Community Voices

Family trip to Washington’s African American Museum inspires three generations

Retired Miami Dade College librarian Juanita Bennett Johnson in 2017 standing in front of a statue of Phillis Wheatley, the first black poet in America to publish a book. The statue is on exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.
Retired Miami Dade College librarian Juanita Bennett Johnson in 2017 standing in front of a statue of Phillis Wheatley, the first black poet in America to publish a book. The statue is on exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. Photo provided to the Miami Herald

Nearly two decades ago, retired Miami Dade College librarian Juanita Bennett Johnson read that after almost a century of requests and disappointments, the construction of the national African American museum in Washington had been authorized by Congress.

In December 2003, Congress enacted The NMAAHC Act, P.L. 108-184, establishing a museum within the Smithsonian to be known as the National Museum of African American History & Culture. Shortly thereafter, then-President George W. Bush signed into law H. R. 3491, the National Museum of African American History and Culture Act.

The Smithsonian Institution Board of Regents selected the site. The 400,000-square-foot building was to include exhibition space, a theater and cafe, staff offices and an education center. It would stand on a 5-acre plot of land on the National Mall near the Washington Monument.

Weeks before and on Sept. 24, 2016, the day of the grand opening, national and international coverage announced the feat. News spread through social and print media including USA Today, Forbes, the Los Angeles Times, MarketWatch, Time Magazine, the New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and Daily Mail as well as network and cable television and blogs.

Stories noted the $540 million pricetag of the project, with half provided by Congressional funding and the remainder raised by the museum. Prior to the opening, the museum raised $315 million in private funding to supplement the federal appropriations.

News outlets highlighted the millions of dollars that celebrities, sports stars, philanthropists and businesses donated to the museum. Additionally, the museum raised money from churches, sororities, fraternities and others who had never been asked for large donations before, according to museum founding director Lonnie Bunch.

“I contributed money to help build our national African-American museum,’’ Juanita Johnson, one of the Miami donors, declared. “I am a charter member of this museum and I contribute annually to help maintain it.”

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Aaron, Joyce, Michio, Juanita and Dr. Corbin Johnson at Walt Disney World in 2010. Photo provided to the Miami Herald

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She did not attend the opening. Instead she chose to wait until family members were available so they could go together. From Chicago, Nashville and Miami, the family gathered in Washington on Labor Day weekend, 2017.

Johnson was accompanied to the museum by two of her three sons:

Dr. Corbin Johnson, his wife Karou, and their daughter Joyce and son Michio; Aaron Johnson and his wife Lillian, and their son Nicholas; sister Anna and her husband, Dr. Elmer Washington; and family friend Mary Reeves.

In another section of the museum, Johnson’s son, Stanley Johnson, an attorney, was with a group of colleagues.

Johnson’s grandsons, Michio and Nicholas, were interested in the lynching of Emmett Till, a black teenager brutally slain in 1955. Nicholas, 13, said he is about the same age as Emmett was and can relate to the horror he saw in the exhibit. Michio, 12, said he did not like seeing the negative treatment of slaves. He preferred the happier life he saw in posters and music.

With her grandchildren and other family members, Juanita Johnson spent the day in awe on the historical journey. They walked through time seeing ceiling-to-floor exhibits that portrayed history, from slavery to emancipation. Following the path chronologically, they saw American black history unfold before them, from family, community, religion, the Great Migration, civil rights actions of the 1950s-1960s and recent events such as Black Lives Matter movement.

They viewed everyday artifacts and heard stories from Americans willing to share pieces of history collected by ancestors. Digital and interactive exhibits kept them engaged. The section that most caught Juanita Johnson’s attention was the Civil Rights Movement. “I lived through that time and remembered many people being killed and many people losing their jobs.”

At the end of the visit she reflected, “My expectations were met and it was more information than I could take in one visit. I look forward to returning and encouraging others to go with their families and friends. I think all African Americans should visit this museum because it is our living history.”

According to Bunch, the museum’s founding director, “The National Museum of African American History and Culture is a place for all people. Exhibitions and programs are offered to unite and capture the attention of millions of people worldwide. It is a place where everyone can explore the story of America through the lens of the African American experience.”

For Juanita Johnson’s grandchildren, Black History Month 2018 and beyond will include lessons learned through sights and sounds experienced at the National African American Museum. To help prepare for your visit, go to nmaahc.si.edu.

Dorothy Jenkins Fields, PhD, is a historian and founder of the Black Archives, History and Research Foundation of South Florida Inc. Send feedback to djf@bellsouth.net.

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