The National Museum of African American History and Culture opened at long last in September 2016 and immediately became one of the most popular attractions on the National Mall. About 2.5 million people visited the museum in its first year. So what is there to see inside the museum—and why should you visit?
The African American History Galleries
Many of the objects in the history galleries are tied to well-known events or people. There is a Bible belonging to Nat Turner; a shawl belonging to Harriet Tubman; early editions of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Solomon Northrup’s 12 Years a Slave; a dress made and worn by Rosa Parks; Nichelle Nichols’ Star Trek costume; and memorabilia from the presidential campaigns of Shirley Chisolm, Jesse Jackson, and Barack Obama. But objects also come from ordinary families and everyday life: tools and toys, hats and clothing, and books and photographs that tell the story of African Americans in this country.
At the bottom level of the history galleries, many of the objects bear witness to slavery. Consider the large stone from Hagerstown, Maryland. Hagerstown is in that narrow section of Western Maryland, sandwiched between what were then the free state of Pennsylvania and the slave state of Virginia. Several Underground Railroad routes passed through the area, and it was a haunt of slave-catchers. Unknown numbers of people were sold into slavery from this large stone, including fugitives and kidnapped free black men and women.
Some objects from this same period offer surprising insights into how slavery affected the entire U.S. economy, not just the South’s. Colorful samples of so-called “negro cloth” remind us of this connection. The cotton would be picked and processed by slaves, shipped to the mills of Massachusetts and England, woven and dyed there, and sold back to slaveholders as an inexpensive way to clothe the people they held in captivity. Cloth like this is a reminder that slavery’s effects rippled far beyond the places where people were enslaved.
The Point of Pines Cabin, The Jones-Hall-Sims House
One of the focal points of this area of the museum is a two-room, 318-square-foot cabin. It was constructed in the 1850s on the Point of Pines Plantation on Edisto Island, South Carolina. The enslaved people who lived on the island came from a variety of West African cultures. Over the years, they shared their arts, music, cuisine, religious practices, and even languages of their ancestors and formed a unique, new African American culture known as Gullah. A number of the beautiful sweetgrass baskets found elsewhere in the museum come from this Gullah artistic tradition.
At one point, about 170 enslaved people worked on the plantation, and they lived in about 25 of these slave cabins, just like this one. Shortly after the Civil War, the white population of Edisto fled the island, and the enslaved African Americans declared themselves emancipated. Many, if not most of them, remained on the island and were the ancestors of the people who live there today. And some of them continued to live in these very structures up to the 1980s. In fact, in 2017, the museum received a very special visit from a group of Edisto residents, one of whom—Isabelle Meggett Lucas—was born in this very cabin in 1930.
The middle level of the history galleries deal with the century between the Civil War and the passage of the Civil Rights Act. The Jones-Hall-Sims House—which is placed so that it overlooks the older Point of Pines cabin—shows how the African American way of life was changing just in the few decades after the war. Built around 1874 in the free African American community of Jonesville, Maryland, it was expanded and remodeled many times before the museum acquired it in 2009. But when it was moved to the museum, the changes were removed, and what you see is the hand-hewed log frame of the original 19th-century home.
The most noticeable and significant difference from the Point of Pines cabin is its size—specifically, its height. A second story was virtually unheard of in a single-family slave cabin. It was a sort of luxury, yes, but also served a practical purpose, allowing the family that lived there to keep watch over their land and livestock from inside the house. The house is a memorial to the family that lived there for more than 150 years, but also the formation of free African American communities throughout the former slave states.
Walk along a Segregated Pullman Car
But by the turn of the 20th century, many African American families were leaving the rural south for the urban centers of the North, Midwest, and West. This great movement of people was called the Great Migration. It was in part due to the pressures of segregation and violence in the South, but also due to greater economic opportunities that cities afforded.
The Pullman porter’s uniform and the Pullman Palace railroad car, found just a few steps away, represent both the promise of opportunity and the reality of segregation in this period. Pullman cars were known for their quality and luxury, and part of that luxury was the service given by the Pullman porters. George Pullman began hiring former slaves to fill these positions in 1868. The porters were badly paid and badly treated. For many decades, they were all called by a single name—“George”—their individual identities erased. But the stability of the work and the ability to earn tips helped the porters provide a better life for their families. The porters also played the important role of information couriers, spreading news from community to community across the nation.
