American History Through an African American Lens

Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture

"This building will sing for all of us." Lonnie Bunch II, Founding Director, Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. 

In a 30-minute documentary, Oliver Hardt explores the design concert for the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. Designed by British-Ghanaian architect, David Adjaye, the film highlights how Adjaye deals with the challenge of building one of the most important buildings in African American history. Hardt takes viewers through the historical, social, and aesthetic considerations manifested in Adjaye’s design for the museum. 

More about the film: 

For the British-Ghanaian architect David Adjaye, a dream of his young career fulfilled: In an international competition to the more than 70 architects were invited world, he continued in 2009 in the final selection against competitors such as Sir Norman Foster and Diller Scofidio + Renfro by . Adjaye was awarded the contract, the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) building in Washington DC. In addition to interviews with Adjaye and other project managers, the film illustrates the basis of design sketches and models of the museum, the design details of the project. Also, the plot at the end of the National Mall, where the museum is being built right next to the Washington Monument, plays a role: it is the place where past, present and future of American society intersect. ”The Great March on Washington,” the great freedom march in August 1963 at the end of the famous speech of Martin Luther King stood here took his starting point.

We will update this post when the entire film is available.

NMAAHC Travelogues: Along the East Coast

Part four in a four-part series about historic African American sites to visit while traveling the US. Read all the contributions to this blog series: part one, part two, and part three.

If you have decided to ditch the car, the East Coast offers several history-rich sites by train, a chance to stretch your legs and read up on this well-preserved corridor of history.

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Photo: Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where Martin Luther King Jr. preached. Credit: Erin McDaniel, Wikimedia Commons. 

Georgia

This Southern city has established a National Historic District centered on the birthplace of Rev. Martin L. King, Jr. at 501 Auburn Avenue.  Make those grainy newsreels come to life with stops at the King family’s Ebenezer Baptist Church and the storefronts of the famous business district called Sweet Auburn Avenue. One feature of the District is a Walk of Fame allowing visitors to follow the footsteps of people who fought for civil rights. The APEX Museum on Auburn specializes in local history and family reunion tour, and is currently showing, “Africa: The Untold Story.”  

Pick up a copy of the Atlanta Daily World, established by the Scott family in 1928, for insights into black Atlanta. In the Atlanta University Center complex is Spelman College, the home of the Spelman Museum of Fine Art, with a permanent exhibition of 20th Century African American art (on the website it say the museum is closed for summer break; should the reference remain in the post?). For a glimpse of modern entertainment history, check out the schedule for tours of filmmaker Tyler Perry’s state-of-the-art studios.

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Photo: Gantt Center

North and South Carolina

Centuries of ghosts haunt Charleston, S.C.—a good introduction to region is the Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture. The Avery Normal Institute was a successful secondary school for African Americans from 1865 to 1954 and its building houses the center on the College of Charleston.  Many of the sites related to the Civil War and Reconstruction are prominently marked in downtown Charleston. Enjoy the breeze off the Charleston Battery and imagine how runaway slaves snuck onto friendly ships headed north. The Denmark Vesey House acknowledges the bravery of the failed slave revolt, where more than 30 people were hung, including the organizer Vesey.  But don’t neglect  the sweet grass baskets handicrafts from Mary Jackson, winner of a National Heritage Award. Available right on the streets of Charleston, these baskets help portray the rich history of the West African community in South Carolina.

In Charlotte, N.C. the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African American Arts + Culture is a beautiful facility designed by Philip Freelon, one of the architects of our building.  The evocative center is also the home of the John and Vivian Hewitt Art Collection, one of the country’s most important private assemblages of African American art. Through June 15th, the center is showing “African American Art Since 1950: Perspectives from the David C. Driskell Center.”

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Photo: Avery Normal Institute 

Virginia

Virginia has history on almost every stretch of the state and the capital, Richmond, has been working hard to tell the history from all perspectives. In Richmond the American Civil War Center at Historic Tredegar is a museum with the Civil War story is told from the Union, Confederate and African American perspectives. Showing now is the 10th Cavalry Drum from the Buffalo Soldiers, regiments of African American soldiers during the Civil War. For a look at Richmond’s famous African Americans, there are statues of William “Bojangles” Robinson, the great dancer and humanitarian, and Arthur Ashe, the pioneering tennis champion. The National Park Service has preserved the home of Maggie Lena Walker, the first woman to charter a bank in the U.S. bank.

