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Guest Host: Michel Martin
More than a hundred years ago, African American veterans of The Civil War proposed a museum on the National Mall. A century later, the National Museum of African American History and Culture will open its doors with nearly 40,000 objects that will help us explore the country’s complicated past, from Emmett Till’s coffin to a pair of slave shackles; from Carl Lewis’ Olympic medals to Michael Jackson’s fedora. It comes as the sun sets on the second term of the country’s first black president—and at a time when racial tensions are flaring. The museum’s challenging task ahead: to celebrate black history and culture without glossing over a painful legacy of slavery and oppression, or the racism of today; to say to Americans of all races: This is your story, too.
- Kinshasha Holman Conwill Deputy director, National Museum of African American History and Culture
- Michele Norris Founding director, The Race Card Project; former host, NPR's All Things Considered. She is the author of "The Grace of Silence."
- Eve Ewing Writer, visual artist and sociologist specializing in racism, inequality, and public education, based at the University of Chicago
- Eric Foner DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University, specializing in the Civil War and Reconstruction, slavery and 19th-century America; former president, American Historical Association. He won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for history for his book, “The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery.”
MS. MICHEL MARTINThank you so much for joining us. I'm Michel Martin of NPR sitting in for Diane Rehm. A century after it was first proposed, 13 years after it was approved by Congress, the National Museum of African American History and Culture is getting ready to open its doors. It will offer a sweeping, many would say, unprecedented look at African American history and culture from slavery to the civil rights era and the Black Lives Matter Movement of today.
MS. MICHEL MARTINIt features people that you know by their first names and people you would never have heard of. The creators and supporters of the project want to be very clear. This is a museum that focuses on the African American experience, but it speaks to all races and, indeed, to the world. This hour, we're going to hear more about what it took to bring this project to fruition and what it means.
MS. MICHEL MARTINJoining us are Kinshasha Holman Conwell, deputy director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, Michele Norris, my colleague, former host of NPR's "All Things Considered," founding director of "The Race Card Project." She wrote about the museum for the October issue of National Geographic. They're here with me in studio. By phone, Eve Ewing, a writer and sociologist based at the University of Chicago.
MS. MICHEL MARTINAnd Eric Foner, Dewitt Clinton professor of history at Columbia University. I'm glad to have you all with us. Thank you all so much for joining us.
MS. MICHELE NORRISSo good to be here.
MS. KINSHASHA HOLMAN CONWILLThank you.
MS. EVE EWINGHello.
MARTINSo Kinshasha, I'm going to start with you. I don't need you to take us through 100 years of history here, but just tell us about how it took 100 years to get this museum.
CONWILLI think it took 100 years, Michel, because anything having to do with race in America takes a long time. And the ebbs and flows of interest in black people, the moments of the collision of historic ideas and political figures takes time. But when you look at the long view, I think it's a narrative of enduring belief and hope.
MARTINI understand that a group of African American veterans of the Civil War first proposed this museum and memorial in Washington in 1915. In 1929, President Calvin Coolidge actually signed enabling legislation for a memorial celebrating "the Negros' contributions to the achievements of America." But the Great Depression ended that. How did it get resurrected?
CONWILLThere were various fits and starts over time with different members of government, different individuals. I think it really began to get much more momentum in really the '80s. And I think that there were particular figures who were very important to that effort. There was a guy here named Tom Meck (sp?) , some people who are old enough, like me, know that he had a tour bus company and he really thought, listen, when I take people on The Mall, I don't see this history.
CONWILLAnd then, while John Lewis has been our great champion, I think we always want to remember that Mickey Leland of Texas, before his untimely death, was a real champion of this. And one thing that John Lewis is persevering, and I think that once it became clear that Senator Helms and neither wind nor tide could stop him, others figured we better join John Lewis because he's not giving up.
MARTINI am told that I have in my notes that in some of those early meetings that there were critics who were concerned that this would be a "black museum," which is a little puzzling to me because many museums are focused on particular interests and they are focused on particular people's collections because they happen to have a particular interest. But could you just talk a little bit about that? What was the stated concern and how was it addressed?
CONWILLYou know, D.C.'s a place of competition so the thought is, if you give black people a museum, then other people will want a museum. Latino people will want a museum and ethnic Europeans will want a museum. So that was part of the notion. And even within the black community, there was a notion of, okay, we've got museums all over the country. We've been doing this work forever. Don't have this big juggernaut come into Washington and take away collections and take away that attention.
CONWILLBut I think you'll see, as we talk, that those fears, while natural, have not proved to be founded in what has actually happened.
MARTINWell, tell me about the collections so -- and I'm going to hear about this from Michele on this later, but tell me about the collections. There is something unique about how these collections were acquired. What is it?
CONWILLThat they started from scratch.
MARTINThey started from scratch.
CONWILLAnd that most of them came, Michel, from the generosity of individuals. It's been stunning. And we've said -- Lonnie Bunch, our director, will often say, and I agree, that it seems as if some people were waiting for this museum. You know, so that the gentleman who had the Harriet Tubman collection, Charles Blockson, was waiting for the museum. Carl Lewis and other people that Michele will talk about were waiting because they still had them.
