My Visit to National Museum of African American History and Culture

On May 23, 2017 I visited the National Museum of African American History and Culture, the newest part of the Smithsonian Museums in Washington, DC.

Despite what I had heard about the impossibility of getting admission tickets for less than three months in advance, I was able to get a same-day ticket online at 6:30 AM that morning. They were all gone by 8:30 that morning. There are also “walk up tickets” available at 1:00 PM until they are gone.

The museum is large and well-organized around a dozen or so themes, some of which I expected (politics, education, family, segregation, and slavery) and several I did not expect (clothing and dress, sports, literature, military, religious organization, and food). The museum uses the latest multi-media video technology.  The exhibits are rich with artifacts small (coins and handcuffs) and large (slave ship and Chuck Berry’s cherry red Cadillac) from ordinary folks (badge of a slave) to the now-famous (Rosa Park’s dress).  The museum is huge (10 floors—five above ground) but is nicely divided into chambers and galleries that even the voices of large groups school kids were muffled.

While I enjoyed refreshing my historical memories of the Civil Rights Struggle of the 1960s-2017, the most memorable exhibits from my afternoon’s visit are two. The first is Mary McLeod Bethune’s 1939 speech “What Does American Democracy Mean to Me?” 

While familiar with her name (she lived 1875-1955) and her education projects, and may have placed her with the National Council of Negro Women, I don’t recall learning about her speech. It is well worth listening to for its force and focus.

The second is a recent TV interview with an African American man whose name, probably an author, I did not recognize and don’t remember. He was asked something like “what one thing do you want American whites to understand about African American history?”  He answered “I am not asking them to feel guilty about owning slaves, because most white Americans do not have ancestors that did, I am asking them to understand how American society was built on the labor of African slavery and how white Americans have benefited from that while black Americans have not.”  The museum closed at 5:30 or I would have gone back to transcribe the interview precisely.

Below is a link to an interactive article from the New York TIMES, September 15 2016 containing wonderful photos of some exhibits.

I could have spend several days at the museum. If you are visiting our Nation’s Capitol, make time to visit this museum. I left thinking, I wish I could remember all that I learned today.



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