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Photo: The Lincoln Memorial

Washington, D.C.

When you get to Washington, D.C., there is an exhaustive list of sights, and even if this is your third or fourth trip, do go to the Lincoln Memorial. There is now a plaque where Rev. Martin L. King, Jr. stood on that August day in 1963, letting his voice echo far past the Reflecting Pool and into our collective consciousness.   With the passage of time, you might understand even better the power of his words. The towering statue of King, dedicated in 2011, is only a short walk away. Don’t forget to take a look at the grounds for the National Museum of African American History and stop by the Welcome Center on Constitution Avenue near the Washington Monument – opening in 2016, the building has really begun to take shape. 

 Over the years the achievements of African American citizens have been immortalized around Washington. When you leave the White House and Lafayette Park, visit the Decatur House where the 1822 slave quarters are accessible to visitors. Then walk east a couple of blocks to 1500 H St. NW. A marker commemorates the Wormley Hotel, the prestigious business James A. Wormley opened in 1871 and served the dignitaries of the day. Cultural Tourism DC has placed many markers around town to bring attention to the deeds of blacks of the past.

Away from downtown, and the tourist-crammed sidewalks, is the Mt. Zion Cemetery at 27th and Q Sts. N.W. in Georgetown. Already in use as a cemetery for freed and slave blacks, the land was purchased in 1842 by the Female Union Band Society, an organization started by free black women. It is a wonderful walk and history lesson.

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Photo: John Johnson House. Credit: Audrey,. Wikimedia Commons. 

Philadelphia

The Last Stop in our Travelogues is Philadelphia—Mother Bethel AME Church is a prime destination, with its ministry in continuous service since 1797 and its activity in the Underground Railroad.  It is located on the oldest property continually owned by African Americans.  Philadelphia was a hub for the Underground Railroad and that bravery is remembered at the home of William Still, a coal merchant who helped as many as 800 people escape and the Johnson House Historic Site, the home of a Quaker family of abolitionists. A newer point of interest is the President’s House Commemorative Site, the home of George Washington and John Adams from 1790-1800. In 2010 a memorial was opened to tell the Washington story, as well as the story of the nine slaves who worked in the house. The location at 6th and Market can be visited 24 hours a day.

Ever since its founding days Philadelphia has had a bounty of museums. Right now the African American Museum in Philadelphia is showing a detailed exhibit of photographs entitled “Distant Echoes: Black Farmers in America”.

 By Lonnie G. Bunch III, Founding Director, Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. 

NMAAHC Travelogues: The Northern Tour

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Photo: Chicago Skyline

Part three in a four-part series about historic African American sites to visit while traveling the US. Read all the contributions to this blog series: part one, part two, and part four.

Chicago was my home for many years, so I could give you an exhaustive list of what awaits you in this city of many personalities.  The best place to start is at the beginning.

 Jean-Baptiste Point Du Sable, a black man from Haiti, established a trading post in 1779 on the Chicago River and out of this grew one of America’s great cities. Your urban adventure should start at the Du Sable Marker at 401 N. Michigan Ave. More information about the city’s founder is installed at the Chicago Historical Society.  The Chicago History Museum, at 1601 N. Clark St., right now is showing “Unexpected Chicago,” an eclectic array of items, including Etta Moten Barnett’s hat.

 The headquarters of Johnson Publishing, which publishes Ebony and Jet and sponsored the international runway show, is a black landmark, right on Michigan Ave. The Du Sable Museum of African-American History and Art opens a new exhibit, “Funky Turns 40: Black Character Revolution Animation Art from Classic Cartoons of the ‘70s” on June 27th. You don’t have to go inside to see art in Chicago. Public art is everywhere.  Look for the exquisite sculptures of Alison Saar, Preston Jackson and Richard Hunt. Not to be missed is the 2,000 pound statue of basketball great Michael Jordon outside the United Center. 

