The artifacts and stories that brought the African American history museum to life
The museum honors the road of a people struggling and striving and, in so many cases, soaring to places where they were never meant to be
By Marcia Davis
In the lead up to the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. this week, The Washington Post Medium account will be featuring articles about the museum and its collection. Today, we reveal the herculean effort that went into creating the museum.
Elaine Thompson is the keeper of her family’s stories. It’s been that way for decades. The former high school English teacher and civil rights activist, 83, can trace her lineage to the 1700s, to Samuel Thompson, who was free before the Civil War and the wealthiest black man of Loudoun County.
On both sides, Thompson’s ancestry is filled with men and women who were free before Emancipation. They worked hard, kept loved ones close and built a way for their progeny in the state that would become the heart of the Confederacy.
She has kept much of this history in her home office, in files tucked into the drawers of a wooden desk that sits below long bookshelves weighted with such authors as David Levering Lewis, Taylor Branch, Annette Gordon-Reed and Barack Obama. A historian, she’s there on the bookshelf, too, with “In the Watchfires: The Loudoun County Emancipation Association, 1890–1971.”
For years, in one of those drawers among the files sat a small tin box that belonged to her maternal great-great-great-grandfather, Joseph Trammell. Inside the box was proof of his freedom, papers certified by the Loudoun County clerk that the then-21-year-old, who bore a small scar on his forehead and a longer one — six to seven inches — on his left wrist, was indeed a freeman. The year: 1852.
Traveling without those papers could mean being re-enslaved, or if you were born free, kidnapped into bondage for the first time.
Trammell made the box to protect his papers and his life, Thompson said. She speculated that he probably was free before 1852, because his name appeared on an earlier petition to have freemen removed from Loudoun County. Virginia required freemen to leave the state unless they legally requested to stay. Joseph Trammell stayed, most likely because of family, Thompson believes.
For generations, that freedom tin has passed from one hand to the next. Thompson got it from the daughter of her now-deceased Aunt Molly, a woman who lived into her 90s.
“She wanted me to have it,” Thompson said of the tin. “She wanted me to preserve it. And I wanted to, but then when I started, I said, ‘What am I going to do with this?’ Even though people in the family are interested in family history, I just couldn’t decide who to give it to.
“I said it needs to be in a place that’s safe, somewhere it will be cared for. This museum, well, that’s the place for it.”
Which explains how Joseph Trammell’s freedom tin, after traveling across more than a century, from one descendant’s hand to another, is artifact 2014.25 at the new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Thompson went online and completed a form set up for people who thought they had something of historic value and wanted it considered for the 19th Smithsonian museum.
Curators came running.
This is how it’s been in the nine years that a team of curators, museum specialists and others has been working to fill a museum that itself was once a distant hope. The lobbying for it began in the early 1900s, and Smithsonian officials are not being hyperbolic when they say it is a museum that was a century in the making, which is also the name of an exhibit on the subject.
Finally, it is fact, a deep footprint on the Mall, its doors opening months before the Obamas leave the White House.
“African American history is our history,” the website notes, meaning a nation’s. The point is underscored by the prime location, steps from the Washington Monument and where, through the frames of the museum’s glass walls, you can stare in the direction of Jefferson and Lincoln and ponder all of what America has been — and, Smithsonian officials hope, imagine what this country can still become.
Inside the museum are markers of a nation’s racial history and bloodied path to democracy: from the remnants of a slave ship to a slave cabin to a segregation-era train car and shards of glass from the 16th Street Baptist Church of Birmingham, Ala., where four little girls were killed on a September Sunday morning not so long ago.
The museum also honors the road of a people struggling and striving and, in so many cases, soaring to places where they were never meant to be. A Tuskegee airplane hangs from the ceiling, Chuck Berry’s Cadillac gleams, and everywhere you turn are stories of excellence and achievement and a culture at the center of a nation. But when items were still in the talking stages, one of the questions was: What was left to be collected? There were African American museums across the country, the Smithsonian already had its own artifacts, universities had historical papers and singular art collections, and on and on.
