National Geographic : 2016 Oct
I, too, Am America 127 to soaring victories, this new museum takes an unflinching look at the travails and triumphs of African Americans. Discoveries like Gina McVey’s are a particular thrill to the museum’s curators. They began their work a decade ago believing that many of the artifacts, documents, and treasures that would reveal the story of African Americans were se- creted in basements, attics, garages, and storage trunks. Items with high monetary value might be in the hands of collectors, but the curators had a hunch that many with great significance were still undiscovered, because many museums have overlooked black history. But there was another realization that led cu- rators to believe so much black history was still buried. Black families in many cases have been unwilling to excavate their own past because it is soaked through with so much pain. African Americans are still joined at family tables by those old enough to have lived through a period of second-class citizenship, when laws dictat- ed where they could eat, live, work, or educate their children. And yet many who survived the dehumanizing and degrading system of segrega- tion decided that the best way to move forward was to avoid dwelling on the past. Their focus was fixed forward. Onward. Upward. In my own childhood, my father and his five brothers would talk all the time about “travel- ing light.” When someone asked, “How’re you doing?” the answer was, “Traveling light.” I was well into adulthood before I realized they weren’t talking about the kind of baggage that has handles. They were from Birmingham, Al- abama, and they all had moved north, looking for a better life and a place where their children might take flight. To move skyward, certain things were sim- ply locked away. Besides the Croix de Guerre, the metal box of military keepsakes that McVey found included her grandfather’s Purple Heart, a sharpshooter medal, a thank-you letter from the French government, and photos of her grandfather in the uniform of the U.S. Army. “On one of the pictures my grandmother wrote at the top, ‘hero.’ That just touched my heart,” she says. “I just knew he won a medal. I just sat there and cried.” How does a family forget all that? The Harlem Hellfighters returned to a hero’s welcome in New York City, showered with ciga- rettes, chocolate, and coins that jingled off their steel helmets. But when the parade was over, the soldiers were back in a country that did not see them as equals. In 1919, the year they returned, hundreds of African Americans were killed by white mobs across the country as racial tensions erupted in what was called the Red Summer. “The more I learned about not just my grand- father’s service but the world he walked back into, the more I understood why this whole history just got lost,” McVey says. “It was hard. Too hard.” TO REX ELLIS, the museum’s associate director for curatorial affairs, the charge is to tell the whole story, “not a part of the story, not the portion that some people are most comfortable with.” This mission is not without controversy, as Ellis learned when he uncovered the history hidden in plain view in his hometown. 1915 The Committee of Colored Citizens forms to assist black veterans visiting Washington to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Civil War. Its mission later expands to create a permanent commem- oration in the capital—“a beautiful building suitable to depict the Negro’s con- tribution to America.” 1929 President Herbert Hoover appoints black leaders to plan a “National Memorial Building,” but no money is ever appropriated. 1967 The Smithsonian opens a museum of black history and culture in Anacostia, a storied African-American community in Washington. 1968 Jackie Robinson, who broke baseball’s color line, and writer James Baldwin ask Congress for a “commission on Negro history and culture.” 1981 Congress authorizes the National Afro-American Museum in Ohio, which runs without federal funds. 1986 Tom Mack, a black Wash- ington tour bus operator, launches a campaign for a museum on the mall. 1988 Congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis introduces a bill for a mu- seum. He does so every legislative session until it finally passes in 2003.