How To Have A Good Day At The New Smithsonian Museum With Your Family

The National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) was a treat we couldn’t get enough of. I highly recommend you visit when you get a chance. Even better, make it a two day affair.

I won’t call the museum perfect, but it is an awesome start and a welcome addition as a new national treasure.


1. Get Tickets Early

I have heard about the NMAAHC since 2002 when it was authorized to be built and then the tremendous feat to raise $540 million to be build it. It seemed like a set-up but per usual, a way was made out of no way and the museum has finally opened its doors some 15 years later. The best part is hometown architect Phil Freelon is the architect on record and a co-designer of the museum, a fact I shared repeatedly with my future architect son.

My sons, my Dad, and I were able to attend thanks to the generosity of a friend who was unable to make her allotted date. Though you can go to the museum and wait in line for tickets to open up, I strongly suggest waiting to go with timed tickets.


2. Prepare To Soak In American History

Though we got into the building immediately, we still had to wait over an hour in line before we could see the main exhibit — three floors containing the history of my ancestors and my generation from pre-slavery to present day.

Be prepared with a good full breakfast, comfortable shoes, and a charged phone or camera to take pictures of things you want to remember.

It broke my heart to see the tiny shackles for children who were enslaved. The middle passage display was not as emotional or jarring as the display I cried tears over at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit but it made a point.

I was excited to see the stories about the lives of my ancestors in specific parts of the country including Georgia, South Carolina and Louisiana. My Dad and sons left me as I read about the lifestyles, work and issues met by my people in these parts of the country.

This museum shared diverse stories of the enslaved and the free including self-emancipated Harriet Tubman. The stories of slaves, slave masters, freemen, and the fight to make things right encompassed the whole first floor. We saw those stories no one likes to talk about or seems to be in denial about like…

Yes, slaves built the White House and here’s a picture portraying what it looked like!

or sharing how many of our nation’s powerful historical figures had slaves on their balance sheets and in their homes (looking at you Jefferson AND Washington).

Common themes of spirituality and entrepreneurship were scattered throughout the entire exhibit.

There was SO much to read. So much couldn’t be read since it was in very small, sometimes handwritten print. And we were trying to get through the museum so there really wasn’t time to read very much.


3. Rest Your Feet While You Reflect On The Fight For Freedom

The second floor brought emancipation, reconstruction, Jim Crow and the Civil Rights Movement. There was a chronological view of what freedom from slavery really meant after the end of the Civil War. The struggle was illustrated much more than I’ve ever seen before. Not only were the enslaved released with little to no resources for survival, there were actual groups and laws formed to hold them back from growing too much economically. Lynching became common to terrorize African Americans for any reason and no reason at all.

For a while, there were race riots occurring in cities across the country for anything from a white woman accusing a black man of whistling at her to accusations of job stealing. A big hole I saw when discussing race riots was the missing 1898 Wilmington Race Riot. I think this was one of the most significant riots to share because it is the only documented coup d’etat on U.S. soil. I’m sure it’s coming eventually, but still THE ONLY COUP D’ETAT IN THE U.S. WAS AGAINST AN ELECTED CITY GOVERNMENT OF AFRICAN AMERICANS and this event did not make it into a museum all about African American History in the nation’s capital??

I was so amazed when I learned about this story just a few years ago because I didn’t realize African Americans had that kind of political power directly post-slavery. Excuse me if I think more people should know about it.

However, I was glad to see East St Louis, IL and its controversial past represented. I think the city remains in a state of blight because of how this went down nearly 100 years ago. To imagine this fight was about JOBS in EAST ST LOUIS.

This wasn’t the only story from close to home (by the way, I’m from St. Louis).

One of my favorite entrepreneurs, Ms. Annie Turnbo Malone, had a presence in the building. Although the display directly next to her about CJ Walker claims otherwise, evidence shows Annie Malone as the first black female millionaire. She did so much for the city of St. Louis and her direct legacy continues working today.

Of course in the museum there were regulars like Martin Luther King, Jr, Emmitt Till (in a powerful, special display in its own room), March on Washington, relics of the KKK (side note: I wondered why they were there, but this group DID have a profound effect on African Americans as an early modern terrorist organization) …

The information and artifacts in these displays were more comprehensive than other museums I’ve been to that were not specifically dedicated to one specific person or period of time — on that note, PLEASE go visit the International Civil Rights Center & Museum in Greensboro, NC for an awesome, emotional experience regarding the civil rights movement in the United States and others from around the world.

The biggest takeaway here was the fight my grandparents’ generation had to endure just to have some control over their own lives whether money to work or the ability to vote. They were terrorized in so many ways, even to the point of losing lives, because others didn’t want them to use their voices. I’m still sitting with the implications of that on how I conduct my present life. And on that note, take time to sit while you are around there too.


4. Don’t Be Upset If You Can’t Take It All In At Once

By the post-1968 floor, we were pushing it to get off our feet and fed. I was carrying my 7-year-old on my back, assuring him that we were almost finished, a rallying cry by many fellow parents by this time. I still tried my best to soak as much information as I could. That said, the number of artifacts and displays seemed less than before anyway.

I was excited to see artifacts and images from events I remembered well. The middle class experience was represented well but it seemed like more could be explained about experiences African Americans tend to have post-1968 — the gangs, drugs, and other real pieces of African American society (unless I missed it). This is an opportunity to break down the stereotypes and tell the real story about why these vices came to exist in our communities as well as how they have evolved.

This void reminds me of the many museums that are missing African American stories except for slavery and Martin Luther King, Jr with the Civil Rights Movement.

There is so much that can be done with telling all of our story and telling it right.

I admit, I couldn’t take it all in so I may have missed the stories I thought was missing. If that’s the case, my bad.

It all ends with the Obama presidency including First Lady Michelle Obama’s dress from the celebration of the March on Washington’s 50th anniversary. That said, sprinkled throughout this floor were #BlackLivesMatter and people/stories that inspired the movement.

Where Is The Space For Kids?

Throughout the exhibit, there were signs letting us know where children shouldn’t view or go without parental guidance. I SO wish there was at least one space for children to go and experience their history in their special way. There was no space for them to touch, hear, and see stories relatable to them and in their language.

Get Ready. There’s More!

When we finally exited the history exhibit some HOURS later, we briefly considered the much discussed Sweet Home Cafe’. Since that meant another line to get into and a displayed menu of food that didn’t seem kid-friendly (though days later I looked at the #NMAAHC app and saw there actually was kid-friendly fare), we decided to go upstairs and out of the museum. Eventually we made it to the food truck line outside.

But first I remembered the kids insistence on going upstairs when we first entered the museum, before we went downstairs. They were excited to go up the escalator again to the upper floors to quickly check out this space.

There was SO much more to see, I talk more about it in the story Our Day At The New Smithsonian on my blog. In the picture at the top of this story, you can see my boys posing with John Carlos and his Olympian brothers — a last picture at the end of a long day. They were excited to make it to pizza outside.

I can’t wait to return to the NMAAHC!


Read more in Our Day At The New Smithsonian published on the blog at yolandanichole.com.