CONWILLIt's like our site had not been built on. Certain things, I think, were meant to be.
MARTINI'm going to keep people in suspense just a few more minutes about some of the tantalizing objects that are in this collection.
CONWILLOkay, it'll be our secret.
MARTINBut I'm going to ask our two scholars here, what is a museum for in this day and age when you can look up anything you want 24 hours a day if you have a computer. Professor Foner, what do you think is a museum for?
MR. ERIC FONERWell, yes, you can look up anything you want. You can Google it. You don't always get good information. But people actually enjoy going to see real objects, three-dimensional objects, the kinds of images and artifacts that are in this museum and in other museums, it has a much different impact on you, seeing things in the flesh, real objects from history, real images from history than just seeing them on your phone or your computer screen.
MR. ERIC FONERAlso, you know, having this museum on The Mall in Washington, which is, you know, a highly desirable spot, that says something about its importance. There are many museums in the country, including museums devoted to one or another aspect of African American history, but having a spot in Washington, near the Washington Monument, near the National Museum of American History is a message about its importance.
MR. ERIC FONERAnd so, you know, yes, people, of course, should look things up online when they can't get to Washington or -- but, you know, these are not mutually exclusive. People enjoy -- millions of people come to Washington to go to these museums, the Smithsonian Museums, for that reason. They don't just want to sit home and look at things on their phone.
MARTINProfessor Ewing, what about you? What do you think a museum is for in this day and age?
EWINGYou know, I had the opportunity to visit the museum last week and one of the most striking things was really the curatorial conversation that's going on and the context around the objects. Many of the items in the museum, some of them are really remarkable and historical, but some of them are really everyday objects, things that we've seen in our own houses. A can of Murray's pomade, a greens pod (sp?). But it's the historical conversation and the context and the work really put in by an incredibly impressive curatorial staff that helps people understand the historical and sociological significance of African American history and culture within the broader context of the United States and the world.
EWINGAnd I will also add that in addition to the educational value for the thousands of people that will visit the museum in person every year, I also hope -- and I've been told by the staff that there's going to be quite an expansive digital collection that’s going to make these objects available as teaching resources for young people and students of all ages around the world. And, again, that curatorial expertise that really puts those things in context, I think, is what sets the museum apart here.
MARTINAll right. I can't sustain the suspense any longer. Michele Norris, you say that the Smithsonian Institution's Museums are where the world comes to learn what it means to be American. Tell us about your experience of walking through the museum for the first time.
NORRISWell, it is so emotional when you walk through that building, but for me, it was emotional just watching it rise out of the ground in that particular location across from the Washington Monument so close to the White House and a museum that is that bold in its architecture, to see it rise out of the ground. And then, to actually go through the museum and see these objects that tell American history in a very personal way. You know, the question that you posed what is a museum for, it's evident in the museum and the way that it is redefining the way we think about museums and the way that we think about history.
NORRISOne of the things that they wanted to do, Kinshasha and Lonnie Bunch, is to change the way people think about African American history, that it's not just an asterisk. It is a key thread through American history and unless you understand that, you really don't fully understand American history. And so sometimes, it's the small things that get to you. For me, it was the slave cabin.
MARTINI'm going to hear -- I'm going to ask you to take us through some of the things that moved you and I do want to sell our listeners. We want to hear from you. We'd like to ask you what you'd like to see in the museum and we'd like to ask you what family treasures you would be willing to part with for a museum like this. Whether you're African American or not, we'd like you to give us a call at 800-433-8850 or you can send us a tweet @drshow.
MARTINYou can see photographs of some of the objects in the new museum on our website. You can find them at drshow.org. Michele, just give us something that when you -- just stopped you in your tracks.
NORRISWell, actually Kinshasha was there. She saw it happen. There's a -- where you rise -- the architecture of the museum is so interesting because you start in the bowels of the museum and you work your way forward and so it's almost like, you know, the (unintelligible) women that's this idea of lifting, you know, while you climb. And you go through this period where you learn about slavery and you learn about how America was wrestling with the notion of freedom and you encounter a slave cabin that's from Edisto Island and you realize, this is where people, at the end of the day, you know, would come and have a little bit of fellowship, would sleep maybe for a few hours and then go back out to the field.
NORRISBut when you come up out of the ramp, you still see the slave cabin, but there's another cabin and it's -- it looks so much like the slave cabin, but this was built by two brothers who were freed man. And it's from Poolesville, Maryland. We're sitting in Washington D.C. right now so this is just a few miles north of where we're sitting. And just that cabin, all the pride that must've gone into that, the fact that it had a loft and a little cook stove. I mean, some -- I walked into that cabin and I thought that there were other things, the coffin, but it was that cabin that just brought me to my knees.
MARTINWe need to take a short break, but when we come back, we will have more of our conversation about the National Museum of African American History and Culture. It opens in Washington D.C. next week. We hope you'll stay with us and we hope you'll think about what treasures you would like to see in a museum. Stay with us.