Founding director Lonnie Bunch believed there was plenty undiscovered and pledged that a museum would open with 30,000 artifacts in its possession. “I knew in my heart that so much of the history was in the basement, trunks and attics,” Bunch said on a recent morning in his offices in the Capital Gallery Building in Southwest Washington.
“The goal was not to just collect to collect,” he said, “but to collect in a focused way to make sure you could tell the story of women in business, or you could tell the story of enslavement.
“The way to do it was to help people realize how crucial their story was, no matter how small, to understanding the whole narrative of African American history. So people really felt that giving was about legacy, the way to kind of honor those on whose shoulders they stand.”
The museum that started with zero artifacts is approaching 37,000. About 3,000 will be in the inaugural exhibition.
Here is the house that Bunch, his staff and a nation built.
In assembling a team, Bunch looked for balance, the right kind of collaborative tension. He needed those who had worked at the Smithsonian and those who had not. He needed seasoned staffers and younger ones at the dawn of their careers. And mostly he wanted people who saw and believed in the museum’s mission above all else, above their egos and their ambitions.
“What I really was looking for were people who recognized that this was bigger than they were,” said Bunch, who was most recently the director of the Chicago Historical Society. “That this was not about them. If you came to this job because it was going to make your career, that’s not who I wanted. … It was a family coming together.”
Because this would also be true: It was going to be difficult, weighted with the uncertainty of fundraising, lifted by a demanding vision and faced with the profound challenges inherent of a reckoning between a nation’s past and its present. And if they did it right, it could help the country reach higher ground.
How do you speak honestly about the brutalities of slavery in a country in which many don’t know that it was enslaved hands that built the White House? How do you show “the unvarnished truth” about the legacy of families being ripped apart, or the murderous terrorism of Jim Crow? Who could view Emmett Till’s casket — also in the museum — without its echoes ricocheting through the deaths of a Trayvon Martin, a Jordan Davis, a Tamir Rice?
It would be a living museum, not one engaged with the past with cool detachment. The facts of our collective past are meant to educate and offer context to our decidedly non-post-racial nation as it wrestles with its future.
The work would be filled with discovery, excitement and disappointment, success and roadblocks, sometimes massive, sometimes just hiccups.
Like the day Bunch left the Smithsonian Castle, heading to his new office, then at L’Enfant Plaza. The door was locked. Nobody in management or security knew who he was. He returned to that locked door and was wondering what to do.
“And along comes a brother who is the maintenance guy, and he’s pushing this cart and he has a crowbar,” Bunch says. “So I broke into our first offices.”
Museums are in the narrative business. It’s their job to tell stories. Curators are its choreographers, the folks who understand the required intimacy between the story and the right artifact, who coordinate the waltz between the telling and the showing.
“Just like we are shaped by DNA, we are shaped by historical memory,” Bunch said. “What artifacts do is, yes, they stimulate memory, but maybe more importantly what they do is humanize grand issues, so that you are not engaging with slavery, but an individual. And so one of the challenges of any history museum is to be able to talk at a macro level but to have you feel at a micro level. And that’s what I think artifacts allow you to do.”
The work has been assisted by a scholarly advisory committee. The legendary scholar John Hope Franklin was chair until his death in 2009. It was Franklin always in Bunch’s ear during meetings, urging him to have the courage to tell the “unvarnished truth” and to know here was an opportunity to educate and to make change.
The process is collaborative. Curators meet regularly to present their finds and make the case for why they belong in the collection.
Artifacts have arrived many ways. The museum had a wish list for some, such as a slave ship and slave cabin; some have been purchased, such as the fur-collared green velvet dress Lena Horne wore in a scene for the 1943 movie “Stormy Weather”; and some donations have come through the museum-sponsored “Save Our African American Treasures” events across the country. The Smithsonian couldn’t visit every attic or garage, sort through every trunk or closet, so it issued a call.
And the people responded.
Bobbye Booker Coleman remembers the day in West Medford, Mass., when her mother sent her to the attic to retrieve a set of paintings. The then-teenager found them, four oils on canvas rolled up, worn and time-battered.
At 73 , the retired assistant professor who last taught at Spelman College can still hear her mother’s words as Coleman unfurled the works of her uncle, Earle W. Richardson, who was born in New York and struggled as an artist during the Harlem Renaissance. He was her mother’s older brother, not an unknown artist — a few institutions have his work — but significantly lesser known than others.
