November 15, 2013
For many, the most poignant symbols of segregation during the Jim Crow era are the four men who refused to leave a Greensboro lunch counter or the arrest of Rosa Parks after she refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery City bus.
But segregation, says Spencer Crew, a curator for the National Museum of African American History and Culture, was everywhere—even airplanes and train cars. After 1900, all southbound trains were divided into sections for whites and blacks, the former with more room for men’s and women’s lounges, luggage and hat racks, and spacious restrooms.
The train car provides a vivid backdrop for the inaugural exhibition on segregation that the museum will open with in 2015. The only problem: the nine-decade-old, 44-seat Southern Railway car, donated by railway executive Pete Claussen and his company Gulf & Ohio Railways, won’t be able to fit through the door once construction is finished.
So on Sunday, the 153,900-pound passenger car, No. 1200, will dangle above the scaffold-ridden Washington skyline, lifted by cranes and then lowered onto the construction site on Constitution Avenue between 14th and 15th Streets—the first of two major artifacts that will be installed before the museum is built around it.
It’s the first time (as far as we can tell) artifacts have been installed into a Smithsonian museum before the building, or at least its shell, takes shape.
The George Washington in a toga statue by Horatio Greenough and the 1926 Pacific steam locomotive at the National Museum of American History and the Skylab at the National Air and Space Museum were put in place before construction was completed, Smithsonian curators say. But at American History, some walls had already been built around the artifacts, and at Air and Space, the roof was already up, making Sunday’s installation at the African American History Museum all the more unusual.
Crews on Sunday will also install a more than 21-foot guard tower from the Louisiana State Penitentiary, one of the largest maximum-security prisons in the country nicknamed “Angola” for the 19th-century plantation that once stood on its land.
After final touches are put on the artifacts next week, the rail car and tower will be covered by protective structures so construction can continue around them.
The event, which is open to the public, will close roads for six hours (see details below), but it’s a milestone five years in the making.
Pete Claussen and Gulf & Ohio Railways donated the railway car—first built in 1918 as an open-window coach—to the museum in 2009.
In 1940, it was renovated to create separate seating, lounges and restrooms for black and white passengers. But the car was not simply divided in half: to accommodate the larger luxuries in the white seating section, nearly two-thirds of the train was dedicated to white passengers, leaving only a third of car for the “colored section.”
Segregation on trains isn’t documented as it was in schools or at water fountains, visuals that endure as one of the practice’s most common symbols, said Spencer Crew, a curator for the National Museum of African American History and Culture, who noted Frederick Douglass was among those kicked off of trains for refusing to sit in the black passenger car.
“The ability, or inability, to travel is a critical issue,” Crew says, one he plans to explore in the museum’s first exhibit that will tell the story segregation between the years 1876 and 1968.
The train car was in storage at the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum in Chattanooga, before it was acquired by the museum. Renovations began in 2012 in Stearns, Kentucky, in preparation of this year’s arrival in Washington, a process that required 20 different tradesman, from electricians to metalworkers and painters.
The car was in fairly good condition when work began, said John E. Rimmasch, the CEO of Wasatch Railroad Contractors, who was charged with restoring the artifact. After the structural elements had been secured, workers went through the car and restored everything from the hat racks to the paint colors.
Once the car is installed in the museum, visitors will pass through it as they move through the exhibit—giving them a chance to “internalize [it] and feel what that was to walk from the white section of the car to the colored section of the car,” Rimmasch said.
The interior of the prison tower won’t be accessible to the public once the museum opens, but Crew says it will help drive home the exploration of white power and black incarceration in the mid-20th century, which he’ll also feature in the exhibit.
Before the Louisiana State Penitentiary was handed over to the state, the land was used as a plantation that drew its workers from prisoners leased by the state. As a prison, Angola earned a reputation for the corruption that ran rampant behind closed walls, “the nearest kin to slavery that could legally exist,” Patricia Cohen once wrote in the New York Times.
From the more than 21-foot tower, wardens kept constant watch over the mostly-black prisoners at the facility, “a reminder that there was a constant effort to control their lives,” Crew said.
“The tower—and its role in the penal system—are important to the story I’m telling about the power of the tower and trying to keep African Americans under the control of others,” Crew said.