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Photo: Michael Jordan Statue

Chicago remains an active home for blues music and a good resource is Willie Dixon’s Blues Heaven Foundation in the building that belonged to Chess Records. Call ahead to see if some music is brewing –you just might get lucky and catch a free concert. For your record collection, you can’t go wrong at the Jazz Record Mart, a huge storehouse of all types of music. And I strongly recommend a river tour sponsored by the Chicago Architecture Foundation; the view of the iconic buildings and the guides’ dialogue are worth your time.

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Photo: Striver’s Row

New York City

New York City, like Chicago, has a history lesson on almost every block. So travel to this vibrant destination and learn about the involvement of black Americans from its earliest days to the neighborhood revivals of the present. Near the tip of Manhattan and the World Trade Center memorial site is the moving African Burial Ground National Monument. This sacred spot, where slaves and freed blacks were buried in the 17th and 18th Century, was discovered in 1991 and the memorial is free. 

 The subway, the famed A-Train, and other train lines, will take you right to Harlem, the country’s most famous black conclave. Just walking will give you a hefty dose of history. Include in your tour the Studio Museum in Harlem at on 125th St., one of the country’s best art museums. The Apollo marquee at 253 W. 125th St. will advertise the current show, and you might be able to peek inside. The Hotel Theresa, at 125th and Seventh Ave., witnessed much of the 20th Century history. Joe Louis, the legendary boxer, held his victory parties there, and Fidel Castro held meetings with Malcolm X and Nikita Khrushchev at the hotel.

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Photo: Mother African Episcopal Zion Church

The exhibitions at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, a division of the city’s public libraries are open Monday-Saturday. In the evenings are spirited discussions about film, literature and art. The current shows include an exhibit about the history of Motown, and opening in July, “We are the Music Makers,” outlining the history of traditional Southern music.

There are several historic residential areas in Harlem. Strivers Row on W. 138th and 139th has retained its exterior architectural signatures. The townhouses were built between 1891 and 1893 and were the goal of black professionals, once original white residents moved out.  Another group of houses with immense architectural history are the semi-detached homes on 130th Street. Called Astor Row because the wealthy Astor family started the project, the houses were built between 1880 and 1883 and have the unusual features of front porches and front yards.

On Sundays in Harlem, you will be jostling with tour buses to see the world renowned churches and hear the famed choirs.  Worth a stop is the Mother African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church at 1406 W. 137th St., the oldest black church in New York. A stop on the Underground Railroad, the church has been in Harlem since 1914. Mount Olivet Baptist Church at 201 Lenox Ave. is housed in a 1907 synagogue. Abyssinian Baptist Church, where Rev. Adam Clayton Powell Senior and Junior preached has been in its current location since 1923.

By Lonnie G. Bunch III, Founding Director, Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. 

NMAAHC Travelogues: The Deep South

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Photo: Congo Square, Armstrong Park, New Orleans. Credit: Mr. Littlehand, Wikimedia Commons. 

This week we’re sharing our favorite African American historical sites to visit while traveling in the United States. This is the second piece in a four-part series. Read all the contributions to this blog series: part one, part three, and part four.

Let’s go South. Whether you have friends or family with you, New Orleans remains one of the most fascinating places for friends and families to visit. The history is extremely tangled, racially and culturally. The unparalled food is well, a gumbo. And there are oral and architectural sights and sounds everywhere.

The past and current state of race relations is not hard to study in this captivating city.

Slaves and freemen congregated in Congo Square, then and now the site of many musical events, located in the park named for native son Louis Armstrong. For a varnished look at slave quarters, go by the Hotel Maison de Ville in the French Quarter. The quarters were built around 1750 and are now guest rooms.  The above ground burial traditions of New Orleans are proudly preserved at St. Louis Cemetery Number One where you can see the ironwork of African American craftsmen, and the grave of Homer Plessy, the plaintiff in the notorious 1892 Supreme Court decision, Plessy v. Ferguson that upheld the separate but equal law in the South.

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 Photo: Hotel Maison de Ville.

