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Museum Will Bring African American -- Make That 'American' -- History to National Mall

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DAVIDSON, N.C. -- Black history has stood separate and unequal, relegated to one month of recognition -- and there's a reason for that. For too long, the contributions of minorities didn't make it into the history books. So February was the mid-winter corrective.

Come Nov. 18, 2015, if all goes well, the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture will take an accounting of that history to the National Mall, alongside the Washington Monument and across from the National Museum of American History. It is a fitting place.

The unfinished journey -- which at every step reflects the contradiction between America's democratic promise and its problematic past -- won't proceed without controversy. It's a fact that doesn't bother the museum's founding director, Lonnie G. Bunch. "Our job is not to manage controversy, but to embrace it," he said.

"The greatest strength of America is confronting its past, and learning where it can grow," Bunch told me after a recent presentation at Davidson College. But the historian, author, curator and educator -- who has been working on the project since 2005 -- realizes not everyone would agree or nod along with the rhetorical question he asks in the museum's vision statement: "If one wants to explore the changing definitions of American citizenship, liberty, and equality, where better than through the black experience?"

One note Bunch received instead insisted that "America's greatest strength is its ability to forget." Some want the museum to follow the lead of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and confront past injustices and cruelties head-on. Others have just one request: "Please, don't talk about slavery."

How do you negotiate conflicting views of American history? "What stories do you tell," is what he has to decide, Bunch said, "and what stories do you leave out?" The museum will offerl human stories, on a grand scale. Bunch envisions a three-part narrative, devoted to history, culture and the regionalism that provided different paths for African Americans. It will draw on the expertise of a wide range of scholars and will take into account the personal tales -- the folk history -- he hears as he travels the country.

Bunch may not worry about controversy, but he has to manage all those memories -- always a tricky task -- and Congress, as well. While some people on Capitol Hill are "wonderful," he said, "others are (he pauses here) less than wonderful." That's when it helps to have allies such as Laura Bush in your corner and on your advisory board. Bunch was appointed by President George W. Bush to the Commission for the Preservation of the White House in 2002, and the former first lady, he said, "helps me reach out." The star power of board member Oprah Winfrey doesn't hurt, either.

The goal is "to build a museum that's worthy of the rich history, the struggle that's at the heart of the African-American experience," but also the laughter and the hope, Bunch said.

In a proposed 2012 federal budget, $125 million of funding for the Smithsonian is dedicated toward construction of the $500 million museum. Half of the fundraising is from the private side and Bunch said that effort is on track.

While the actual building is still to come, the museum has a website and sponsors exhibitions that both tour and alight at its gallery at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. At "Save Our African American Treasures" events across the country, workshop participants present historical family items they've tucked away and receive professional advice on how to identify and preserve them.

Bunch reviews pieces the museum may want to acquire, such as a picture of abolitionist Harriett Tubman, shown wrapped in a shawl given to her by Queen Victoria -- and the precious find of the shawl itself.

In Chattanooga, Tenn., he inspected a Jim Crow railroad car from 1929, with rows of elegant seats and a lavish bathroom in the section reserved for whites, separated by a curtain in the back from the hard benches for "coloreds." The reality of segregation was "not about location," Bunch said. It was a "100-year attack on the psyche of African Americans."

A pillowcase seemed only that until he looked at the stitched message from a mother about to be sold and shipped away. It was to her daughter and said the pillowcase held a dress -- and "all my love."

"The power of the authentic" is how Bunch describes the feeling he wants the museum to convey.

As the National Museum of American History's associate director for curatorial affairs, Bunch acquired the lunch counter from a Greensboro, N.C., F.W. Woolworth store, where four young North Carolina A&T State University students staged a sit-in and launched a movement on Feb. 1, 1960. It was, he said, an "exhilarating" moment.

When he took on his latest project, Bunch said he went from wondering if anybody could do this "to thinking my whole career has led me to this," he said.

As he said in 2005 when explaining the vitality, relevance and importance of African-American history: "It is a mirror that challenges us to be better, and to work to make our community and country better. But it is also a mirror that allows us to see our commonalities. It is a mirror that allows us to celebrate and to revel, but also demands that we all struggle, that we all continue to 'fight the good fight.' "

Click here to follow Mary C. Curtis on Twitter.
Filed Under: Race Issues, Woman Up, Culture

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Why is it that Black Americans want to keep the black-white disagreements at the center of media attention? Does this really help meld our nation into one populace? When will any recognition of obama come as he is also 50% white; if his white parentage had not schooled him, where would he be? He certainly did not get anything to brag about from his father. He spends taxpayers money on his 'dates; his wife spends our money on her numerous employees; on and on and on they keep spending our money and breaking the backs of ALL Americans. Do we like this Change?

