American History Through an African American Lens

Smithsonian's 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

50 Years Later: Celebrating the Civil Rights Act of 1964 

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Image: Panel Session, LBJ Library photo by David Hume Kennerly.

Nearly 400 years after the first enslaved Africans were brought to North America, and 100 years after President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, officially ending segregation in the United States of America. And on April 9th, 2014, 50 years after Johnson’s signing, some of the most influential leaders, participants and supporters of the Civil Rights Movement and Act of 1964 gathered at the LBJ Presidential Library in Austin, TX to pay tribute to the courage and perseverance of those involved in the Civil Rights Movement.

Lonnie Bunch, director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, joined President Barack Obama, former presidents Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush, and others to honor the movement, the change it induced and the many unknown heroes and heroines who fought for equal rights.

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Image: NMAAHC Founding Director Lonnie G. Bunch III, LBJ Library photo by Lauren Gerson. 

Bunch moderated the “Heroes of the Civil Rights Movement:  Views from the Front Line” discussion. The panelists included, Julian Bond, former chairman of the NAACP and current professor of Civil Rights History at American University, Rep. John Lewis, D-GA – who was referred to as the “Conscience of Congress” by Bernice A. King, daughter of the late Martin Luther King, Jr. in her opening remarks – and Andrew Young, a former congressman and the first African American Ambassador to the United Nations. Bunch introduced the panelists saying “these three extraordinary men are true heroes … [they] transformed America … through [their] courage, personal sacrifice, [and] leadership. They made America better.”

The discussion explored the men’s influential work throughout the Civil Rights Movement, as well as their opinions about what actions are needed to improve the United States today. John Lewis suggested that there is more to be done to involve more people in politics, arguing that “there are still forces … that make it harder for the average person to participate.”  

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Image: Rep. John Lewis, D-GA and Lonnie G. Bunch III,  LBJ Library photo by David Hume Kennerly.

Not only did the Summit focus on the Civil Rights Movement and its aftermath, the panelists also discussed a broad range of topics including gay marriage, immigration policy, music, sports, social justice and education. Figures from different communities came together to voice opinions and personal experiences, including Julian Castro, the Mayor of San Antonio, Mavis Staples, Grammy Award-winning singer and civil rights activist, Bill Russell, Basketball Hall of Famer who spoke at the March on Washington in 1963, and Bill Powers, the President of The University of Texas at Austin.

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Image: Panel session, LBJ Library photo by David Hume Kennerly.

Obama, in his closing remarks summarized the legacy of the Johnson administration, observing that Johnson “believed that together we can build an America that is more fair, more equal and more free than the one we inherited. He believed we make our own destiny. And in part because of him, we must believe it as well.” 

You can view the discussion in its entirety here.

Written by Nina L., Public Affairs Intern, National Museum of African American History and Culture. 

NMAAHC Celebrates African American Music Appreciation Month

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Photo: James Brown, Mid-South Coliseum, Memphis, TN., Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Founded in 1979 by Dyana Williams, Kenny Gamble, and Ed Wright, African American Music Appreciation Month is a month-long celebration dedicated to highlighting the achievements of African Americans to music. The celebration was formally recognized by the United States in a reception hosted by President Jimmy Carter on June 7th, 1979.

We highlight some of our favorite African American musicians found in our collections below.

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Photo: Lionel Hampton, The Hippodrome, Memphis, TN, Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.

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Photo: Prince, Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, © Robert Whitman.

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Photo: Isaac Hayes in His Office at Stax Records, Memphis, Tennessee, Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, © Ernest C. Withers, Courtesy of the Withers Family Trust.

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Photo: Aretha Franklin, SCLC convention, Club Paradise, Memphis, TN, Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.

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Photo: The Two Kings, Elvis Presley with B.B. King at WDIA Goodwill Review, Memphis, TN. Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Click here to view more music related items in NMAAHC’s collections.

LGBT African Americans of the Harlem Renaissance

In the 1920’s Harlem was a bustling neighborhood and hubspot for African American artistic excellence. It was home to writers, philosophers, actors, musicians, and the like who all helped contribute to an era of great growth for African American art, literature, and culture.

During this time, Harlem was often welcoming for LGBT people and they formed a community, hanging out at famous spots like Connie’s Inn and the lavish parties held in the home of A’Lelia Walker. 

In celebration of Pride Month this Five You Should Know post identifies black cultural icons of the Harlem Renaissance who identified as LGBT, both publicly and privately. 

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James Baldwin

A literary genius, James Baldwin explored the themes of race, sexuality, and class in his writing. A staunch supporter of the Civil Rights Movement, Baldwin moved abroad in his early twenties to distance himself from American prejudice and would spend most of his life living away from the United States. One of his most famous works, “The Fire Next Time” is still used to illustrate and facilitate discussion around race today.

A celebrated writer and activist, Baldwin also maintained close relationships with other literary heavyweights like Toni Morrison, Richard Wright, and Maya Angelou.

More on Baldwin’s life and legacy in this New York Times Obituary.