 New Orleans has plenty of modern stories. The Praline Connection, a restaurant business of three generations of African American men, survived Hurricane Katrina. The meals at its Frenchman Street location are genuine New Orleans, and it is right by the jazz destination of Snug Harbor. The universities and museums chronicle many aspects of the African American experience. The Amistad Research Center at Tulane University is currently showing a new art  exhibition, “Rising Up II: The Life and Work of Hale Woodruff” through August 29, 2014 (coming to the NMAAHC on November 7) and recently acquired “The Evelyn Cunningham Papers,” a collection of her writings titled “The Women,” published in the Pittsburgh Courier, as well as other documents concerning her life and work. Cunningham wrote primarily on the African American lifestyle in Harlem, as well as on the lives and work of many famous African Americans.Visit the National World War II Museum, Mardi Gras World (which gives visitors access to a Mardi Gras experience year-round), Musee Conti, a wax museum where you will find Jelly Roll Morton’s likeness and the living, jumping location of the Preservation Jazz Hall. But don’t overlook the Old Mint Museum, which has a superior collection of jazz and Mardi Gras material.

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 Photo: The Praline Connection.

Almost 10 years later, the effort to rebuild the Lower Ninth Ward, a neighborhood destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, progresses slowly.  Find a local guide to show you the new environmentally friendly homes built under actor Brad Pitt’s organization and the Musicians Village, envisioned by New Orleans native musicians, Harry Connick, Jr. and Wynton Marsalis. 

Mississippi

The best way to visit this state, steeped in American history, is to decide on a central gathering place and radiate from there. Because if you don’t have a jumping-off location, such as Grandma’s House, Mississippi can be challenging in its number of important places to see and its geographic spread.

The voices that have risen from the roads of the state are many: Muddy Waters, Leontyne Price, B. B. King, Jerry Butler, Sam Cooke, James Cotton, Charlie Pride, Robert Johnson, Howlin Wolf and Bo Diddley.  As befits a tribute to the blues, The Mississippi Blues Trail is slowly evolving into a must-see destination. I suggest you study which markers might mean the most to you and your family, as there are more than 170 important markers on the trail.

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 Photo: Stop on the Mississippi Blues Trail

For a quick immersion, head to Clarksdale, a crossroads of the Delta region, located 90 minutes from Memphis, Tenn. Several festivals are held every year to salute the blues sound and the singers who are preserving it today. One essential stop is the Delta Blues Museum, which received the 2013 National Medal for Museum and Library Service, the highest national recognition for museum programming. Among the artifacts at the Blues Museum is a reconstruction of the remains of the sharecropper shack where Muddy Waters lived.

Alabama

Alabama needs some careful planning just like Mississippi. The W.C. Handy birthplace, museum and library are located in Florence. The Dexter Avenue-King Memorial Baptist Church and the Civil Rights Memorial are in Montgomery. The Edmund Pettis Bride is in Selma. And the Tuskegee Institute, a National Historic Site, is in Tuskegee.

I’ve selected Birmingham, because its history resonates with many generations, and this year is the 50th anniversary of the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. The church should top your list because there is a shrine for the four girls killed there in a bomb blast in September, 1963.  Also visit the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, an active history organization that will show you what events shaped the lives of your parents and grandparents in the 1950s and 1960s. The institute is home to many galleries that provide a moving, multi-media experience of Birmingham during the Civil Rights Movement. 

Walk over to Kelly-Ingram Park, and imagine what the sounds of the water hoses, the barking dogs and the cries of the innocent citizens sounded like. James Drake, a sculptor has created statues of those events and one of Rev. Martin L. King, Jr., who wrote his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail” in the city’s lockup.

In what is called the Civil Rights District is the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame, located in the Carver Theater. And near the Convention Center is the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame and Museum which honors athletes and coaches, like Paul “Bear” Bryant, Jesse Owens, Hank Aaron, Joe Louis and Willie Mays.

