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National Museum of African-American History and Culture: Part 3

Megan Pinckney | 2/16/2017, 1:01 p.m.
Just like our history, the National Museum of African American History and Culture is much more than “just slavery.”
An exhibit inside of the National Museum of African-American History and Culture Megan Pinckney Photo

Just like our history, the National Museum of African American History and Culture is much more than “just slavery.” Sure, they have dedicated an entire level to the initial voyages of the Middle Passage and those formative decades right after (and rightfully so), but the museum also offers an in-depth look at our people and their lives once a version of freedom was offered to them.

After weaving your way through slavery memorabilia, artifacts and things such as a list of people who were sold and for exactly how much, you’ll make your way up the ramp to “The Era of Segregation,” where you are greeted by a gigantic photo from an Emancipation Day parade in 1905. The countenance of the people in the photo is not what you would expect of those who have just gained their freedom. Instead, they are looks of concern and even confusion, for most freed slaves did not know what to expect of these new rights. This photo is the perfect segue to the following exhibits, which reflect on how, even with that freedom, African-Americans were still viewed and treated as less than any other group of Americans.

That idea is introduced through a life-size example of the home many freed slaves and their families lived in. Unlike the homes of whites all across the country, these homes were small, usually consisting of only one room, and were made of wood with very little to protect residents from the elements—very reminiscent of the cabins they lived in as slaves. The same idea of inequality is repeated through the history of the Tuskegee Airmen, the collection of “Whites Only” signs and the highly popular interactive lunch counter sit-in.

Museum curators felt that the lunch counter sit-in would be more educational if visitors were able to experience it instead of just witnessing it, which is precisely why they chose to make the counter interactive. When visitors put on the headphones provided, and place their hands on the counter, they hear what sounds like the person next to them worried about how long the two of you have been sitting there before the sounds of an angry mob entering take over. Depending on “how long you can last,” you’ll hear what sounds like the mob dragging your friend beside you away while they continue to yell obscene phrases in your ears. At some point the table and chair will even vibrate, giving you a sense of physical distress as if people who don’t feel that you belong there are tormenting you. This exhibit was designed to reflect the torment four African-American college students endured while trying to order lunch at Woolworth in Greensboro, N.C. in 1960.

Other segregation exhibits include the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, the role women played during the Civil Rights Movement and even simple inhumane practices such as a hospital clinic sign that listed the only times they would treat colored people. However, the most profound exhibit during this era is unequivocally that of Emmett Till.