MARTINWelcome back. I'm Michel Martin, the host of the Saturday and Sunday editions of All Things Considered on NPR. I'm just overwhelmed with emotion here, so eager to get back to our conversation. We're talking about the new National Museum of African American History and Culture. It opens on the National Mall this weekend, it opens to the public. There will be a grand opening ceremony.
MARTINI'm here with Kinshasha Holman Conwill, who is deputy director, Michele Norris is the former host of NPR's "All Things Considered," the founding director of "The Race Card Project" and the author of a wonderful piece in the October issue of National Geographic about the museum, it's called "I, Too, Am America." Also with us by phone from Chicago, Eve Ewing, a writer and sociologist based at the University of Chicago, and from New York, Eric Foner, DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University. And of course I should mention he won a 2011 Pulitzer Prize for history for his book "The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery."
MARTINKinshasha, when you started these collections, we mentioned this earlier, you were starting from scratch. How did you acquire items for this collection? We have to assume that you did not have an enormous budget for this. How did this happen?
CONWILLGenerosity and begging and asking. We also had the brainchild of Lonnie Bunch was save our African American treasures. It's a project that we had, we started in Chicago on a very cold January day and asked people to bring their stuff, you know, bring your picture, bring those items that have been in the drawer, in the attic, in the closet. And we told people how to take care of them, and in some cases, like a white Pullman porter hat, we said, okay, we think we're interested in these.
CONWILLBut we also asked people to think about giving them to their own institutions. But that whole project, which went to numerous -- numerous cities around the country, really generated an interest, and before we knew it, people were knocking on our doors, saying, listen, I've got this, I've got a uniform, I've got that, I've got the other, are you interested, and it...
MARTINI understand that you hoped to get 3,000, you were hoping that maybe you'd get 3,000 pieces. How many did you end up with?
MARTINForty thousand so far.
CONWILLJust a little more, yes.
MARTINYou know, I have to ask about this because as many of us do when an elder, one of our elders, becomes ill or passes on, we go through their belongings as a part of that necessary transition. And I came across letters that my father and his brothers sent to each other during World War II. And I cannot imagine the generosity of someone who would be willing to give those up, especially given that loss is so much a part of the African American experience, being deprived of the opportunity to have things, to hold on to one's things and to preserve things.
MARTINAnd I'm trying to imagine what it would have taken for someone to give, for example, the thing that stopped me in my tracks when I had the opportunity to preview the museum as part of the media, a pillowcase that a young girl had been given by her mother as she was sold away from her into slavery.
MARTINAnd her mother put a lock of her hair and some pecans from the plantation into the pillowcase and gave it to this girl, and it was passed down through the generations. And another elder in the family had embroidered the story onto the pillowcase, and I'm having even trouble trying to talk about it.
CONWILLIt's very emotional.
MARTINBut it stopped me in my tracks, and I'm thinking about what it would have taken to pass this on so that others could see it.
CONWILLAnd may I just say quickly, part of it is trust. Being a Smithsonian museum helps a lot. The Smithsonian has a great reputation for taking care of people's most precious items. And that was an important part of the beginning of this museum, that we were a Smithsonian. And, you know, having a director who's got a great national reputation and having curators, Eve talked about the curators earlier, who tell you about how we're going to take care of this and that forever and ever your family, other people's family, can come and see it.
CONWILLAnd that pillowcase, that's the one, it's going to grab anyone who sees it. Just hearing about the fact that we were going to get it made me cry.
MARTINMichele, help me, throw me a line here so I can get myself together. Tell me some of the other items that -- you talked to some of the people who donated items. Tell me some of their stories.
NORRISAnd I just want to note that, you know, you note that part of the African American history is lost, but one of the things that was lost also was a sense of worth, and I think that that's why people were willing to share these items, because they wanted -- it's that -- it goes back to I, too, am America, I want -- they wanted very much for people to understand the worth of their story, and this was a place that they could actually share that and get that sense of worth.
NORRISYou know, the story that I open the piece that I wrote in National Geographic is the story of Gina McVey. She lives in Sacramento, and she's an example of someone who called the museum, cold call, and said I have some items that I think that you might be interested in. And she discovered not World War II but World War I medals and discovered them quite by accident.
NORRISShe was in a Mercedes dealership and was just making small talk and noted that her grandfather served in World War I, and the man that she was talking to, who was himself in uniform, said where did he serve, what did he do. And she only knew a little bit, and she mentioned that he was part of a particular regiment. He said, oh, do you realize what you have, you have history, and you need to learn as much as you can about him.
NORRISShe knew very little, and she discovered that her grandfather was part of a group of soldiers who fought in World War I who were the Harlem Hellfighters. I posit that many people listening today probably don't know who the Harlem Hellfighters were. And she discovered a whole treasure trove of medals and citations that she called and delivered them, I understand, in a carryon tote bag.
CONWILLYes. That's right.
NORRISYou know, she came straight from the airport to the museum.
MARTINWith a decoration.