February 20 2011 at 10:32 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to surfingma's comment

Wow, you seriously sound like someone who thinks the President and his wife are horrible people? "THEY" spend the taxpayers money? You make it sound like they are the only ones spending the governments money. Do you realize how petty you sound? That there are senators, congressmen, representatives, civil employees, military personnel, IRS, CIA, FBI, etc. who are the ones making the decisions on how our money is being spent? Not the President and the first Lady!!! Amazing!

February 20 2011 at 10:39 PM Report abuse -3 rate up rate down Reply

This causes far more questions for me than answers. Half of the $500M is private? How much is Ms. Winfrey helping to raise from others, and how much is she putting in herself? We all know she could fund the whole thing with barely a hiccup - it's only half of one of her billions. NOT that I want her to!! This is a National Museum, not The "O" Store. Editorial control HAS to be diversified. Perfect impartiality is impossible, but one-woman control would be far worse. And as Sen. Sam Ervin said in the 70's, "Whose bread I eat, his song I sing."

February 20 2011 at 9:59 PM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down Reply

I understand and applaud the contributions made to AMERICAN history by those of African heritage, however I agree with a comment made by Morgan Freeman-that "Black History is American History." We need to honor the contributions made to our country's history, however, is another museum really needed? Why not make a special wing in the existing museum and keep a permanent exhibit, have special programs created to promote it? As the title of this article says...Musuem Will Bring African American--Make That "AMERICAN" History to National Mall.

February 20 2011 at 8:53 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

I applaud Ms. Curtis's nod to our unity.

February 20 2011 at 7:51 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

It is about time this nation built a museum honoring and acknowledging all the great contributions made by African Americans. This nation would not be the greatest country without all the contributions and sacrifices of African Americans. Of course a shining example of this is our great president President OBAMA, who will go down in history as the greatest president this country has ever had who saved this country.

February 20 2011 at 6:24 PM Report abuse -8 rate up rate down Reply

Whoppi Goldberg said it best, "Don't call me an African American, I'm an American, I've been to Africa"!

February 20 2011 at 6:06 PM Report abuse +6 rate up rate down Reply

I am 100% home grown American male just like George Bush.I have Irish,African,English and Native ancestors yet you choose to call me An African American.That is why this country cannot come together and prosper.We have far too many labels to put on everyone.History is history and as such should be composed of all contributions made by all citizens of a country.We can all stand together or fall down as individual groups.The choice is ours.

February 20 2011 at 6:05 PM Report abuse +4 rate up rate down Reply

I do believe we as Americans need this museum. However, I do not believe black Americans need to be called African Americans as 98% of black Americans have not been within 3000 miles of Africa in their lifetime. We are all Americans, I am a white American, not a European American. Although I have been to Europe and lived there for a couple of years thanks to our US Army.

February 20 2011 at 4:42 PM Report abuse +7 rate up rate down Reply

I personally consider myself an American not Irish American.I believe these tags keep us separated as a nation.Could you imagine what would happen if someone wanted to make a white American museum?I just believe it is American History and nothing else.Blacks have played an integral part in that history.Lets stop the labels and come together as on nation under GOD as it says in the pledge of allegiance.

February 20 2011 at 2:00 PM Report abuse +15 rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to hedgedevil's comment

Hedgedevil, I join you in that effort. If only in the news and other media outlets would abide by this edict, we might make some headway towards a color blind society. At the present time, we have far to much division and we don't listen to each other. Some of our politicians aren't helping either. In fact, a very small segment of our Congressional leaders are racist in their thinking, and yet some are totally ignorant of the civil rights era. Some went to law school and couldn't pass the bar exam, yet they had a penchant for politicing, but doing a very poor job of it. I don't have to identify you by name, because you already know who you are. Again, hedgedevil, I agree with you...

February 20 2011 at 4:41 PM Report abuse +5 rate up rate down Reply

I think a fully "color-blind" society is impossible. A fully polarized society, as we used to have, is untenable. I am an American, but I see no reason to ignore that my ancestors came from Sweden, Norway and Germany. We will never be able to sigh and say, "Oh, well, that's over." Civilized living requires constant, consistent day-to-day effort by all concerned. We should remember the Russian proverb cited by Solzhenitsyn about Russia's troubles: "Dwell on the past and you'll lose an eye. Forget the past and you'll lose both eyes."

February 20 2011 at 10:11 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

A museum honoring and acknowledging all the great contributions made by African Americans is such a blessing AND a great and wonderful thing. This nation would not be the greatest country in the world without all the contributions and sacrifices of African Americans

February 20 2011 at 12:01 PM Report abuse -14 rate up rate down Reply

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