“I just always remember her saying, ‘If he had lived he would have been famous,’ ” Coleman said.
Her mother told of Richardson’s work with the Works Progress Administration, how he and fellow artist Malvin Gray Johnson had submitted proposals to the federal government for a set of murals for the 125th Street Library, but that Johnson suddenly fell ill and died. Within a year, Richardson was gone, too. He’d been stricken with a fever, the mother told her daughter, and jumped out a window to his death.
Richardson’s mother was so upset that she’d gone through their home cutting up as much of the artwork as she could. His sister, Alleyne Richardson Booker, salvaged other works and kept them until that day she sent her daughter to the attic.
What Coleman, who went on to earn a doctorate in early childhood education, learned later from another scholar was a story of romance and tragedy: Johnson and Richardson had been lovers, and his suicide, it was believed, was an act of grief.
Like her mother, Coleman held on to those paintings.
But it wasn’t those works that she brought to a “Save Our African American Treasures” event in Houston, where she now lives. She brought a family Bible and other elements.
When Coleman mentioned that she was Richardson’s niece, curator Tuliza Fleming — known among staff for her ability to persuade reluctant art owners to donate works — told Coleman she’d heard of him and wondered if the next time she was in Houston she could visit.
Fleming loves to tell Richardson’s story, which speaks to his humanity. Artists who are African American have often been pigeonholed as black artists. They’ve had to struggle to be “able to self-identify, as opposed to having an identity imposed on them,” she said.
Richardson’s work, a self-portrait, has been restored. And Coleman believes there’s something providential in it all.
“I want to give these things to the world,” she said. “I want him to be appreciated, because he was a gifted artist, because he was struggling, because he was gay, he was black. It’s just a beautiful story in and of itself.”
That Christmas holiday in December 1951, when Juanita Evangeline Moore traveled to her home town of Mims, Fla., from Washington, she knew something was wrong.
Life had always been dangerous for her family because of her parents’ work on behalf of equal pay for black teachers, voting rights and anti-lynching efforts. In fact, they had been fired from their education jobs, and her father went on to become an organizer with the NAACP.
That December day, when she was 21, fresh out of college and working her first job in the District, Moore had expected to see her parents and her older sister. They always met her at the station.
This time it was her aunt and uncle waiting. The house had been bombed on Christmas, they told her, which also happened to be her parents’ 25th wedding anniversary. Her father was dead, her mother hospitalized. They went directly to the hospital. Nine days after the blast, Moore and her sister, Anne, or “Peaches,” as they called her, stood by their mother’s bedside as she took her last breath.
Even now the story of the Moores is not as well known as others. This was four years before Emmett Till, and later Medgar Evers, and Andrew Goodwin and James Earl Chaney and Michael Schwerner.
When Evangeline Moore heard of the Smithsonian museum, she needed no prompting. For decades she had not spoken of the murders, but with the help of her advocacy, in 2004, the Harry T. and Harriette V. Moore Memorial Park opened in Florida. A replica of their home has also been built on the grounds, which includes the site of the original house.
Spencer Crew, the first African American director of the National Museum of American History, is a guest curator for the NMAAHC. He and staff curator William Pretzer went to see Moore after she reached out to the museum. Moore wanted what had been recovered from the explosion transferred from the Florida museum to the Mall: a wallet, a watch and a locket.
“It’s the meanness of spirit that gets to you, and the lack of concern, or feelings of humanity of others,” Crew said about the bombing and the era of terrorism. “It really gets to you. It’s one of the hard things about doing this history.”
Crew added: “The stories are important to remember. … It reminds you of how hard it was to be an African American in this country for such a long time. … I’m hopeful that it will give people a more accurate sense of things. A greater understanding, sympathy and empathy. … And also to see how other people stepped up and collaborated. Not to focus on the viciousness, but to focus on how you find connection.”
At 24, Darren Pagan, who works for the Department of Defense, is trying to find his way through all of that. The Moores are his great-grandparents. He and his father buried Evangeline Moore last October. She was 85 .