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Photo: STAX Museum

Tennessee

If you are headed to Memphis, where Handy later lived, the Beale Street Historic District will keep you extremely busy and awash in music.  But a must is the National Civil Rights Museum at the-Lorraine Hotel. The museum recently underwent renovations, but reopened on April 4th, and is currently showing exhibits on many aspects of the Civil Rights movement and history, including an exhibit on “The Rise of Jim Crow,” and “For Jobs and Freedom.”  A prime cultural stop is the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, to see videos of Otis Redding and Isaac Hayes’s Cadillac. Another tribute to the sounds of Memphis is the Memphis Rock ‘n Soul Museum, a Smithsonian affiliate now featuring an exhibit called “60 Years of Rock,” taking you from Elvis Presley all the way to the present day sounds of rock music.

By Lonnie G. Bunch III, Founding Director, Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. 

NMAAHC Travelogues: The Great West

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Photo: Yosemite Half Dome

This week we’re sharing our favorite African American historical sites to visit while traveling in the United States. This is the first installment in a four-part series. Read all the contributions to this blog series: part two, part three, and part four.

Summer inevitably brings family vacations and reunions, weddings, graduations. While you’re traveling, I would like you to discover and reconnect with important sites of African American history.

For those heading out West, Yosemite National Park offers beauty but also a wonderful lesson in another chapter of the Buffalo Soldiers achievements. About 500 Buffalo Soldiers served in America’s western parks, building roads and clearing what was the tough wilderness. The men in Yosemite were supervised by Col. Charles Young, the third African American graduate of West Point, and evidence of their work is still visible.

Move down the coast and stop in San Francisco. Downtown is the contemporary-styled Museum of the African Diaspora, which is showing “Gordon Parks Photographs at His Centennial”, and the visionary Martin L. King, Jr. Memorial Waterfall, featuring King’s words. Another destination is the Fillmore Historic Jazz District, centered on the Jazz Heritage Center at 1320 Fillmore. San Francisco has always been a groundbreaking music scene with The Fillmore at 1805 Geary Blvd. hosting every jazz, rock and soul name in music’s archives.

One of the most fascinating characters of San Francisco’s past is Mary Ellen Pleasant (1814-1904). Pleasant was a wealthy businesswoman who was involved in abolitionist and Underground Railroad movements. In the 1860s and 1870s she filed lawsuits which eventually ended segregation in the city’s public transportation. There’s a plaque at Octavia and Bush and a small park, the former site of Pleasant’s 30-room mansion. Don’t skip a trip to the landmark City Lights bookstore to learn more about Pleasant and the city’s rich history.

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Photo: Cartoon of Paul R. Williams by Charles Henry Alston.

Continue your California journey to Los Angeles. Visit the California African American Museum in Exposition Park and see their exhibits on the Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Co. and the work of Cuban photographer Roberto Chile. Take a walking tour around the YMCA, 28th Street, which was built by the renowned architect Paul R. Williams.  Williams was the first African American member of the American Institute of Architects, joining in 1923, and was awarded the NAACP’s Spingarn Medal in 1953. Williams designed many private residences for Hollywood royalty, including Frank Sinatra, Lucille Ball and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. Walk by the Saks Fifth Avenue in Beverly Hills for another look at Williams’ work. He did the interiors of the original building and then the exterior and interior expansion of the structure in 1940 and 1948. That’s a black retailing fact.

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Photo: Daytime photograph of the sign of the closed Moulin Rouge hotel & casino. Credit: Bentai en Wikipedia.

Moving inland, Las Vegas, Nev. has plenty of attractions for the young and old. Sadly, the city has a scarred history in the treatment of black entertainers and workers. The city was tightly segregated.  However in 1955 the Moulin Rouge, the first interracial hotel and casino opened. The great boxer Joe Louis was an investor.

The club attracted the black and white celebrities of the day.  After its brief heyday, the building remained for many years and was the place where an agreement was reached in 1960 to end segregation in the city’s casinos. Its famous electric sign is now housed at The Neon Museum, a quirky attraction in Vegas. As an unexpected bonus, the Museum also has a tribute to architect Paul Williams, who had several projects in Vegas.

By Lonnie G. Bunch III, Founding Director, Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.

The Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) has acquired the only known images of Martin Luther King, Jr. at the Chicago Freedom Movement. The movement protested unfair housing practices in Chicago and the event was photographed by Bernard Kleina. 
Learn more about this collection. Some photos will also appear in the upcoming NMAAHC photo book, Through the African American Lens: Double Exposure. 
Collection of the National Museum of African American History & Culture, Gift of Bernard J. Kleina and Susan Keleher Kleina, © Bernard J. Kleina.
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The Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) has acquired the only known images of Martin Luther King, Jr. at the Chicago Freedom Movement. The movement protested unfair housing practices in Chicago and the event was photographed by Bernard Kleina. 
Learn more about this collection. Some photos will also appear in the upcoming NMAAHC photo book, Through the African American Lens: Double Exposure. 
Collection of the National Museum of African American History & Culture, Gift of Bernard J. Kleina and Susan Keleher Kleina, © Bernard J. Kleina.
Zoom
Info
The Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) has acquired the only known images of Martin Luther King, Jr. at the Chicago Freedom Movement. The movement protested unfair housing practices in Chicago and the event was photographed by Bernard Kleina. 
Learn more about this collection. Some photos will also appear in the upcoming NMAAHC photo book, Through the African American Lens: Double Exposure. 
Collection of the National Museum of African American History & Culture, Gift of Bernard J. Kleina and Susan Keleher Kleina, © Bernard J. Kleina.
Zoom
Info
The Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) has acquired the only known images of Martin Luther King, Jr. at the Chicago Freedom Movement. The movement protested unfair housing practices in Chicago and the event was photographed by Bernard Kleina. 
Learn more about this collection. Some photos will also appear in the upcoming NMAAHC photo book, Through the African American Lens: Double Exposure. 
Collection of the National Museum of African American History & Culture, Gift of Bernard J. Kleina and Susan Keleher Kleina, © Bernard J. Kleina.
Zoom
Info

The Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) has acquired the only known images of Martin Luther King, Jr. at the Chicago Freedom Movement. The movement protested unfair housing practices in Chicago and the event was photographed by Bernard Kleina. 

Learn more about this collection. Some photos will also appear in the upcoming NMAAHC photo book, Through the African American Lens: Double Exposure. 

Collection of the National Museum of African American History & Culture, Gift of Bernard J. Kleina and Susan Keleher Kleina, © Bernard J. Kleina.

Director Tate Taylor and Actor Chadwick Boseman Visit NMAAHC

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Photo: NMAAHC music and performing arts curator Dwan R., Director Tate Taylor, and actor Chadwick Boseman standing next to a suit and cape owned by James Brown.

Last week, actor Chadwick Boseman and Tate Taylor of the James Brown biopic, Get On Up, stopped by Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) Washington, D.C. office to view objects from our 35-item James Brown collection. 

Boseman and Taylor were in town to host a screening of Get On Up at Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.The event, co-sponsored by NMAAHC, was followed by a discussion with Dwan R., curator of music and performing arts for NMAAHC. Th trio discussed Brown’s life and legacy, and the making of Get On Up, to a sold out crowd at the Warner Bros. Theater.  

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Photo: Pair of loafers worn and autographed by James Brown. Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.

The film is based on the incredible life story of the Godfather of Soul, and gave attendees an exclusive look into the music, moves, and moods of Brown — considered one of the most influential figures of the 20th century. 

During their office visit Boseman and Taylor were given an intimate look at highlights from the collection including: a pair of loafers autographed by Brown, a photo of Brown on a Cadillac, a red suit and cape owned by Brown, and a 1969 Brown concert poster from Florida A&M University in Tallahassee.

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Photo: Selected items from the James Brown Collection.

Many of these items will be on display in permanent exhibitions when the museum opens in late 2015 or early 2016.

Get On Up opens in theaters nationwide on August 1st, 2014. 

By Lanae S., Digital Content Specialist, Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. 

Remembering Mississippi’s Freedom Summer of 1964

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Image: Voter Registration at a Beauty Shop, Mississippi, Charles Moore, Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture.