The Louisiana State Penitentiary donated the tower and a prisoner cell to the museum in 2012. This past July, the tower was taken down from the prison’s “Camp H” and transported to Stearns, to join the rail car.
Together, they made a three-day journey in a seven-vehicle convoy to Washington, DC,where they will serve as rare reminders of what segregation actually felt like for much of the 20th-century, Claussen says.
“You learn that separate but equal was certainly separate but it wasn’t really equal and that’s one of the things this demonstrates,” he says. “There are very few tangible pieces of segregation left. . .there are so few things you can [use to] actually experience what segregation was like and this was one of them,” he says.
The tower and rail car are scheduled to arrive around 7 a.m. Sunday. Both objects will be lifted from trucks on Constitution Avenue with cranes and placed into the museum site. Constitution Avenue between 14th and 15th streets will be closed to pedestrians and vehicles throughout the event, which is expected to last from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. For those who want to watch the installation take place, the objects will be visible from Madison Drive, between 14th and 15th streets.
November 5, 2013
The Director of the African-American History and Culture Museum on What Makes “12 Years a Slave” a Powerful Film
As I sat in the theater crowded with nervous patrons, unsure of what to expect from a movie about slavery, I was startled by the audience’s visceral reaction to a scene depicting the violence that was so much a part of what 19th century America called the “peculiar institution.” And then I found myself beginning to smile, not at the violence but with the realization that this movie, this brilliant movie, just might help to illuminate one of the darkest corners of American history. In many ways, American slavery is one of the last great unmentionables in public discourse. Few places, outside of history classes in universities, help Americans wrestle with an institution that dominated American life for more than two centuries. The imprint of slavery was once omnipresent, from the economy to foreign policy, from the pulpit to the halls of Congress, from westward expansion to the educational system. I smiled because if 12 Years a Slave garnered a viewership, it just might help America overcome its inability to understand the centrality of slavery and its continuing impact on our society.
12 Years a Slave, imaginatively directed by Steve McQueen with an Oscar worthy performance by Chiwetel Ejiofor, is the story of Solomon Northup, a free African-American living in New York who is kidnapped, “sold south” and brutally enslaved. Northup’s struggle to refuse to let his enslavement strip him of his humanity and his dignity and his 12-year fight to reclaim his freedom and his family are the dramatic heart of this amazing movie. Part of what makes this film experience so powerful is that it is based on the true story of Northup, a musician and man of family and community who had known only freedom until his kidnapping transplanted him into the violent world of Southern slavery.
The film’s depiction of slavery is raw and real. From the moment of his capture, Northup experiences the violence, the confinement, the sense of loss and the uncertainty that came with being enslaved. It is interesting that some of the criticism heaped on this film revolves around its use of violence. The scenes where Northup is beaten into submission or where the brutal plantation owner, Edwin Epps (played with nuance and depth by Michael Fassbender) whips Patsy, an enslaved woman who could not avoid the owner’s sexual abuse and rape have been called excessive. In actuality, these scenes force us to confront the reality that the use of violence was a key element used to maintain the institution of slavery. It is interesting that movie audiences accept and revel in the violence that dominates films from Westerns to horror flicks to the recently lauded Django Unchained, and yet, have a difficult time accepting the notion that some Americans used violence to attempt to control other Americans. This is a result of the fact that the violence in this movie makes it problematic for Americans not to see our historical culpability, something unusual for a nation that traditionally views itself as on the side of the right and the righteous.
12 Years a Slave is such an important movie because it entertains and educates in a manner that is ripe with nuance, historical accuracy and dramatic tension. It reveals stories about the African-American experience that are rarely seen or rarely as well depicted. Northup’s life as a free person of color is revelatory because it hints at the existence of the more than 500,000 African-Americans who experienced freedom while living in the north in the years just prior to the Civil War. Northup’s life of middling class respectability and community acceptance was not the norm; most free blacks lived on the margins with lives and communities limited by laws and customs that sought to enforce notions of racial inequality. Yet Northup’s very presence belied many of the racial beliefs of the period. There is a scene in the movie where Northup and his well-dressed family are walking down the street about to enter into a shop and they are being observed by an enslaved man whose southern owner has brought him north to serve the owner while he is on holiday in Saratoga. The enslaved man is amazed at the sight of a black family strolling freely and being greeted with respect by the shopkeeper. The owner quickly calls the man away as if to ensure that he not be infected by the freedom exhibited by the Northup family.