She experienced so much loss, he said of his grandmother, who struggled with anxiety and depression but was determined to make sure her parents’ sacrifice was remembered.
“It’s a story that I want people to know about it, but I don’t want the moral of the story to be about how much damage an act of hate can do to a family,” Pagan said. “It’s more about perseverance and being willing to fight for things that you believe in.”
“Everything my great-grandfather fought for, I’m able to benefit from it.”
As Simone Manuel, the first African American woman to swim to Olympic gold, was finishing her race in Rio de Janeiro, Marie Goines was calling to her husband.
“Come look at this, come look at this.”
William Goines made his way to the television.
“I hadn’t seen the start of the race, and I had no idea she was African American until the end,” said Goines, or retired U.S. Navy Master Chief William H. Goines.
“I am so overjoyed to see them breaking through.”
In 1962 he was breaking barriers of his own as the nation’s first black Navy SEAL.
Growing up outside Cincinnati, Goines taught himself to swim. In the era of segregation, the white high school in Lockland had a pool, but not the black one. In a nearby town, African American children swam on Saturdays, 8 a.m. to noon.
“They would blow a whistle and we’d have to get out,” Goines said. “They would drain the pool to get it ready for the whites.”
When segregation was ending, his home town filled the public pool with rocks and gravel.
He turned 80 this month, lived a good life, he said as he sat in his Virginia Beach home. He’s been married 51 years to a woman he adores, and he’s still occasionally helping to recruit for the SEALs.
He wrote to the Smithsonian a few years ago about the SEALs, and retired Army Col. Krewasky Salter, a guest curator with 25 years of military service, got in touch and eventually paid him a visit.
Goines told Salter he could choose from his Navy SEAL artifacts. Among Salter’s bounty was a board known as “Tools of the Trade,” an unofficial gift given to retiring SEALs by their colleagues. The board has an array of weapons, from a knife to bullets to a grenade.
Goines retired in 1987 after 32 years of service. The ending was a lot easier than the beginning.
To understand the conflicting duality of black soldiers is to understand, at the most fundamental level, what it has meant to be African American. After World War II, for example, black soldiers were violently attacked, some slain in uniform by whites who believed that they should not wear it or that they were acting too uppity, demanding equality, stepping out of their social place.
“I went through some things that were not right,” Goines said. He doesn’t dwell on the ugliness of the past, but he hasn’t forgotten.
The SEALs did well by him, he said, though they “caught hell” traveling in the South in the early ’60s. Once, when they piled into a restaurant and were seated at tables throughout the place, Goines was refused service. “Our officer told everybody to just stop what they were doing and to get back on the bus,” Goines recalled. “Everybody got up without [complaining]. And we went down the road and bought some sandwiches.”
In Washington, in his office, Salter also thinks about those black military men and women who came before. He has collected the museum’s first Medal of Honor, that of Korean War hero Cornelius Charlton. Salter’s father’s jungle boots from the Vietnam War era are also in the museum. Tony L. Salter served more than 34 years in the Army, retiring as a command sergeant major.
“My service is easy compared to their service because they served and were patriotic in a nation that was not ready to embrace what they were offering, which was their life,” Krewasky Salter said.
“Reading the stories about these guys,” he began, then paused to steady the emotion that was overtaking him. “It’s an exciting time and a humbling time, and it makes you reflect. And you think, Should the nation be further than it is in some respects?”
The late morning sunlight pours into the open kitchen of Dan Evans’s Northwest Washington home, but it’s Evans who is the room’s brightest light. He’s eager to talk about his mother, Laura Fitzpatrick (her maiden name), and the day he attended a local Treasures event.
Before she became a registered nurse, a wife and a mother of four, Fitzpatrick was an amateur photographer possessed with passion and guided by instinct. They led her to be a chronicler of black life in Brooklyn during one of the most pivotal periods in the nation’s history.
From 1938 to 1948, as the Great Migration was unfolding, she kept her camera close and took pictures of her group of friends for a decade, capturing their lives, from childhood to adulthood, elementary school to high school, puppy love to marriage, going off to first jobs and to war.
But Fitzpatrick didn’t stop there. From the time she started, at age 10 or 11, she wrote detailed captions on all her pictures. There are 500, her son said, and the museum has more than 300.