CONWILLA Croix de Guerre.
MARTINA Croix de Guerre that he had received from the French government. Did you have -- ask her why are you willing to give us this?
CONWILLI wasn't in the meeting with her, but I really do think it's part of what I was saying before, that -- and what Michele said, that notion that there is worth to this because again she's talking casually to someone and doesn't know what she has. It took years for people to really believe that there were Tuskegee Airmen. I remember there were stories of people who said, you know, my dad was a Tuskegee Airman, and people said, oh, please, black people flying don't, you know, but World War II.
CONWILLBut World War I, oh my God, and that whole notion of transforming the segregation of the armed forces into a moment of service and victory. And the Hellfighters, one could talk for years about the Hellfighters, but that's another thing about what this museum does. You can connect to the story of these soldiers, but then you can talk about James Reese Europe and all the musicians that were part of the Hellfighters, and it's...
NORRISAnd they introduced jazz to Europe.
CONWILLThere you go.
MARTINTo that end, Professor Foner, you know, I was reading a piece this week by the Washington Post architecture critic Philip Kennicott, and he said the museum is, quote, premised on an assumption that museums are in the remedial-history-teaching business, compensating for a failure of education and a broad social lack of interest and the longer arc of the past.
MARTINHe didn't necessarily mean that in a good way. I think -- I'm curious as a person who's in the teaching business yourself, what do you think about that? Do you think that that might be true, as painful as it might be to hear?
FONERWell, you know, I think the more ways that people encounter history the better. I think it is a little out of -- you know, his view is I think a little out of date now. The African American experience is widely taught in American history classes and other classes in high schools, in colleges. You know, I think the need for remedial education on this is not nearly as strong as it might have been a generation or two ago.
FONERBut yes, the fact is that most people need to know more history. I don't care who they are. Maybe that's a comment on the work of historians or how we haven't done it well enough, but I don't think the notion that this is remedial, and therefore the audience is ignorant, the people who choose to go there are interested in history, they want to learn about history, they've made a decision to go to this museum for all sorts of reasons, personal, political, intellectual, and, you know, the -- I think the Smithsonian as a major institution in Washington has an obligation to present good up-to-date, you know, modern history based on the most recent scholarship, and that's what this museum does.
FONERSo I think it's to be applauded rather than kind of sneered at and to say oh, well, it's just because the populous is ignorant or something like that, no.
MARTINI don't know that he was -- I don't know that he was sneering. I do think he was grieving, in a way, or mourning at the notion that -- I'm not quite sure.
FONERWell, it's not -- it doesn't sound to me like something they're going to put on their brochures as a blurb, you know.
MARTINWell before we -- speaking of keeping up to date, forgive me for interrupting our conversation, but I do need to report that NBC, New York and CNN are reporting that the suspect in the bombings in New York and New Jersey, Ahmad Rahami, has been taken into custody after a shootout with police. The president is speaking as we speak. We will certainly keep you up to date on the latest developments in that important story as we go on throughout the day.
MARTINLet's return to our conversation. You know, Kinshasha, did you want to speak to that as a museum person yourself? Do you feel in part that -- the museum, let's just say, does do many things, and I was fascinated, as I said, when I had the privilege to walk through. And I asked how many of the guards, how they were doing, and they said the same thing, they said it makes you cry, it makes you laugh. You feel so many things. In fact as I encountered people I knew, particularly people who knew me well, they would look at my face, and they would say it's a lot. It's a lot.
CONWILLYes, it is, it is, it is. I mean, you know, this is -- this is an emotional experience, and as Eric Foner said, it's a political experience, and I -- you know, I heart Eric Foner, I have to tell you. He is one of the scholars who really helped us in building the museum and helped with the scholarship. Some of his students were -- are also other brilliant scholars, and so we're built on that foundation, Michel.
CONWILLAnd it may be a bit harsh to say remedial, but there are still people who do not know this history, and one of the things that we're doing with this museum is trying to make it so that if you know a lot, as Lonnie Bunch would say, you can revel in it. But if you don't know, you're going to give you some paths to enter that story, sometimes through technology, sometimes through narrative, sometimes through curriculum so that everybody can find a way, and you can enjoy whatever level of your knowledge of this history may be.
MARTINDoes it ever concern you that there are people who don't care what the truth is? As a scholar yourself, as a person who's in the fact business, do you care?
CONWILLThere are people like that?
MARTINThere are some people who just don't care what the truth is.
CONWILLI -- it does bother me, and it -- I grieve about that. But I have to tell you, I then pivot and then say I'm much more focused on the people who really want to learn more. And I've been just thrilled, you know, we've been doing education programs, exhibitions, publications, all these 11, 12 years that we've been building the museum as part of that countdown of 100 years. So we've encountered a lot of people who are very interested in this history and who want to learn more.
CONWILLAnd in the stories that Michele tells in NatGeo, you see people who are part of stories, painful stories that have to do with their family, but they are still rising above their personal pain to make sure that the story is part of the museum. So I think there are more -- I hope there are more of those people than of the other.
