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.
That exhibit, which consistently has a line that extends hundreds of feet, is worth the wait and must be seen. It is the only exhibit in the entire museum that does not allow photography, and once you enter you understand why. The room feels sacred, as it is meant to represent the inside of the church during Till’s funeral. Speakers created a somber atmosphere by playing the sounds of a gospel choir singing the same hymns sung the day he was buried, as well as screams of despair from funeral goers. Images of the funeral are displayed both big and small around the room, and a photo of the church’s altar on the day of the funeral extends from floor to ceiling behind the original casket Till was buried in. His body was exhumed for an autopsy in 2005 and reburied
in a different casket.
On the walls you’ll find quotes by various people, including Rosa Parks, and this one from his mother, Mamie Till: “Two months ago I had a nice apartment in Chicago. I had a good job. I had a son. When something happened to the Negroes in the South I said ‘That’s their business, not mine.’ Now I know how wrong I was. The murder of my son has shown me that what happens to any of us, anywhere in the world, had better be the business of us all.”
It is impossible to leave the room without goosebumps, a feeling of empathy for this family and a clearer understanding of how terrible race relations truly were at that time in our country’s history.
What I appreciate the most about the museum is its dedication and commitment to telling the unvarnished truth of African-American history. One remarkable way they are doing that is through the handful of recording booths they have installed throughout the slavery and segregation eras. There, visitors have the opportunity to sit down and record memories and stories passed on to them from the generations before. The museum hopes this effort will not only give their curators a new perspective, a new voice and new insight into historical events, but also create a deeper connection, allowing visitors to feel like this place is “their” history and their museum.
Megan Pinckney (@shadesofpinck) is a retired beauty queen turned lifestyle blogger who loves exploring the world and writing about it.