The importance of family is also a key element in the film. While Northup’s desire to be reunited with his wife and children is part of what motivates him to survive his time of bondage, the power of kinship is revealed in the scenes where a mother struggles to keep her family together. Like Northup, a young boy is kidnapped and held in a slave pen in Washington, D.C. (ironically, I am writing this piece within 30 yards of where the slave pen where Northup was first enslaved stood). When the mother learns where her son has been detained she enters the pen with her daughter hoping to reclaim her child. She is devastated when she and her daughter are also captured and readied to be sold into slavery. As the family is offered at auction, the pain the mother feels is almost unbearable as she begs, ultimately in vain, for someone to buy them all and to not destroy her family. During the months that follow the sale, the woman is inconsolable. On the plantation where she and Northup now live, she cries almost non-stop, whether serving the owner’s family or attending church service. Eventually she is sold to another owner because the mistress of the plantation does not understand why she cannot just get over the loss of her children. These scenes make clear that time could not heal all the wounds inflicted by slavery. In the years immediately following emancipation, thousands of the enslaved searched for any hint that would help them reunite with their family. Letters were sent to the Freedman Bureau seeking assistance and well into the 1880s, the formerly enslaved placed ads in newspapers searching for love ones cruelly separated by slavery. Rarely did these hoped for reunions occur.
While 12 Years a Slave rightfully and appropriately privileges Solomon Northup’s resiliency and resolve, it also reminds us that men and women of good will crossed the color line, stood against the popular sentiments of the period and risked much to help abolish slavery. Northup’s encounter with a Canadian sympathetic to the cause of abolition played by Brad Pitt revealed much about Northup’s ingenuity and the need to enlist the help of sympathetic whites. After hearing Pitt’s character engage in a debate with the plantation owner, Epps, over the morality of slavery, Northup cautiously convinces the Canadian to send a letter to the shopkeeper who knew him in New York and could prove that Northup was a free man. This begins a process that eventually returns Northup to his family in upstate New York. While Solomon Northup reunited with his family, most who were kidnapped never escaped the brutality of enslavement.
12 Years a Slave is a marvel. It works as a film and it works as a story that helps us to remember a part of the American past that is too often forgotten. We have all been made better by this film if we remember the shadow that slavery cast and if we draw strength and inspiration from those who refused to let their enslavement define them and those who, by refusing, helped make real the American ideals of freedom and equality.
September 13, 2013
On September 15, 1963, two and a half weeks after the March on Washington, four little girls were killed in the Ku Klux Klan bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. Addie Mae Collins, 14, Denise McNair, 11, Carole Robertson, 14, and Cynthia Wesley, 14, were the youngest casualties in a year that had already seen the murder of Medgar Evers and police brutality in Birmingham and Danville. For many Americans, it was this single act of terrorism, targeted at children, that made plain the need for action on civil rights.
Joan Mulholland was among the mourners at a funeral service for three of the girls on September 18, 1963. (A separate service was held for the fourth victim.) Thousands gathered around nearby 6th Avenue Baptist Church to hear Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., who observed that “life is hard, at times as hard as crucible steel.”
Mulholland, a former Freedom Rider who turns 72 this weekend, was then one of the few white students at historically black Tougaloo College in Mississippi. She and a VW busload of her classmates came to Birmingham to bear witness, to “try to understand.” She says of the victims, “They were so innocent—why them?”
Mulholland stopped at the ruined 16th Street church first, picking up shards of stained glass and spent shotgun shell casings that remained on the grounds three days after the bombing. Ten of those shards of glass will join one other shard, recently donated by the family of Rev. Norman Jimerson, in the collections of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. For now, Mulholland’s shards can be viewed in “Changing America: The Emancipation Proclamation, 1863 and the March on Washington, 1963” at the American History Museum.
Mulholland joined us for an exclusive interview in the gallery. She is a short, sturdy woman with a quiet demeanor, her long white hair tied back in a bandana. A smile flickers perpetually across her lips, even as her still, steel blue eyes suggest that she has seen it all before.