MARTINI do want to mention once again that we would love to hear your stories, those of you who are listening. You can call us at 1-800-433-8850. You can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can send us a tweet or find us on Facebook. We'd love to hear what treasures would you like to see, what would you like to see in the museum, whether you're African American or not. We'd love to hear your stories about what you think would be important to see, what would you find pleasure in seeing in a museum of this -- of this type. And I'm Michel Martin, and you're listening to the Diane Rehm Show.
MARTINTalk a little bit more, if you would, Professor Ewing, how about we go to you on this. I'm fascinated by some of the more visible items in the museum that include a guard tower from Angola Prison, a segregated railway car, both lowered into the ground several years ago. Important to mention that this museum is huge, and some of the -- a number of the exhibit are below ground, and you will find both of those items there. What do you think is important about that?
EWINGWell, I think that the tremendous nature of the museum, just the physical size of it, is part of what's so overwhelming. You know, what's emerged from everyone in this conversation is the incredible emotional resonance of visiting, which I think speaks to your earlier question about what is the purpose of the museum. You know, the fact of the matter is that the institution of slavery is fundamental to the America that we know and understand today and yet is so many times regarded, as you put it, as an asterisk.
EWINGAnd it is really the fundament of our very being here in the United States as African American people. And so the museum is also serving as a very important site of mourning. In the African American community, mourning is always bound up with celebration. Touring the museum with a colleague of mine, he read a placard to me on the wall that said the expected -- the life expectancy of slaves once they arrived in the new world was seven years.
EWINGSo if you just let that sink in for a second, it makes you realize that all of us are descendants of incredibly resilient people who endured the worst possible, inhumane treatment that we can possibly imagine. And yet parallel to that is this understanding of celebration, that we are still here, even that experience of descending underground, beginning at the ground level and going down and having history kind of spiral around as you continue is so emotionally incredible and really, quite frankly, one of the most -- I visit a lot of museums, and really one of the most emotionally incredible, resonant experiences I've ever had, any kind of educational experience of any kind, in any institutional setting.
EWINGAnd so I think one other thing that's important to mention is this reframing of the conversation so that these aspects of history as not seen as marginal but seen as central. So one example is in this underground area, there's a place where you come upon a tremendous statue of Thomas Jefferson, and I hope this isn't giving too much away for folks that still want to visit the museum.
EWINGBut obviously we're used to seeing Thomas Jefferson's image across the District of Columbia, and here standing behind him is this tower of bricks, and each brick represents one of the enslaved people that was at Monticello with their names embossed and stamped on the bricks. And on one side you can see Sally Hemmings and all of her descendants and her children.
EWINGAnd in front of Jefferson is a case is a set of manacles, and it says very bluntly on this placard that, you know, he was able to and did sell his own children. And then above him are engraved the opening letters of -- the opening words of the Declaration of Independence. And so it's really a stark juxtaposition compared to other parts of the city, where black people, when we tour D.C., are forced to see these monuments that are being celebrated as, you know, part of the pantheon of American history while having the sinking feeling in your stomach that you know that these very monuments and things celebrated as greatness only happened on the backs of your ancestors.
EWINGSo I think the museum is doing an incredible job of saying, you know what, that -- that thing about Thomas Jefferson owning slaves, that's not a footnote, that's not a caveat, that's actually central to our very understanding of the republic in which we now live.
MARTINNow to that end I have a call from Edna in St. Louis, Missouri, who is calling us to tell us what she would like to see in the museum. Edna, are you there?
EDNAHi, thank you for -- yes, I am, thank you for taking my call. What I would like to see in the museum is a map that shows the global routes of the slave trade because what I have found is that when I've done research is that many continents, even though the slave trade touched every continent except for Antarctica, they are in denial, or they don't teach their children anything about their participation -- about being in the slave trade. What I would like to see in the museum, because I've done research on Mr. Haley, Alex Haley, are interviews of people who really knew him best and to get a clear understanding of not so much about what "Roots" did by what Mr. Haley was all about because he, too, traveled to every continent to tell his story.
EDNAHe went to every state that had a black college to tell his story, in addition to other places. So thank you.
MARTINFirst -- oh thank you, Edna, thank you so much for joining us. There is that, isn't there, Kinshasha, there is that? Go ahead.
CONWILLThat's a brilliant question, two questions, of course, but the thing about the global routes of the transatlantic slave trade, something that Professor Foner knows a lot about, is part of -- I think one of the best parts of the design of the Slavery and Freedom exhibition because it basically shows that all of these places are implicated in this horrific trade in human beings.
MARTINWe need to take a short break, but when we come back we will have more about the National Museum of African American History and Culture with our guests, and we also hope you'll join us. Tell us what treasures you would like to see in this newest Smithsonian institution. Please stay with us.
MARTINWelcome back. I'm Michele Martin, host of the Saturday and Sunday editions of "All Things Considered," on NPR. We're talking about the National Museum of African American History and Culture. It opens this weekend on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. We're speaking with Kinshasha Holman Conwill, deputy director of the museum, Michele Norris, the founding director of The Race Card Project. She's the author of "I, Too, Am America," in the October issue of "National Geographic."
