Washington’s New African-American Museum Shows How Black History Shaped the American Experience

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Barack Obama delivers a moving speech at the museum’s dedication ceremony in late September. (Alan Karchmer / NMAAHC)

From September through June, yellow buses filled with schoolchildren descend on the nation’s capital. The students travel with backpacks carrying lunch, a composition book, and the ubiquitous smartphone. No matter their points of departure, they share a common itinerary: They have come to Washington, DC, to visit museums, historic sites, and, of course, the monuments built to honor our past presidents.

The educators and principals who travel with them have one goal in mind: to teach the youngest citizens of the nation about their history—and more specifically, about the founding of the United States. The hope is that these school trips will inspire them to learn about the past in experiential ways, supplementing dry textbooks by allowing them to stand on political holy ground. Visiting places like the White House and the Capitol, students are exposed to the seats of political power; and when they tour museums, they encounter America’s past, its greatness, and its vulnerabilities.

On September 24, the itinerary of these trips to the capital permanently changed. A new institution, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, celebrated its opening with much fanfare, including public concerts and the attendance of some of the nation’s most famous celebrities and dignitaries. Amid the celebrations, a particularly poignant moment marked the importance of this new museum.

Seated onstage with her family, 99-year-old Ruth Bonner listened attentively to President Obama’s opening remarks. Dressed in a plum-colored pantsuit, the near-centenarian watched the first African-American president shed tears as he shared his thoughts about visiting the museum with his future grandchildren. First lady Michelle Obama did likewise as she listened to her husband recognize the courage of children like Ruby Bridges, the first black student to attend a formerly all-white school in New Orleans, and the despair surrounding the 1963 murder of four little girls by segregationists in Birmingham, Alabama.

Bonner’s face remained composed as the president detailed the violence of the Jim Crow past and the racial inequalities of today. Flanked by her family, Bonner kept her hands clasped in her lap as she waited for the president and Mrs. Obama to make their way across the stage. They would join her in ringing the Freedom Bell, which was carefully restored for the occasion. The bell, which dates back to 1886, was owned by the First Baptist Church in Williamsburg, Virginia, a congregation founded by enslaved and free blacks in 1776. The same year that the founders of the new nation signed the Declaration of Independence, members of the First Baptist Church defied the law by congregating and worshipping in secret outdoor church services. It seems that in 1776, the spirit of freedom was contagious.

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