As a SNCC activist in the early 1960s, Mulholland participated in sit-ins in Durham, North Carolina, and Arlington, Virginia, her home. She joined the Freedom Rides in 1961 and served a two-month sentence at Parchman State Prison Farm.
Looking back, Mulholland recognizes that she was a part of history in the making. But at the time, she and other civil rights activists were just “in the moment,” she says, “doing what we needed to do to make America true to itself—for me particularly, to make my home in the South true to its best self.”
Mulholland spent the summer of 1963 volunteering in the March on Washington’s D.C. office. On the morning of the March, she watched as the buses rolled in and the crowds formed without incident. That day, she says, was “like heaven”—utterly peaceful, despite fear-mongering predictions to the contrary.
Eighteen days later, the bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church changed all that. “Things had been so beautiful,” Mulholland remembers, “and now it was worse than normal.” The explosion, which claimed the lives of four children and injured 22 others, set off a wave of violence in Birmingham. There were riots, fires and rock-throwing. Two black boys were shot to death, and Gov. George Wallace readied the Alabama National Guard.
The funeral on September 18 brought a respite from the chaos. Mourners clustered in the streets singing freedom songs and listened to the service from loudspeakers outside the 6th Avenue church. “We were there just in tears and trying to keep strong,” Mulholland recalls.
The tragedy sent shockwaves through the nation, galvanizing the public in the final push toward passage of the Civil Rights Act. “The bombing brought the civil rights movement home to a lot more people,” says Mulholland. “It made people much more aware of how bad things were, how bad we could be.” As Rev. King said in his eulogy, the four little girls “did not die in vain.”
Mulholland hopes that her collection of shards will keep their memory alive. “I just wish this display had their pictures and names up there,” she says. “That’s the one shortcoming.”
After graduating from Tougaloo College in 1964, Mulholland went back home to the Washington, D.C. area—but she never really left the civil rights movement. She took a job in the Smithsonian’s Community Relations Service and helped create the first Smithsonian collection to document the African American experience. She donated many artifacts from her time in the movement—newspaper clippings, buttons and posters, a burned cross and a deck of cards made out of envelopes during her prison stint, in addition to the shards from Birmingham.
She kept some of the shards and sometimes wears one around her neck as a memento. “Necklace is too nice a word,” she says.
Others she used as a teaching tool. From 1980 to 2007, Mulholland worked as a teaching assistant in Arlington and created lessons that reflected her experience in the civil rights movement. She brought the shards to her second grade class, juxtaposing the church bombing in Birmingham with the Sharpeville massacre in South Africa.
“I saw second graders rubbing this glass and in tears as it was passing around,” she says. “You might say they were too young. . . but they were old enough to understand it at some level. And their understanding would only grow with age.”
Fifty years after the bombing, Mulholland says that “we aren’t the country we were.” She sees the ripple effects of the sit-ins culminating, but by no means ending, with the election of President Barack Obama in 2008. And while the struggle for civil rights isn’t over, she says, when it comes to voting rights, immigration reform, gender discrimination and criminal justice, Mulholland remains optimistic about America’s ability to change for the better.
It’s “not as fast as I’d want,” she says. “I think I’m still one of those impatient students on that. But the changes I’ve seen give me hope that it’ll happen.”
May 13, 2013
UPDATE: Curator interview reveals more historical information about the cabin.
Point of Pines Plantation on Edisto Island, South Carolina, had more than 170 slaves before the Civil War working in the fields to pick Sea Island cotton. Not much evidence of the slaves’ daily toil exists now, though, except for a couple one-story, dilapidated cabins–the last physical reminders of the brutal and degrading living conditions of the enslaved, as well as an emblem of the strength and endurance of the nearly four million Americans living in bondage by the time of the war.
Today, the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) announced the acquisition of one of these 19th-century cabins, which was donated by the Edisto Island Historic Preservation Society last month after they received it from the plantation’s current owners. The cabin will travel to its new home at the Smithsonian to preserve the story it stands for.