At a recent event at the Library of Congress introducing the online component of the Civil Rights History Project, civil rights veterans gathered to remember Freedom Summer of 1964. They were Robert Parris Moses, the director of SNCC’s Mississippi Project and later founder of The Algebra Project, Charlie E. Cobb, Jr. a field secretary of SNCC, international journalist and a lecturer at Brown University, and Dorie Ladner and Joyce Ann Ladner, sisters born in Mississippi who had deep involvement with civil rights groups in the South.  Fifty years have passed. They have lived varied lives, but have never forgotten they had a purpose to make life better for everyone. These voices and many more are part of the Civil Rights History Project, a collection initiated through congressional law, by the Library of Congress and the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

“I’m stepping across that line. I want to change Mississippi.”

—Dorie Ladner on why she participated in Freedom Summer

As I listened to veterans of the Mississippi Freedom Summer of 1964 recall that horrific time, I renewed my admiration for them and all of their compatriots who had fought so hard and risked so much for freedom and human rights.

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Image: Voting rights advocate, Fannie Lou Hamer, is shown picketing in front of the Forrest County Courthouse. Later, Hamer’s group, the Mississippi Freedom Party, would challenge the official delegation at the 1964 Democratic Convention.Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

What was almost miraculous to me was that so many survivors were alive to tell their stories. And what was equally revealing was that these survivors not only looked back with a firm sense of personal accomplishment but also were emphatic that the fights of the 1960s were only one season in America’s long struggle with racial justice. I was thinking about those young lives, and how the National Museum of African American History and Culture must now make sure that the ordinary heroes of the Freedom Movement have names and that their deeds are remembered.  Names such as those who lost their lives in the pursuit of freedom and justice in the tragic season of the murders of Medgar Evers, Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney, Jimmy Jackson,  and the four young girls in Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church. At one point, as she and her fellow panelists recounted these wrenching losses, Joyce Ladner began to cry. She remarked that it had taken her 60 years to let herself do so. The sorrow she and her fellow activists endured has never really retreated, no matter how gratifying the journey that followed.  I thought about how those teenagers dealt with the deaths of mentors and friends—the people who risked their lives and lost their lives.   

I thought about my own family. My Washington home, as my Atlanta home, centered on the civil rights movement and was a whirlwind of activity. My father, M. Carl Holman, had mentored so many of the activists in Atlanta and had just joined the U.S. Civil Rights Commission. The protégés of “Uncle Carl” arrived at our home, looking for advice and strategy from Dad, a breather from the unknowns of Sunflower County, and good cooking from my mother, Mariella.  I think Charlie Cobb, who had inherited the principles of being “a race man” from his minister father, summed it up when he talked about traditions practiced by the entire civil rights family. The conversation of the day, even at the breakfast table, was what we can do about equality for black folks.image

Image: Voter Registration at a Kitchen Table, Mississippi, Charles Moore, Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.

The speakers recalled what the federal government and sympathetic whites did to help protect the freedom fighters.  Someone described Marian Wright saying at one point “I need a phone, I need a phone. I need to call the Attorney General.” I started thinking about supporters such as John Doar, Assistant Attorney for Civil Rights, Eugene Patterson, executive editor of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Ralph McGill, editor and publisher of The Atlanta Constitution and many others who were  critical bulwarks, committed to supporting these teenagers, young adults and older mentors in a life and death struggle for human rights. 

I will especially remember from that afternoon the wisdom of Bob Moses, who spoke of “constitutional people” versus “constitutional property” and how the 14th and 15th Amendments are still being wrestled with. Bob said, “We are a country that lurches. Will we figure out how to lurch forward and expand the reach of the preamble?” It is an unfinished task, even after a journey of three centuries of lurching.

About the Freedom Summer:

The nation is looking back on this, the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer, also known as the Mississippi Summer Project, a campaign launched in June of 1964 to register as many African American voters as possible in the state with the lowest black voter registration in the country – fewer than seven percent of Mississippi’s black, voting age residents were considered eligible to vote.

Volunteers organized by CORE, SNCC, COFO and the NAACP gathered in Mississippi by the thousands.  They and the work they were doing were met with sharp resistance … drive-by shootings, beatings, arson, unwarranted arrests.