In 1925, the porters formed the first African American labor union: the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. The organizing and negotiating skills honed in this union would later pass into the civil rights movement. The car you see here in the museum was in service from the 1920s to the 1950s and is an example of a segregated passenger car, or “partitioned coach.” As you pass through the car, you will see the small difference between the “white” and “colored” sections. The “colored” section has smaller bathrooms and no luggage storage—differences that seem small but that send a clear message that African American passengers were less valued and less welcome.
The highest floor in the gallery, devoted to the 1970s and beyond, is devoted to modern changes and landmarks in the struggle for freedom. Activism was becoming “intersectional”—in other words, the African American civil rights movement began to intersect with women’s rights, the drive for Latino rights, gay rights, prisoners’ rights, and other social justice movements. As we begin to see more and better representations of African American life in mass media—film, television, magazines, and music—we see that growing activism taking hold within society.
The Culture Galleries—From Chuck Berry to Public Enemy
If the history galleries are often sobering, even harrowing, the community and culture galleries upstairs, on the third and fourth floors are often joyful. For example, the Musical Crossroads exhibit, which celebrates the central role of African American traditions and performers in American music, is fantastic.
This first object, found right at the exhibit entrance of the music hall, is pretty hard to miss: it’s Chuck Berry’s red 1973 Cadillac Eldorado convertible. Berry was a pioneer—maybe the pioneer—of rock ‘n’ roll. And cars are a fixture of rock ‘n’ roll music, as we know. That’s as true today as it was when Berry’s first hit song, “Maybellene,” hit the charts in 1955. In case you’re not familiar with the song, it’s about a woman in a Cadillac. Though it should be pointed out, Berry nicknamed one of his guitars “Maybellene”—and that’s also right here in the museum.
The exhibit isn’t limited to rock ‘n’ roll, of course. Everything from classical and spiritual to funk and hip-hop has a place here. You’ll find costumes worn by the great operatic contralto Marian Anderson and the legendary jazz vocalist Ella Fitzgerald, suits worn by funk music icons like James Brown and Bootsy Collins, trumpets belonging to Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie, a boom box used by Public Enemy, and a platinum album awarded to Prince. The variety, creativity, and cultural and political significance of African American music is not only fascinating, but it’s also a compelling lens for viewing American history.
Along with music, the top floor honors African Americans’ contributions to all forms of cultural expression: painting and sculpture, theater and film, dance, food, literature and language, and craftsmanship.
The Community Galleries—From Muhammad Ali to Colin Powell
Going down a level, you’ll find the community galleries. These focus on how African Americans as organized groups found a way to collaborate and cooperate with their fellow Americans.
Here, the sports galleries consider athletes’ individual achievements and their social contributions. Areas are dedicated to Olympians like Gabby Douglas and Carl Lewis; boxers like Muhammad Ali and Jack Johnson; baseball greats like Willie Mays and Jackie Robinson; and many, many more. As some of the most visible black figures in American society, these athletes were often at the forefront of social change and social justice movements, and exhibits ask you to consider how, through their achievements and sometimes their activism, the athletes changed American culture.
Throughout American history, African Americans have been a vital part of another community: the American military. On this floor, you’ll see weapons, uniforms, medals, and portraits of the men and women who have served in the armed forces of the United States from the Revolutionary War to the present day. You’ll get a sense of their service to our nation by such figures as Gen. Colin Powell. Among the very special objects in this gallery is a tribute to the many African American recipients of the United States Medal of Honor.
Entrepreneurship is also recognized in these galleries, which leads to one of the most impressively complete collections in the museum: Mae’s Millinery. Mae Reeves was a Philadelphia designer and entrepreneur who opened her couture hat shop in the 1940s. It became an institution, serving customers from ordinary churchgoers to international celebrities, designing for women of every race and walk of life. Her beautiful creations not only reflect changing fashions over the course of her 55 years in the business, but they also demonstrate the important role black-owned businesses have come to play in the nation’s economy.
Contemplating African American History
On the second floor, you’ll find the Explore More! interactive galleries and the Family History Center and research library. The floor also includes classroom spaces.
Like many of the Smithsonian’s museums, this museum hosts lots of educational events throughout the year, from book groups and public lectures to concerts and films. You can check the website for upcoming events.
Although there is a lot to celebrate in African American history and culture, there is also a lot in this museum that’s very difficult, even overwhelming. The museum’s planners included the Contemplative Court as a place to sit and process your thoughts and emotions, or discuss them with others. It is a beautiful place, filled with natural light and the calming sound of falling water. During your trip, I encourage you to rest here a while.