Slave cabins are held in other museums and collections around the country. However, NMAAHC focused on acquiring one from Edisto Island, says curator Nancy Bercaw, who is in South Carolina this week to oversee the relocation project, is that the Point of Pines plantation was one of the first places where slaves “self-emancipated” themselves before the Emancipation Proclamation. South Carolina’s coastal islands, Bercaw says, were the earliest territories overtaken by Union troops. Point of Pines became a Union stronghold in 1861, and the African Americans living on the plantation, along with other slaves from around the area who had left their owners, declared themselves free.
Museum representatives just arrived at the plantation this morning to begin the week-long process of taking the cabin apart, piece by piece, and driving it up to the Washington, DC area. Officials say that every board and nail will be carefully numbered and packaged for shipment. The cabin eventually will be reconstructed inside the African American History and Culture Museum, which is scheduled to open in 2015.
Already, dismantling the cabin and examining the site has revealed details about the plantation’s slave community, says Bercaw. The cabin is now understood to have been part of a larger “slave street,” which consisted of up to 25 similarly small dwellings built in a row along a road. Bercaw and her team are working with Low Country Africana, too, to interview local descendents of the slaves. Their stories will supplement the documentation of the community’s history.
“The Point of Pines slave cabin will help us share the living history of a place and the resilience of the people, who, in the darkest days of slavery, built the cabin, cleared the land, worked in the fields and raised their families there,” says Bercaw. “The cabin will be one of the jewels of the museum positioned at its center to tell the story of slavery and freedom within its walls.”
Lonnie Bunch, the museum’s founding director, says: “Slavery is one of the most important episodes in American history, but it is often the least understood. By exhibiting this cabin, NMAAHC will ensure that the rich, complex and difficult story of the enslaved will be made accessible for the millions who will visit the museum.”
The cabin will be the focal piece of the museum’s exhibition “Slavery and Freedom,” which examines slavery’s role in shaping America and its lasting impact on African Americans.
The Museum currently is in the early stages of construction, but stop by its recently opened onsite Welcome Center to preview what is to come.
May 2, 2013
Events May 3-5: American Civil Rights, Asian Pacific American Heritage Month and Interactive Robot Games
Friday, May 3: Exhibition Tour: Changing America
This year is a big one for celebrating civil rights; 2013 marks both the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation and the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, in which Martin Luther King, Jr. told the nation he had a dream of equality. Changing America: The Emancipation Proclamation, 1863, and the March on Washington, 1963 celebrates both momentous events with related historical objects, including the pens Abraham Lincoln and Lyndon Johnson used to sign the Emancipation Proclamation and Civil Rights Act, respectively. Today, stop by the exhibition for a tour that explains the various objects’ significance. Free. 2 p.m. African American History Museum.
Saturday, May 4: I Want the Wide American Earth Family Festival
Happy Asian Pacific American Heritage Month! To kick off the month’s celebration of Asian Pacific American culture, as well as to show off its new exhibit I Want the Wide American Earth, the American History Museum has organized arts, crafts and a scavenger hunt today, along with an afternoon of storytelling and spoken word performances. Guests include local writers Wendy Wan-Long Shang (The Great Wall of Lucy), Eugenia Kim (The Calligrapher’s Daughter) and Scott Seligman (The First Chinese American: The Remarkable Life of Wong Chin Foo) and spoken word extraordinaire Regie Cabico. Free. 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. American History Museum.
Sunday, May 5: Childen’s Day
Keep the Asian Pacific American Heritage Month festivities going! Today, the American Art Museum celebrates Children’s Day, a traditional Korean holiday for kids, with arts and activities inspired by Nam June Paik (1932-2006), an avant-garde musician and installation and video artist whose work is on display in the museum. Kids can play with interactive TV and robot games and go on a scavenger hunt (in case you missed yesterday’s!). Free. 11:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. American Art Museum.
Also, check out our Visitors Guide App. Get the most out of your trip to Washington, D.C. and the National Mall with this selection of custom-built tours, based on your available time and passions. From the editors of Smithsonian magazine, the app is packed with handy navigational tools, maps, museum floor plans and museum information including ‘Greatest Hits’ for each Smithsonian museum.
For a complete listing of Smithsonian events and exhibitions visit the goSmithsonian Visitors Guide. Additional reporting by Michelle Strange.