“She loved taking photos and loved taking photos of people in all kinds of settings,” said Evans. “She was capturing the styles. You see them as children, at play, later on as they start to court each other. You see them later on as Mr. and Mrs.”
Fitzpatrick essentially turned the rooftop of the apartment building where they lived into a studio.
“She showed the pride in African Americans, that they were really fortunate and happy to be north and have an opportunity to achieve. … Her work showed the pride that they had in moving forward,” Evans said.
It’s the simple humanity that has mesmerized visual curator Rhea Combs, who revels in the works she has gathered, including the family photographs of the famous Scurlocks, who made a name for themselves photographing African Americans in the nation’s capital during the 20th century.
Said Combs of Fitzpatrick: “It’s just a remarkable collection by someone who just instinctively captured a part of history.”
Evans knew he had something special, and he knew his mother was an “extraordinary woman, a brilliant woman.” He donated the accordion camera that his grandmother had bought for his mother, an only child, who died in 1987 at age 59.
At the Treasures event he attended in Washington in 2014, he pulled out three photos, which curators thought were interesting. Did he have more?
“Then I pulled out an album of 45 pictures with the captions, and they got really excited. Then I told them how many I had. And they wanted to know if they were all captioned and detailed, and I told them yes.”
He called his siblings. Here was confirmation of what they’d always known — that their mother, the nurse and wife, and also a documentarian, had been extraordinary. And now the world would know, too.
Paul Gardullo is searching for the right place in the museum for a certain artifact. The museum only recently attained “The Friendship Quilt,” and preparation can take many months.
The quilt, said Gardullo, who has been with the museum since 2007, would fit well in the museum’s family history section.
It holds within its seams the story of family and community, and maybe something of a miracle.
The quilt is from Home Baptist Missionary Society, First Baptist Church of Sonora, Calif. And in it is part of the story of African Americans in the West. In 1884, churchwomen gave the quilt to the Rev. Andrew Judson Sturtevant and his wife, Ella, who were moving away. Stitched on it are more than 100 names of congregation members. Among them are the names of several black congregants. It was an integrated church in an integrated community.
Some of those names belonged to members of the Sugg family, which had its roots in slavery back East. William and Mary Elizabeth Sugg were each brought to California by their masters. William Sugg came from North Carolina, Mary Elizabeth Snelling from Missouri. They met after each had attained their freedom. They married in 1855.
Their modest home eventually grew into a three-story house with seven bedrooms. They had 11 children, and while William ran a livery business, his wife turned part of the home into a boarding house. Many of its original features remain, along with some furnishings, and the house is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Vernon Sugg McDonald, a grandson and onetime journalist, lived in the home until the 1980s. Vernon and his family had been close friends with a white family, the Brennans. When Vernon fell ill, Robert Brennan bought the home. Vernon lived there until his death in 1982. The Brennans, who said Vernon was family to them, have spent years restoring the home.
Sylvia Alden Roberts, author of “Mining for Freedom: Black History Meets the California Gold Rush,” has been studying African Americans out West for decades. “The Sugg house is the jewel in the crown of history in the West,” said Roberts, who knows the Brennans and the Sugg story well.
Recently, the story took another dramatic turn when Sherri Camp, of Topeka, Kan., connected with Roberts. After decades of digging, Camp found pension records and a death certificate that led her to Julia Snelling. It turns out that Snelling is five times Camp’s great-grandmother. Snelling was also Mary Elizabeth Sugg’s mother.
Camp and several family members visited Sonora this summer.
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“I’ve been doing genealogy for 28 years,” said Camp.
It turns out that before Julia Snelling was taken West, two of her children were sold. Camp is the descendant of one of the sold daughters. “I have sadness and I have joy all at the same time,“ Camp said.
Her family story, as for so many African Americans, is one of severed bloodlines, lost across time and oceans of hurt. But Camp’s line, in an amazing way, is being stitched back together.
Like the names sewn into a quilt that, more than a century ago, symbolized the promise of a nation and, at long last, has come to rest within the walls of the Smithsonian.
This feature originally appeared in The Washington Post.
Marcia Davis is an articles editor for the magazine.