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Bessie Smith

Bessie Smith started her blues career singing on the Theatre Owners Booking Association (TOBA) circuit that catered to African American audiences and performers. Her powerful voice caught the attention of Clarence Williams, a popular composer during the 1920s. Smith recorded her first single, “Down-hearted Blues” with Williams and became the most successful vaudeville blues singer of her time. She would go on to record with other jazz instrumentalists  including: Louis Armstrong, Charlie Green, Joe Smith, Tommy Ladnier, and James P. Johnson.

Smith along with Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, and Gladys Bentley defied the common gender stereotypes of the times and they often sang lyrics hinting at their love for other women, although Bentley is the only one to have publicly confirmed her sexuality.

Listen to Smith’s voice.

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Mabel Hampton

Mabel Hampton was a writer, activist, and former dancer. She moved to New York City in her early twenties and first worked as a domestic.

Hampton was heavily involved in theater, dancing in cabarets like the Garden of Joy and even appeared in several all-black productions at the Lafayette Theater in Harlem. In the early 1920’s Hampton was arrested on trumped up prostitution charges and was incarcerated at Bedford Hills Reform School for Women. 

Listen as Hampton discusses being “in the life” during the 1920’s in Harlem.

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Richard Bruce Nugent

Richard Bruce Nugent was born and raised in Washington, DC to a family in DC’s high black society. He eventually met and befriend Langston Hughes at Georgia Douglas Johnson’s famous artistic salon and the two would go on to publish, Fire!!, a black revolutionary literary magazine. They later became prominent members of the Harlem Renaissance scene. Since Nugent was openly gay, he would draw and write under the pseudonym “Richard Bruce” to avoid igniting the disapproval of his family, 

His most famous work, “Smoke, Lilies and Jade,” was the first published African American literary work to feature a prominent gay theme. 

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Gladys Bentley

Gladys Bentley began her blues career singing at rent parties and buffet flats in Harlem, New York. As her popularity grew, she began performing at Harry Hansberry’s Clam House, a notorious speakeasy in “Jungle Alley” that was frequented by LGBT people during the 1920s.

Openly lesbian, Bentley wore men’s formal wear during many of her performances and her powerful voice was backed by men dressed in drag. She would later denounce her lesbianism during the McCarthy era in a now famous piece published in Ebony Magazine entitled “I Am Woman Again.” 

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

Photo:  Juneteenth celebration in Texas, 1900. 
Juneteenth is the oldest known celebration commemorating the ending of slavery in the United States. On June 19th, 1865, following the end of the Civil War, Union General Gordon Grander issued General Order No. 3 to free the remaining enslaved people in the United States  — two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued by President Abraham Lincoln.
The order said: "The people of Texas are informed that in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and free laborer."

Juneteenth celebrations are held to reflect, celebrate, and remember the continued contributions of African Americans to the United States.
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Photo:  Juneteenth celebration in Texas, 1900. 

Juneteenth is the oldest known celebration commemorating the ending of slavery in the United States. On June 19th, 1865, following the end of the Civil War, Union General Gordon Grander issued General Order No. 3 to free the remaining enslaved people in the United States  — two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued by President Abraham Lincoln.

The order said: "The people of Texas are informed that in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and free laborer."

Juneteenth celebrations are held to reflect, celebrate, and remember the continued contributions of African Americans to the United States.

A Tribute to the Legendary Ruby Dee

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Photo: Ruby Dee, 1962 Sept. 25. Carl Van Vechten Collection, Library of Congress. 

When I think about how the African American experience shapes the American character, I easily think of the brilliant life and career of Ruby Dee. We lost her, at age 91, late Wednesday night, creating a heart-breaking vacuum because she gave us so many lessons as an actress and social activist.

Yes, she had a long life. Yet it seems incredible that this petite, determined woman worked in so many arenas covering seven decades. In the theater and on film, she brought to life, the words of Lorraine Hansberry, Athol Fugard, William Shakespeare, Zora Neale Hurston, Maya Angelou and Ossie Davis, her husband, an unforgettable actor and activist, of 56 years.

We are grateful that she was recognized by many during her lifetime. Who can forget “A Raisin in the Sun,” “Buck and the Preacher” and “Do The Right Thing.” As an entertainment pioneer, she made history and helped move history forward. Never one on the sidelines, Dee stood up for, and befriended, Paul Robeson, Martin L. King, Jr. and Malcolm X. She emceed the landmark March on Washington in 1963 and bravely fought for equality in all aspects of American life.

NMAAHC video brochure narrated by Ruby Dee. 

It was only natural that Dee became a champion of the National Museum of African American History and Culture and agreed to narrate our video brochure. She knew the importance of history, as a witness and participant, and she understood our mission to pass on all aspects of our story to future generations.

In her melodic enunciation, she spoke of “the black past is a wonderful but unforgiving mirror.” She preached about the challenge to always “fight the good fight.”

In addition to her flawless acting, her grace, insight and courage are the gifts she leaves us. We will always have her voice urging us to treat everyone right, and not be left out of the American story.

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

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