MARTINAlso joining us Eve Ewing, she is a sociologist and a writer, based at the University of Chicago. And from New York, Eric Foner, DeWitt Clinton professor of history at Columbia University and Pulitzer Prize winner for history for his book, "The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery." We were talking before the break about how many calls and emails we are getting from people who want to tell you what they have and things that they would like to know if you'd be interested in.
MARTINLet's see, Scott, in Lewes, Del., says that he has a restored 1940 zombie pinball machine with an Afro-Caribbean theme. And let's see there are a number of other items. Let's see, another caller, Floyd from Greensboro, N.C., says that he has an 1858 slave catcher's badge from Georgetown, S.C. He says it looks like a modern-day sheriff's badge. And a lot of other interesting items. So if people have items that they think that you would be interested in, what would they do?
CONWILLYou would go to our website. And if you just put in our initials it'll pop up in Google. And there's a section about the museum. And it tells you what to do if you are interested in having us consider a donation. We do hope you'll let us catch our breaths just a minute. We're trying to open this museum, but we would love, love to hear from you.
MARTINI have some interesting questions here. Here's an email from Kareema, who I'm hoping -- actually, before we get to her question, we glanced a bit over the architecture…
MARTIN…of the museum itself, which is quite striking. And it is like nothing else on the mall. Do you want to tell us about that?
CONWILLYes. When Professor Ewing talks about what you see here in DC, you see these monuments in marble and stone, they're usually white. But the bronze colored building with three tiers of, which we call our corona, really signifies Africa, America. It relates to everything from praise songs and the uplift in African American culture to the iron work done by enslaved people in Charleston and New Orleans.
CONWILLAnd the principal designer of the architecture is David Adjaye, which also mixes the wonderful diasporic notion with Africa, African and African-Britain, Phil Freelon, one of the terrific American architects who has built many museums and really the person who got the conversation started was the late Max Bond. Max was the dean of African-American architects and really talked about how do you pull together a team that can make this happen.
CONWILLAnd all of us think of Max every day when we look at this building because, unfortunately, he didn't live to see this moment, but his spirit is with us. So you'll hear the architects and Lonnie Bunch talk about the dark presence on the Mall. And it's an unforgettable sight and an enduring way to speak about a different way to look at America.
MARTINI'm getting a number of questions and emails and calls from people who would like to know whether there is significant content about African-American scientists, physicians and inventors. Teresa is just one of the people who are inquiring about this. And she says, "I'm asking out of personal interest. I'm a Ph.D. scientist that was trained in areas of microbiology and molecular biology. And when I was growing up there were few images of black scientists and inventors." And she said because of her interest she made a point of looking them up, but it's something that she's had to struggle to find. So what about that?
CONWILLWell, one of the ways we looked at talking about this museum was how do you talk about all the many things black people have done and how do you put that in an exhibition. One of our exhibitions, "Making a Way Out of No Way," really looks at black achievement in everything from science to publishing to education, historically black colleges and universities.
CONWILLYou'll find many objects from Dr. Ben Carson who generously gave us many of his…
MARTINSome scrubs. He had some scrubs.
CONWILL…medical -- scrubs and more, and instruments. You'll hear stories like current NASA director Charles Baldwin. We have his -- we have a flight suit and other things. We have -- and he's a scientist. And you can't be in NASA without being a scientist. And you'll hear about Mae Jemison and so those stories of creativity and science, you'll see something about George Washington Carver, who's one of, you know, our country's greatest inventive and creative scientist. So that story is woven in.
MARTINSo yes, so yes.
MARTINThere's a lot there.
MARTINI would like to talk about the whole question of being uncomfortable. There are artifacts that we are already hearing from people that -- as we were -- even discussed ourselves -- that make you profoundly uncomfortable. Michele, as a person who has distinguished herself by having uncomfortable conversations, I'd like to ask you about that.
NORRISYou know, there -- and they're all over the museum. The slave -- the shackles that are sized for a child, you know. Just -- you have to get your head around that. You will see a grand wizard's costume. You know, you will see the coffin that Emmett Till was buried in. And there is a room of repose right next to that because there is an expectation that people will have a really hard time with this.
NORRISBut one of the interesting things about this museum is that we've talked about how black America wrestles with this history. White America is wrestling with this history also. And you -- that will be evident when they walk through the museum, but it's also evident in some of the donations that were made. The slave cabin came from a family, you know, a white family in Edisto Island. The Nat Turner bible was donated by a white family that are descendants of someone who actually survived.
MARTINAnd not to be patronizing, but remind us who Nat Turner was.
NORRISNat Turner is -- was someone who was enslaved in Southampton County, Virginia, who led a slave revolt. And 51 people were killed during the slave revolt. And many of them, women and children, almost all of them in their beds while they were sleeping. And there was an immediate and very harsh reaction to that, where hundreds of slaves were then -- people who were enslaved were killed during the hunt for Nat Turner, and not just in Southampton County, but all over the country because they were afraid of these kinds of uprisings happening all over.
