October , 2018

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By Marc H. Morial

President & CEO,  National Urban League


As we await the opening of the Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of African American History and Culture on September 24, much of the focus has been on the century-long journey to make the museum a reality.

But I found myself struck by a listing of the actual artifacts acquired by the museum, and how they alone are a powerful representation of the African-American journey through history:

  • A linen and silk shawl given to Harriet Tubman by Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom
  • The dress Rosa Parks was sewing when she refused to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955
  • A trumpet owned by Louis Armstrong
  • Headgear worn by a boxer then known as Cassius Clay, later to be known as Muhammad Ali
  • A bible owned by Nat Turner, who led an unsuccessful slave revolt in Virginia in 1831
  • The glass-topped casket originally used to display and bury the body of 14-year-old Emmett Till, tortured and murdered for whistling at a white woman in Mississippi in 1955

Along with the personal possessions of famous Black Americans, the museum will display iconic public representations of the nation’s history of oppression such as “white only” and “colored only” signs from the Jim Crow-era South, and a guard tower and cell from “Angola”, the cruel, violence-prone, and squalid Louisiana prison where African-Americans were exploited and abused for much of the 20th Century.

While I look forward to the museum’s exhibits putting such objects into context and amplifying their meaning, sometimes it is sheer simplicity that can put history into stark perspective.

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