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.”
July 10, 2013
Known for the long sentences–93 years on average–its residents serve, the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola has many different meanings, according to New York Times reporter Patricia Cohen, including as a symbol of “one of the most brutal and corrupt institutions in the post-Civil War South, the nearest kin to slavery that could legally exist.” After negotiations with the prison, the National Museum of African American History and Culture will now include this history in its collections, highlighting the enduring legacy of slavery in post-Civil War incarceration practices, with an early 20th-century concrete guard tower from the Angola prison. The museum also acquired a cell from another section of the prison that was built on former slave quarters.
The prison officially opened in 1901, but the site of it had long been used as plantations which drew some of its labor directly from the state’s prisons in a common post-Civil War penal labor practice known as convict-leasing that allowed private individuals to “lease” prisoners.
Curator Paul Gardullo told the New York Times, he credits the prison for its willingness to donate the items, allowing the museum “to portray a history that gets into some of these dark corners of American history” from a “place that still carries the legacy of slavery with it.”
April 17, 2013
On April 16, Smithsonian Institution Secretary G. Wayne Clough testified before the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform about the impending effects of sequestration. Though the Obama administration had sought a $59 million budget increase for the Institution in fiscal 2014, this year Clough has to contend with a $41 million budget reduction due to sequestration. Gallery closings, fewer exhibitions, reduced educational offerings, loss of funding for research and cuts to the planning process of the under-construction National Museum of African American History and Culture were listed among the impacts of the sequestration.
Clough began his testimony: “Each year millions of our fellow citizens come to Washington to visit—for free—our great museums and galleries and the National Zoo, all of which are open every day of the year but one. Our visitors come with high aspirations to learn and be inspired by our exhibitions and programs.”
“It is my hope,” Clough told the committee, “that our spring visitors will not notice the impact of the sequestration.” Perhaps most noticeable would be the gallery closures, which, while they would not close entire museums, would restrict access to certain floors or spaces in the museums, unable to pay for sufficient security. Those changes would begin May 1, according to Clough.
Clough warned, however, that while these short-term measures will save in the near future, they might also entail long-term consequences. Unforeseen costs may arise in the form of diminished maintenance capabilities, for example. “Any delays in revitalization or construction projects will certainly result in higher future operating and repair costs,” Clough said.
This also threatens the Institution’s role as steward of thousands of historic and valuable artifacts–”Morse’s telegraph; Edison’s light bulb; the Salk vaccine; the 1865 telescope designed by Maria Mitchell, America’s first woman astronomer who discovered a comet; the Wright Flyer; Amelia Earhart’s plane; Louis Armstrong’s trumpet; the jacket of labor leader Cesar Chavez,” to name a few.
March 7, 2013
When Gabrielle Douglas isn’t flying between the uneven bars (earning the nickname “flying squirrel”) or flipping her way down a balance beam, she’s gracing the cover of Corn Flakes boxes, making cameos at the MTV Video Music Awards and sitting down with Oprah Winfrey. At age 16, Douglas won two golds at last year’s London Olympics, winning both the individual and team all-around competitions. With her double gold she became both the first African American gymnast to win the individual all around and the first American to also win the team competition. A series of high-profile appearances, including meeting the president, followed, but Douglas says she’s keeping focused on the next Olympics. Recently, she donated several personal items, including the leotard she wore during her first competitive season in 2003, to the growing collections of the new National Museum of African American History and Culture, which will open in 2015. Until then, they can be seen in the museum’s gallery at the American History Museum. Around the Mall caught up with the champion via email to talk about the donation and her future plans.
What do the items that you chose say about you, your life or stage in your career?
The items that I donated really tell the story of my journey to the Olympics. They represent me as an ordinary girl with big dreams, and as an Olympian at the peak of my gymnastics career. I wanted to share my first competition leotard because that’s where it all began for me—back home in Virginia. It’s a constant reminder to me of how far I’ve come.
Why did you choose the Smithsonian?
My mother took me and my siblings to the Smithsonian when we were much younger, and I was in awe of the amazing history. It’s such an honor to have my personal items on display at the world’s largest and most respected museum—especially in time for Black History Month. I thought that was pretty awesome.
What do you hope visitors will take away after seeing your items? What message do you hope they send?
I hope they see that my Olympic success did not happen overnight. This has been over a decade of hard work, but it all paid off. I also hope visitors will see that I could not have done this alone.They will see pictures of my family—my support system throughout this journey; and my host family, who joined forces with my mom to make sure that I reached my goal. I hope that my items send the message that anything is possible if you commit to your dream and fight for it every day. My mom taught me that success isn’t reserved for people of a specific color or background—it belongs to those who are willing to work for it.
You’ve had such incredible success, earning an impressive list of firsts. First African American woman to win gold in the individual all-around. First woman of color of any nationality to win the honor. First American athlete to win both the individual all-around and team gold medals. Which one meant the most to you and why?
You know, I think they are all equally important to me. I definitely take pride in the fact that I was able to change the face of gymnastics as the first African American woman to win gold in the individual all-around competition because I know what that means to little girls who look like me. However, winning the team gold medal was also a very special moment. It wasn’t so much about making history—I was just so happy to have the opportunity to celebrate with my teammates. Together, we brought the gold medal home to the U.S. and it felt great!
What was your favorite moment of the Olympics?
I will never forget the moment I ran and jumped in Coach (Liang) Chow’s arms after the Individual All Around Competition. I thanked him for believing in me and pushing me to reach my highest potential. I could see the pride in his eyes, and it was overwhelming. It still gives me chills when I think about that moment.