NORRISAnd the family that had that bible decided to donate it. But even the story behind the bible itself, it was in an evidence drawer for almost 100 years. It was given to the family because they knew that their -- a descendant had survived the raid. It was placed on a piano and displayed as something of honor in the family home for years. It was taken to school at one point by a child as a show-and-tell, you know, the Nat Turner Bible.
NORRISAnd it's stained and, you know, very fragile and delicate. And it was placed in a safe deposit box in a bank that had been robbed twice, you know. And then it found its way to the museum quite by accident. And it shows two things. That, you know, white America wrestles with the story also and has to figure out where they are able to tell this story and wrestle with it. But also how so many of these items would have just been lost, perhaps, if not for the museum.
MARTINI have a question along those lines from Katie, from Lansing, Mich. Katie, would you like to share your question?
KATIEWell, yeah. Hi. First of all, I'm so excited to come and visit the museum next month when my family comes to town. But I studied African-American history. I have my masters in American Studies. And I focused on interpreting slave history. And then as an undergrad I spent some time doing an archeological dig one summer. And one of the sites we dug was an old slave cabin. And I remember spending days one summer -- in that summer, digging up a drainage system, that was put around the cabin, made of oyster shells.
KATIEAnd I had such conflict about -- yeah, at the time I was like a 21-year-old white girl, digging this up and thinking about the slave man who had put this in years and years ago and how he would have felt about about me being the one, you know, digging up his hard work. And me and a bunch of other white people interpreting what his work was and what it meant and I was just curious about whether anybody else has this conflict of whether you're the appropriate person to interpret this history.
KATIEYou know, race certainly comes into it when, like, for me, a white, again, like I was 21, 25 when I was doing all this, a white girl interpreting this history. And it -- so I'm just curious if this is something that other people felt as well and how you dealt with it as you curating the (unintelligible) exhibit.
MARTINInteresting. Thank you for your question. Thank you for calling.
CONWILLOne of the things we talk about is how this is everyone's history. And you may not know, Eric Foner is not African-American. Some of the greatest scholarship in slavery, this great American sin has been done by scholars who are not African American. I think the issue is is it authentic, are you validating what is a true and complex story. One of the greatest stories we tell is the story of the Freedom Movement, the civil rights movement.
CONWILLInterwove in that are the lives of particularly black and white Americans. And so one of our -- one of the uncomfortable things we have are shards from 16th Street Baptist Church, where four little girls were brutally murdered. Well, that came from Joan Mulholland, who was SNCC worker.
CONWILLThere -- this city that we're in and this metro area is full of ex-SNCC folks, like we've got great people like the Ladner sisters. So it's not Joyce and Dorie Ladner, it's not just the great John Lewis, but there are many, many people. And these folks, black and white, together mostly were the ones who, as young people, were risking their lives for freedom. So this has always been about a story that's been told by multiple voices.
MARTINProfessor Foner, do you want to weigh in on this? Is the whole -- this whole question of who has the right to discuss and access and think about these issues? Do you want to, do you speak on that briefly?
FONERWell, you know, I just agree with what's just been said, you know. Of course, I'm coming at this from a scholarly point of view and the criteria for me are -- is scholarship. It's research, it's interpretation, it's documentation and as was said, the African-American experience, which is so central to understanding American history, has been illuminated by all sort -- by scholars of every background, white, Asian, black of course.
FONERNow, there was a time, of course, not that long ago, where really most white scholars had no interest in this and it was African Americans, whether it's Carter G. Woodson, who started, you know, in the 1920s, the W. E. B. Du Bois writing about this. It was black scholars who kind of really launched the scholarly study of the black past and kept it alive when the mainstream white academic world had no interest in it.
FONERBut that changed with the civil rights revolution and certainly in the last generation or two this is an academic scholarly project. Now, people react differently, obviously. Depending -- you will react to the exhibits at this museum, depending on your own personal background, your own personal experiences. And I'm sure that many African-Americans will have somewhat different reactions to what they're seeing than many white people will. But that's true of any museum and it's true of almost any experience. You bring your own personal life to what you see.
FONERBut in terms of the interpretation and the scholarship, the leaders of the museum, Lonnie Bunch and others, have made it very clear from the beginning that this is for everybody and it can be interpreted by everybody and it's part of American history. It's not just one group's history. You can't understand what it is to be an American without knowing the history and the cultural exhibits that are presented in this museum. And that goes for everybody.
MARTINI have a question along those lines, which I think will intrigue other people. And they may be thinking this themselves, which is I have an email from Kareema, who says, "I'm an African-American homeschooling mom with six children ranging in ages from 17 to 6. And my younger kids think African-American history is too sad. And they don't want to see and engage with this rich history and how the brown people were mistreated."
MARTINShe says, "I'm also trying to show them the beauty of our strength, but they need to be mature to see that. What does the museum have for young children who might be afraid of the dark moments of our history?" And dare I say, it isn't just young children who don't necessarily want to engage with that. How would you respond to that? I want to hear from both of you on this.
