Never Forget

Jul 13, 2017 by

This 4th of July weekend found me in my hometown of Washington, D.C. There is no better time to be in our nation’s capital. History pulses all around D.C.

Since the founding of our great nation over two centuries ago, we have striven to be “a more perfect union”. With all the strife, division, and partisanship on steroids that threatens to tear apart our country today, there is no better place and time to pause and give thanks for all of our blessings as we work to overcome what divides us as a nation.

Born and raised in D.C., I wanted to take in one of the relatively new additions to the Smithsonian’s collection, only to have the idea shot down.

When I mentioned to my friends over dinner about my plan to visit the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture the following day, I heard, “That’s great, how long ago did you get tickets?”

“Tickets?” Since when, I wondered, did one need tickets for the Smithsonian Museum?

“Since day one,” I was informed. Glad we did not heed their warning, we went anyway and were able to talk our way in. Admission to the museum is free but has been in extremely high demand since the facility opened its doors on September 24, 2016.

The moment one descends the oversized elevator into the museum begins a painful walk back in time. You are slowly drawn back to 1400 through our country’s ugly history: the dichotomy of a nation founded on the ideals of democracy and freedom even as the country depended on an economy built by indentured servants and slaves.

Our History

The focal point of the museum is on the African people ripped from their homeland and sold into slavery. Their story is part of our American history. Our country, one nation, is a story of the good, the bad, and the ugly.

The museum, nearly a century in the making, is located on the National Mall, book-ended by our nation’s Capitol and the Lincoln Memorial, not far from the Washington Monument. The four-level museum is the only national museum solely dedicated to the documentation of African-American life, history, and culture.

What’s Inside?

The Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) addresses nearly every aspect of the African American experience, covering the arts, slavery, the Civil Rights Movement, athletics, entertainers, and much more. The building’s exterior, conceived by Ghanaian-born architect David Adjaye, is artfully made up of a three-tiered, bronze-colored screen. This exterior pays tribute to the intricate ironwork forged by enslaved African Americans in the southern United States.

The museum’s collection of artifacts is astounding: 3,500 are on view, with over 35,000 in the collection. Standout items include a shawl given to Harriet Tubman by Queen Victoria, training aircraft used by the Tuskegee Institute, and an invitation to President Obama’s 2009 Inauguration.

The museum is organized into three sections – history, community, and culture. I recommend you view from the bottom to the top, taking you from the slave trade to modern day. You descend into history by taking an elevator down – from 2015, past 1776, until you arrive at the beginning of the 15th century – where you are deposited into a world depicting the economically rewarding and evil slave trade time.

The museum displays a bill of sale for a 16-year-old girl named Polly, who was transferred between owners in 1835 for $600; and shackles used to restrain slaves in the holds of ships. The museum takes you from despair to hope.

The displays are powerful and it is not unusual to hear sobs and seeing people console family, friends, and strangers.

Never Forget

If you forget history, are you bound to repeat it?

Our ugly past remains with us today. Less than a month ago, for the second time in a week, a noose was found on Smithsonian grounds, most recently at the National Museum of African-American History and Culture. The noose was found in the history galleries of the museum, which was opened last year by President Barack Obama.

The discovery “is a painful reminder of the challenges that African-Americans continue to face,” opined Lonnie Bunch, the museum’s founding director.

A painful and sad reminder indeed.

America’s First African American President

President Obama reminded us of our collective history when he spoke at the opening ceremony of the museum saying, “It reaffirms that all of us are America — that African-American history is not somehow separate from our larger American story, it’s not the underside of the American story, it is central to the American story. That our glory derives not just from our most obvious triumphs, but how we’ve wrested triumph from tragedy, and how we’ve been able to remake ourselves, again and again, and again, in accordance with our highest ideals. I, too, am America.”

President Obama’s speech at African American Museum Opening can be viewed here:

There is truly too much to take in at the museum, from artifacts to emotions, in one visit. The quotes sprinkled in the museum’s displays are powerful. A sample of just a few:

  • “We do not wish to make you angry, but… consider how hateful slavery is in the sight of God.” — Absalom Jones and Richard Allen, 1794
  • “If one minute’s freedom had been offered to me, and I had been told I must die at the end of that minute, I would have taken it.” — Elizabeth Freeman, 1800

Bi- Partisan Support

President George W. Bush authorized legislation to establish the National Museum of African American History and Culture, a bill brought to him by civil rights activist, Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) and then Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.)

President George W. Bush then said, “The lesson in this museum is that all Americans share a past and a future by staying true to our principles, righting injustice and encouraging the empowerment of all. We will be an even greater nation for generations to come.”

I recall how President Obama and President Bush conducted themselves at the opening ceremony, with dignity, respect, and a sense of bipartisanship that is sorely missing today.

The United States was built on slave labor. This shame is both a chapter and the very foundation of our nation. We have come far and have much to celebrate. But we are still on a collective journey to become “a more perfect Union.”

Frederick Douglass, African-American social reformer, abolitionist, orator, writer, and statesman spoke the truth when he said, “Knowledge makes a man unfit to be a slave.”

The Smithsonian-National Museum of African American History & Culture will make you wiser and more knowledgeable about our history. We all have much to learn. Make it a point to visit our nation’s capital as often as possible. While you are there, get a ticket to The Smithsonian-National Museum of African American History & Culture.

To learn more, see Inside the National Museum of African American History and Culture on YouTube:

Tom Watkins is a strong believer in celebrating diversity and inclusion and learning from our past as we prepare for our future. He served the citizens of Michigan as State Superintendent of Schools (2001-05). He is the President and CEO of the Detroit Wayne Mental Health Authority. He can be emailed at:, or followed on twitter at:@tdwatkins88

Source: Never Forget

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.