebration of the March on Washington.

Just like the election of America's first black president, the opening of an African-American museum is a triumph for Dorie Ladner and many other black Americans.

"It's all about how far we came as a race of people and how far we still have to go, we are still going, we are not anywhere at equal," said Ladner.

The museum may have symbolic power. But for Ladner and many others, the struggle continues - particularly in times when skin color and ethnicity continue to dominate US politics and everyday life.

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