National Geographic : 2016 Oct
I, too, Am America 135 one he placed in his father’s casket. “I’ll just be honest,” Lewis says. “ You know it’s just weird that in maybe a hundred years it’s still going to be there. I’m going to be part of American history. I mean, that’s my selfish part. It’s really that this little goofy kid from Willingboro, New Jersey, that people laughed at, is in the Smithsonian.” Even objects that represent triumph have the contextual backdrop of overcoming daunting barriers. Take, for example, Chuck Berry’s 1973 convertible Cadillac Eldorado. It is a stunner of a car. Lipstick red with whitewall wheels and a hood ornament that gleams like a chandelier. Even as it screams of self-determination, there’s a backstory of denigration. During filming for the documentary Chuck Berry: Hail! Hail! Rock ’n’ Roll, Berry, who was about to turn 60, drove that car across the stage of the Fox Theatre in St. Louis—the same theater that had refused him entry when he was a boy. In the museum Berry will be remembered as a pioneering gui- tarist whose music appealed to black and white teenagers, setting the sonic template for future legends, including Keith Richards, Pete Town- shend, and Dave Grohl. FROM THE OUTSET the goal was to create a new collection rather than poach what little other museums had. The museum’s temporary offices were filled with whiteboards and yellow sheets listing people, milestones, events, and themes: abolition, the Civil War, dance, sports, black newspapers, transportation, incarceration, pro- test movements, business districts, agriculture, maritime work, hair, comedy, family life. The curators wanted artifacts that represent- ed historic milestones but would reveal those stories in a personal way. Ordinary items to tell extraordinary stories. They found a great many. Marian Anderson’s outfit with the flame orange jacket, which she chose for her performance at the Lincoln Memorial in 1939, after she had been barred by the Daughters of the American Revolution from singing at Constitution Hall because she was black. A slim handmade tin box that protected the freedom papers carried by Joseph Trammell, a former slave emancipated in the 1850s. Shards of stained glass found by civil rights activist Joan Mulholland in the gutter outside the 16th Street Baptist Church in Bir- mingham, Alabama, after it was bombed in 1963 by white supremacists. A racket used by tennis champion Althea Gibson, who in the early 1950s was the first African American to compete in the U.S. Nationals and Wimbledon. Tiny shackles made to be worn by a slave child. The curators say their job will never be done. They continue to collect items attached to his- tory as it happens, from the 2014 protests in Ferguson, Missouri, after a white police officer killed an unarmed black man, to the eventual end of President Barack Obama’s two terms. One of the most extraordinary ordinary items has a direct link to the dark chapter when blacks were bought and sold as property. It also is a reminder of how enslaved blacks desperately clung to the hope for freedom. Rex Ellis remembers the day he was walking down a hall and overheard a colleague casually mention that a persistent woman kept calling to say she had Nat Turner’s Bible. Ellis stopped so quickly he spilled the soft drink in his hand. “Give me the number,” he said. He called her immediately but was leery. The curators were getting used to dead ends and people looking for a payday or instant attention. The swampy stretch of Southampton County, Virginia, where Turner led a bloody slave revolt in 1831 was a short drive from where Ellis grew up. He had heard rumors about Turner mem- orabilia handed down among white families. A hat. A sword. A coin purse allegedly made from Turner’s skin after he was hanged. The Bible, if it truly existed, would be cen- tral to Nat Turner history. Turner had been a widely sought after preacher and a deeply re- ligious man who believed he had visions and received signs from God. He had taught himself to read and carried a Bible when he delivered sermons or baptized enslaved men and women. He may have carried it as his slave posse went from plantation to plantation, freeing slaves and killing at least 55 white people, including women and children.