Over the course of a ten-week period, 37 churches and 30 African American homes and businesses were either bombed or burned.  No one is sure how many voting rights workers were killed.  Among the dead were James Chaney, a black CORE worker from Mississippi along with CORE organizer Michael Schwerner and summer volunteer Andrew Goodman, two Jewish civil rights workers from New York.  They disappeared on June 21, 1964; nearly two months later, on August 4, their bodies were found beneath an earthen dam.  During an FBI investigation ordered by U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, the bodies of eight other black men were found.

By Kinshasha Holman Conwill, Deputy Director, Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

The Complexities of Independence Day for African Americans

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Image: On parade, the 41st Engineers at Ft. Bragg, NC in color guard ceremony. N.D. 208-NP-4HHH-2. National Archives. 

African Americans have a long and complicated history with Independence Day. Early in our nation’s history, as white Americans celebrated their freedom from the British Crown, millions of African Americans were still enslaved in the United States.

On July 5, 1852, Frederick Douglass gave a keynote address at an Independence Day celebration and asked “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”

He first addressed the crowd by encouraging them to think about the day’s hypocrisy:

“Fellow citizens, pardon me, and allow me to ask, why am I called upon to speak here today? What have I or those I represent to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us? And am I, therefore, called upon to bring our humble offering to the national altar, and to confess the benefits, and express devout gratitude for the blessings resulting from your independence to us?”

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Image: Frederick Douglas, 1866, Collection of the New-York Historical Society.

He continued with this charge:  

"This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn … What to the American slave is your Fourth of July? … a day that reveals to him more than all other days of the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him your celebration is a sham … your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mock; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings … hypocrisy — a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages."

The response to Douglass’ speech was mixed and many people were angered or admired his courage.

Certainly much has changed since Douglas’ speech. Yet the opportunity to remember and examine the important impact of America’s racial history is very much a part of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Douglass’ words remind us that many have struggled to ensure that the promise of liberty be applied equally to all Americans — regardless of race, gender or ethnicity. And that the struggle for equality is never over.

Today as we celebrate the Fourth of July, let us remember those, like Frederick Douglass, who fought and sacrificed to help America live up to its ideals of equality, fair play and justice for all.

You can view the full text of Douglass’ speech here: http://s.si.edu/1mXaqg8

Post compiled by Lanae S., Digital Content Specialist, Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. 

Images: Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.
To NMAAHC Visitors:
Thank you for all of your hard work on behalf of the museum. Please take a moment to commemorate and celebrate the fact that 50 years ago today Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This act destroyed the legal and political legitimacy of Jim Crow segregation and helped to transform America.
Every time you check into a hotel or sit down in a restaurant and see a diverse array of people present, remember that prior to the Civil Rights Act this kind of diversity was not only unusual but it was against the law in many states. We should recall that this moment occurred because thousands of Americans marched, protested and experienced unimaginable violence in order to force America to live up to its stated ideals of equality and justice, and that Lyndon Johnson, responding to this pressure, used his considerable legislative and political skills to push this law through the House and the Senate.
We are a better country because of this law and yet there is so much more to accomplish to fulfill Dr. king’s dream. It is our job as a museum to help people remember and to use those memories to push and prod to make America better.
- Lonnie G. Bunch, Founding Director, Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture
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Images: Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.

To NMAAHC Visitors:

Thank you for all of your hard work on behalf of the museum. Please take a moment to commemorate and celebrate the fact that 50 years ago today Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This act destroyed the legal and political legitimacy of Jim Crow segregation and helped to transform America.

Every time you check into a hotel or sit down in a restaurant and see a diverse array of people present, remember that prior to the Civil Rights Act this kind of diversity was not only unusual but it was against the law in many states. We should recall that this moment occurred because thousands of Americans marched, protested and experienced unimaginable violence in order to force America to live up to its stated ideals of equality and justice, and that Lyndon Johnson, responding to this pressure, used his considerable legislative and political skills to push this law through the House and the Senate.

We are a better country because of this law and yet there is so much more to accomplish to fulfill Dr. king’s dream. It is our job as a museum to help people remember and to use those memories to push and prod to make America better.

- Lonnie G. Bunch, Founding Director, Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

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