CONWILLWhat's been extraordinary is the work that's been done by Esther Washington and our educators. They have for years been working with particularly how to teach difficult subjects to the very young.
MARTINCan I just briefly interrupt you just to say I'm Michele Martin. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Forgive the interruption.
CONWILLNo worries. And one of the things we found particularly is that when you talk about injustice and you talk about what is fair, young people can often enter that conversation. And there's great empathy in the young. And so I'd encourage this mother to talk to her children about how this is part of human behavior, but for every clan member there were a lot more freedom fighters like Joan Mulholland and brave people like Bishop James Reeb and the Jemison family and many, many others.
CONWILLAnd so -- and I do think -- we hope that people will leave transformed. That's our answer to everything. You can't be transformed if you don't look at the pain, as well as the triumph.
NORRISYou know, I about…
MARTINMichele, what's your thought about that? As a person who, again, has led many difficult conversations with people from all different backgrounds…
NORRISIncluding at my kitchen table with my teenagers, you know, over years. And I can have different conversations with them now because they are teenagers, than I could when they were eight and nine. And I would tell Kareema that there are lots of portals, you know, to enter this museum. You might not want to go straight to that Thomas Jefferson Museum, you know, that Thomas Jefferson exhibit. There are lots of ways to interpret this.
NORRISBut the beautiful thing about the educational program that they put together is that she will be armed with ammunition for that discussion. You know, she will be helped along with that discussion because of so many of the things that are available to parents, to teachers, to actually have this kind of discussion. They thought about this museum, not just as a building, but as sort of a living, breathing thing that people can access, even if they can't get to Washington, D.C.
MARTINDon't miss Gabby Douglas's grips from the Olympics, the gymnast.
CONWILLYes, which tells you, you know, that…
MARTINYou know what I'm talking about.
CONWILLIt is not just, you know, we talked about the floors below ground. As you go up through history, but we got, as you just mentioned, we've got in "Make a Way," and we've got sports, we've got the military, we've got the visual art.
NORRISThe music, so much music.
CONWILL"Musical Crossroads." It'll be hard to get people out of "Musical Crossroads."
MARTINHats, amazing hats, forgive me, amazing hats.
CONWILLYes, Mae Reeves' hats, yes.
MARTINProfessor Ewing, a brief thought on this?
EWINGYeah, I think one thing we haven't talked about so far is the incredible contemporary history that is captured in the museum. You can see J. Dilla's custom-made MPC, you can see Questlove's liner notes and studio notes, you can see discussions of black Twitter and the movement for Black Lives. And I think that's important for young people to see that, again, this intertwined notion of celebration and mourning.
EWINGIt is our history. And it's not always pretty, but there's so much to celebrate and so much resilience, you know, I could barely get through that top floor without dancing and jumping up and down. I think that that's a great thing.
CONWILLWell, we want you to dance. Never stop.
EWINGOh, I danced.
NORRISPeople do dance up there.
CONWILLThey do. They can't help themselves.
EWINGOne of the most remarkable things I got to see was Bo Diddley's guitar and his hat are enshrined in this glass case. And I was -- I happened to pass by as his son, Ellis McDaniel saw this guitar and almost, you know, fell to his knees, fell into weeping and talking to God and talking to his father because he was so moved and so proud to see something that, you know, was part of his father's life captured forever in a Smithsonian Museum.
EWINGThe symbolism of that is unbeatable. And if you think about it, it kind of captures the mission of the museum in a sense, that this is an object he probably saw many times throughout his life. But seeing it in that context, seeing it as a celebrated and a special thing really helped him honor his father's legacy in a different way. And I think that that's really what the museum is all about.
MARTINLots of music, lots of dancing. What are you gonna be dancing to, Kinshasha, once you actually get in some sleep before you -- when this whole roll-out process is over?
CONWILLWell, I have to tell you, maybe it's the D.C. connection, Michele, but as I was taking someone on a tour, Marvin Gaye's song, "Let's Get It On," which I think is about philosophy. I'm not quite sure the meaning. And they were like, you're not talking to me anymore. I'm like, I'm sorry, please, a little respect, Marvin Gaye is singing. So it's gonna be him. But also give me Ella Fitzgerald, give me The Supremes, you know, give me anybody. It's just extraordinary.
MARTINIt's been -- it is extraordinary and we've only just scratched the surface. It will take many days to explore the whole institution. We do hope everybody will come and visit us in Washington, D.C. And see us. So thank you all so much for joining us.
CONWILLOh, thank you.
MARTINKinshasha Holman Conwill, deputy director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, Michele Norris, the author of "I, Too, Am American," in the October issue of "National Geographic, the founding director The Race Card Project, from Chicago, Eve Ewing, the University of Chicago, from New York, Eric Foner, the DeWitt Clinton professor of history at Columbia University. And I'm Michele Martin, host of the Saturday and Sunday editions of "All Things Considered," on NPR, sitting in for Diane Rehm. We're so glad you were with us. Thank you for listening.
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