How do you think you’ve changed since the Olympics? What about since that first competitive season in 2003?
I’m asked that question all the time, but I’m just the same fun-loving Gabby. I love to hang out with family and friends, joke around, and have a great time. My family really keeps me grounded. I think, if anything, I’m more focused on using this platform I’ve been blessed to help inspire others. As for that first competitive season in 2003, I would say I’m definitely stronger and more confident. I’ve had a lot of bumps and bruises along the way, but those experiences have shown me how tough I am. I’m a fighter, and I love my competitive spirit.
What are you most looking forward to now?
My Olympic success has provided me with so many great opportunities in such a small window of time. It’s been such a whirlwind and a ton of fun. I’ve been able to meet some awesome fans who continue to encourage and support me. I’ve also made several appearances and met so many cool celebrities; I even met President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama. I’m super grateful for all of these opportunities, but I’m really looking forward to getting back into the gym and working on new routines with Coach Chow. I’m ready to learn new tricks and step it up for 2016 in Rio!
The display at the American History Museum includes Douglas’ leotard as well as, ” the grip bag, wrist tape and uneven bar grips she used at the 2012 London Olympics; the ticket to the Olympics used by Douglas’ mother, Natalie Hawkins; and credentials used by Douglas to gain access to Olympic venues. Also on display will be personal photos donated by Douglas and an autographed copy of her new book Grace, Gold & Glory: My Leap of Faith.”
February 8, 2013
Carlotta Walls set out for her first day of 10th grade in a new dress. The year was 1957, and the school was Little Rock Central High. Walls and eight other African-American students were stopped by a white mob opposed to desegregation, and the ensuing confrontation between Arkansas and federal authorities took 20 days and Army troops to quell.
Walls recently donated the dress—patterned with numbers and letters—to the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Bill Pretzer, a curator, says her great-uncle bought it thinking, “Desegregating Little Rock merits a store-bought dress.” Walls graduated from Little Rock Central in 1960, after her home was bombed that February.
“I really did want that diploma,” she says, “to validate all of the crap that I had gone through.” Carlotta Walls LaNier, now 70, is president of the Little Rock Nine Foundation, which works for equal access to education.
For your first day of school at Little Rock Central High School, why was that store-bought dress so special?
“We didn’t purchase too often, to be honest with you, if you understand the Jim Crow South, you couldn’t try on clothes, and so forth, as I grew up. My mother was an expert seamstress, so she just made all of our clothes, including hers. My great uncle, knew that that was the case and he wanted me to have a store-bought dress to go to my new school, so he stopped by the house and asked my mother, he said, here’s the money and I want you to go get her a store-bought dress.”
What were you thinking life at your new school would be like?
“I knew that we could not do any extracurricular activity…I knew I was giving that piece up but I just figured that the following year I’d be able to get back to extracurricular activities. That part was okay. It was excitement for me, to be going to a new high school, and to be the one that was in my neighborhood. So that was what was going on in my mind.”
“Yes, I saw all of the anger, and the ugly faces across the street, but I ignored them, and I really did consider them ignorant people. To be honest with you, that is what really got me through the whole year, that I knew this was ignorance that was making these statements and not the type of people that I would associate with.”
Were your parents worried to send you?
“I think they were more proud of the fact that I had signed up to go without a discussion with them.”
“I know they were nervous by what they were reading, but they also felt confident that we were doing the right thing. When I wrote my book, I read some quotes of my father’s and he felt that, he had served in World War II, I had a right to go to that school and his tax dollars helped pay for that school, for the schooling that went on. And he felt that they didn’t separate his taxes, so why should we be separated as far as going to school?”
As the youngest, how did you relate to the rest of the Little Rock Nine?
“I listened to the seniors and juniors, even when I was in junior high school, I looked up to those who were older and were doing well, they were role models for me.”
“I must admit as the months went on, I recognized we were all equal in this, so you know my decision making got sharper and more focused, I think I was focused to start with, otherwise I wouldn’t have gone there anyway, but as far as decision making I was making some decisions that were somewhat different than some of the others because I looked at the landscape a little bit differently.”
“One in particular. . .I was thinking about Minnijean [Brown-Trickey] and Melba [Pattillo Beals] and a couple of others who bought their lunch every day in the cafeteria. That was a battleground in my mind that, you knew that you were going to have to deal with being pushed and shoved. . .in line to purchase your lunch. So I brought my lunch every day, so I wouldn’t have to deal with that. I dealt with it enough in the hallways and in the classrooms. My one break was having lunch, so why have to continue that sort of thing in the lunch line?”
But you made it through the first year and then came back your senior year, even after the governor closed the school for an entire year?
“I was determined to finish that year, I was not going to give up, because that way they would’ve won, and I was not about to let that happen. Because of my sports involvement, I was a pretty competitive person. I was just not going to let that happen. I didn’t have to go back, but after awhile, after that first and the second year the schools were closed, I went back my senior year to finish, because I really did want that diploma to validate all of the crap that I had gone through.”
“I remember being back on the campus and the fact that there were no guards there to protect us. I was cautious, there was no question about that, however, I also felt that the senior class members were in the 10th grade with me. . .they had suffered just like I had in a sense with school being out and they were low people on the totem pole too, so now that they were in a leadership position, they were determined not to have the same sort of things to go on. Not to say that they stopped a lot of things, but the tone was different and they didn’t want the schools to be closed either, they were happy to be back in school.”
Why did your mom keep your first day of school dress all those years?
“She just packed it up and put it in the cedar chest. I think not knowing, but at the same feeling that it meant something, she kept it. And I’m just happy she did.”