Black history museum starting to take shape in Washington


McClatchy Washington Bureau

Not far from the Washington Monument, Lonnie Bunch is standing on a deck outside a trailer, looking down on what for two years has been a construction pit on the National Mall.

Now it has the emerging shape and promise of a new museum.

“It’s humbling,” said Bunch, the founding director of the new National Museum of African American History and Culture. “For the last eight and a half years, it was my job to make people believe.”

As Black History Month draws to a close, construction is at the midway point for what will be a permanent symbol of the role of African Americans throughout U.S. history.

The grand opening is expected by the end of next year or in early in 2016, perhaps during Black History Month, though for Bunch, “Every month is Black History Month. And for the Smithsonian, it’s going to be for millions of people.”

Officials with the museum, part of the Smithsonian Institution, say that they have raised approximately $400 million toward the $500 million cost of the museum, with more than $160 million coming from private sources. A significant contribution — $12 million — came from media mogul and actress Oprah Winfrey, who will have a theater inside the museum named in her honor.

“By investing in this museum, I want to help ensure that we both honor and preserve our culture and history, so that the stories of who we are will live on for generations to come,” Winfrey said last year.

President Barack Obama, the first African American chief executive, attended the groundbreaking two years ago. But as Bunch raised money and developed the collection, he had to make sure people believed that the museum would be built.

“I get very emotional when I come here,” he told McClatchy on a recent tour of the site.

It could very well be the last building to go up on the mall, sometimes referred to as the “nation’s front lawn.” Mall advocates, from Congress to the National Park Service to arts experts, seem to agree that nothing more can be placed along the nearly two-mile corridor from the U.S. Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial without detracting from the green space and the existing array of museums and memorials.

The Smithsonian will use its empty Arts and Industries Building for a National Museum of the American Latino, still awaiting congressional approval.

Phil Freelon, the African-American architect from Durham, N.C., who designed the building, imagined an angular, three-tiered boxlike structure with 10 stories — five above ground, five below.

The exterior will be layered with 3,600 bronze latticed panels — “coronas” — to make it gleam, inspired by the decorative ironwork crafted by slaves in Charleston, S.C., and New Orleans.

The museum’s curators have accumulated thousands of items depicting both the struggles of African Americans against slavery and racism and the achievements in the arts and business and sports, including some special artifacts from Miami.

Muhammed Ali, the three-time heavyweight champion of the world, got his professional start in Miami Beach at the 5th Street Gym, a place considered, said African American museum curator Paul Gardullo, “an island of integration in a sea of segregation.”

Ali trained at the gym, run by the Dundee brothers, Chris and Angelo, after he won the gold medal at the Rome Olympics in 1960. He became a sensation when he won his first heavyweight championship, fighting under the name Cassius Clay, in an upset win against Sonny Liston on Feb. 25, 1964, in Miami Beach, fifty years ago this week.

Ali announced he was a Muslim after the bout and changed his name as he challenged the white power structure through his talent and his outsized personality. “Muhammed Ali stands as a force of change in American history and culture,” Gardullo said. “He transcends sport.”

The museum was able to secure several items from the Dundee family and other sources — including a robe with Ali’s name on it and headgear for training, a ring-side ticket as well as a program and a press packet for the championship fight. The museum also has a training glove signed before the fight by Ali when he still used the name Clay.

Other artifacts from the 5th Street Gym from the early 1970s when Ali was still training there include a corner stool, used by boxers in their corner of the ring and a ringside bell.

In the museum, some large artifacts already have been put in place — shrink-wrapped for now — so that the building can be built around them.

A railroad car with different compartments for whites in the front and a sign for “colored” in the back has been restored. It serves as a compelling example of how the Jim Crow-era segregation laws separated blacks and whites in public facilities. Jim Crow was a derogatory term for African-Americans.

Visitors will be able to walk through the vintage 1918 Southern Railway car, used from 1940-1960 on routes in Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia and Florida, and see the comfortable seating for whites and the divider that kept African Americans in the basic seating in the back.

There’s also a 21-foot concrete guard tower from Angola prison, the Louisiana State Penitentiary, that was built in the 1930s and to Bunch serves as a powerful symbol of the oppression of African Americans.

Many were rounded up as vagrants and, in a practice of “convict-leasing” that began at the turn of the 20th century, “it became a way to reinstitute slavery,” Bunch said, explaining that prisoners were leased out to work for residents.

The guard tower and the railway car will be featured in the museum’s Segregation Gallery as part of an inaugural exhibition, “Defending Freedom, Defining Freedom: Era of Segregation 1876-1968.”

A slave cabin from Point of Pines Plantation on Edisto Island, S.C., dating to the early 19th century, will tell a similar tale of life during slavery.

The clapboard cabin, which will display the narrow confines of slave life, was dismantled piece by piece and shipped to Washington last May, where it will be reassembled for an exhibition called “Slavery and Freedom” when the museum opens.

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