By Tonya Bolden. Smithsonian/Viking, 2016. 53 pages ISBN 978-0-451-47637-1 Click to purchase
The Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture had its grand opening just a few days ago, so this book is especially timely.
Bolden recounts the 100 year (100 years!) history behind getting the museum built which started at a GAR gathering of African-American Civil War veterans in 1915 (1915!) with a desire to build a national monument to honor these men. With little to no power to lobby Congress, the members of the National Memorial Association didn't make much progress but kept going. All the while their dream was growing until it had expanded into a full museum to honor African-American history. By 1929 a bill was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Calvin Coolidge on his last day in office. Yes, they could build a museum -- if they could raise half a million dollars to help fund it.
The dream was put on hold from several decades but always had its champions, including Senator John Lewis who, starting in 1988, introduced the modern version of the bill for the first time. It wasn't until 2001 until the bill finally passed and was signed into law by President George W. Bush.
After that, plans were submitted, an architect and builders were selected, and collections were acquired. Bolden describes each of these steps in vivid detail, showing how each one relates back to the original vision. Her text is generously illustrated with photographs of the people involved from 1915 to present, as well as some of the amazing artifacts that have been acquired. They include a plane that was used for training by the Tuskegee Airmen, a train car from the Jim Crow era so visitors can experience what the segregation felt like, and Louis Armstrong's trumpet.
Individuals have also donated treasured family heirlooms. Most moving perhaps is the plain cloth sack that had been in one South Carolina family for five generations. It has been sewn in the 1850s by a woman named Rose, packed with a few belongings for her nine-year-old daughter, Ashley, who was being sold. On parting her mother told her "It be filled with my love always." This one artifact illustrates the vision of museum Director Lonnie G. Bunch: "We want to bring everything to a human scale. Rather than coming here ans saying I've learned about slavery, you'll say, 'I've learned about the people who went through that experience.'"
This book will be an excellent resource for anyone planning to take children to visit the museum. And for those who can't make the trip in person, it offers a bit of vicarious experience.
Last week Edi Campbell wrote "a somewhat biased opinion piece" on the book; that can be found here.
reviewed by K. T. Horning