African American History Museum Director Lonnie Bunch Recalls Journey in Shepherd Park

Dr. Lonnie Bunch IIIthe founding Director of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, shared stories and wisdom gained during the museum’s twelve-year development Wednesday evening.  The event at Shepherd Elementary school was co-hosted by the Shepherd Park Citizens Association (SPCA) and the Friends of the Shepherd Park Library (FSPL).

After a warm welcome by SPCA president Naima Jefferson and an introduction by FSPL’s Claudia Anyaso, Dr. Bunch leapt into his engaging presentation. When he came to Washington in 2005 to begin laying the groundwork for the Museum, there was no budget, no site and no collection to display. He said, “All there was however, was commitment to fulfill the dreams of many generations.”

The original idea of a museum in Washington to tell the African American story began way back in 1913, during the 50th anniversary celebrations of the Battle of Gettysburg.  Despite there having been over two hundred thousand Black soldiers who fought in the Civil War, their service was ignored during subsequent commemorations.  That led to a push for recognition that germinated in a meeting at DC’s 19th Street Baptist Church.  Dr. Bunch’s mission became finding a way to turn that dream into reality.

A Vision to Meet Today’s Needs

Lonnie BunchDr. Bunch stated that what made everything work was a simple vision.   He said, “On one hand, (the Museum) had to be a place to help us all remember.  One of the people who shaped me so much in Chicago was Emmett Till’s mother, Mamie Mobley. She used to always say to me that she carried the burden of her son’s murder for fifty years, and somebody else had to remember it.”

Helping Americans confront their tortured racial past while also serving as a place where visitors could find joy in the richness of Black culture became motivating factors.

However, he and his staff knew they needed more.  “We felt that it was really important to craft a museum that views African-American culture as a lens to understand what it meant to be American.  This is the story of America, through the lens of a particular community. When people want to understand the Core Values of America: optimism, spirituality, resiliency… where better to look than within this community? When they want to understand the promise of America or the limits of that promise, where better to look?”

Political and Practical Challenges

One of the challenges of building the Museum was finding the collections.  Dr. Bunch inquired, “I knew that for us to be successful, we had to find the stuff of history.  But, where was it?”

The museum staff launched a nationwide historical treasure hunt, akin to Antiques Roadshow.  In one visit to Philadelphia, Dr. Bunch was stunned to find small collection of items related to Harriet Tubman. The find included photos of her funeral and a hymnal that once belonged to Tubman.  That trip convinced him that they could tell a story in the Museum that would matter. He surmises that all of the Museum’s twentieth century items and most of the nineteenth century items were found in the basements, trunks and attics of America.

After this effort, the museum had collected over forty thousand artifacts.

The other challenge was managing public expectations.  The staff found that people from diverse backgrounds or political points of view had wildly varying notions of what they wanted to see in the museum.  Some people didn’t want to show anything about slavery while others didn’t want to see the museum built at all. He recalled receiving a letter from a citizen that began, “Dear Leftwing historian….”

The staff spent two years traveling around the country to interview people about what they knew and what they wanted to know.  Then they asked for opinions from many talented scholars. In the end, they weaved the scholarly and the public knowledge threads together to craft the program of the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Many people assume that fundraising would be the highest hurdle, but Dr. Bunch disagreed.  He carefully cultivated a squadron of “thirty angels” on each side of the political aisle. In fact, the sponsors of the legislation that created and fund the Museum were Congressman John Lewis (D-MD) and United States Senator Sam Brownback (R-KS).  He joked that when the location for the museum was still an open question, he told Congress that Oprah Winfrey had promised to donate $20 million if it were placed on the National Mall but only $1 million if it were located someplace else. He received the current, preferred site approval that day!

Historic Opening

The opening day of the museum was one of the greatest experiences of his career.  In addition to the 7,000 VIP guests, including stars like Ms. Winfrey and Will Smith, both President George W Bush and President Barack Obama spoke.  Dr. Bunch says, “In some ways you realize that opening moment was America at its best.”

The Museum has been incredibly well-received.  Both scholars and the media give it high rankings and its popularity has made it a difficult ticket, even more than a full year after its opening.  The staff expected to receive four thousand daily visits but, they get over eight thousand. Not only that, but visitors tend to stay for over three times as long as they do at other Smithsonian institutions, with visits extending to a whopping five hours on average.

It has been an amazing opportunity for sharing across the generations and with diverse populations; over 45% of visitors are a race other than African-American!

President Obama and Michelle Obama pose with four generations of the Bonner family. (EPA/Jim Lo Scalzo)
President Obama and Michelle Obama pose with four generations of the Bonner family. (EPA/Jim Lo Scalzo)

One of the most special moments of that day was the inclusion of Mrs. Ruth Bonner. Ruth Odom Bonner and her family had the honor of ringing the bell to officially the museum.  The then 99-year-old was the daughter of Elijah Odom, who had been born into slavery in Mississippi in 1859. Despite that obstacle, he went on to become a physician and general store owner during Reconstruction who served both Black and White clientele.

Dr. Bunch said that to him, as long as there is an America, there is an opportunity for the Museum to help us understand what we once were, inspire us for who we are today and point us toward a future that helps America live up to its stated ideals.

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