Should African-American history have its own museum?

By Jane O'Brien
BBC News, Washington

image captionThe museum will display Harriet Tubman’s hymn book (top left), shards of glass and a bullet casing from an Alabama church bombing that killed four young girls (top right), and Chuck Berry's Cadillac

A new museum in the US capital will highlight the history and culture of African Americans. But does displaying these artefacts separately contribute to a culture of segregation?

This week, the US Supreme Court is expected to make a decision about the legality of affirmative action programmes that allow universities to consider race as a factor in admissions.

Detractors argue that affirmative action is unnecessary in modern America and contributes to discrimination. Proponents say the programmes remain a vital way to counter centuries of racism and inequality in America.

Just blocks away from the Supreme Court in Washington DC, a similar debate is going on about a shawl, some shards of glass, and other historic artefacts.

They're items designated for the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

It hasn't been built yet, but its administrators, the new conservators of black history in the US, promise a venue that will enrich the nation's understanding of a racial heritage that continues to divide many Americans.

"We are testing ideas that are difficult for Americans," says museum director Lonnie Bunch.

"But you will find truth, reconciliation and healing around issues that have divided us for centuries. Here is a chance to understand the rich cultured history of African Americans and a chance for African Americans themselves to grapple with their tortured past."

It's a bold mission for a museum whose own creation in many ways mirrors the struggles of African Americans in society.

The idea for the museum was first suggested almost a hundred years ago but was thwarted by lawmakers who maintained that black people had contributed nothing to the US.

It was raised again during the 1960s civil rights era, but the federally funded Smithsonian Institution (to which the museum belongs) preferred instead to incorporate black history within its existing museums.

It wasn't until 2003 that President George W Bush signed a bill guaranteeing that Congress would pay half the $500m (£325m) needed to build the museum.

Ground was broken by President Barack Obama in 2012 and construction is well underway on the site in the shadow of the Washington Monument at the centre of the National Mall.

Efforts to raise the rest of the money were given a boost this month when media celebrity Oprah Winfrey donated $12m in addition to the $1m she gave in 2007.

And from having no items to display just a few years ago, the objects themselves are rolling in. Some 22,000 have now been collected including a rare Bible belonging to Nat Turner, leader of an 1831 slave revolt.

Among other artefacts are a lace shawl given by Queen Victoria to Harriet Tubman, shards of glass from the Alabama church where four girls were killed in a 1963 bombing, and shackles belonging to African slaves.

They are already on exhibition at the nearby National Museum of American History but will have pride of place in the African-American counterpart when it opens in 2015.

Other minority groups are also hoping for a presence in the nation's capital. Washington DC is already home to the National Museum of the American Indian, but the National Women's History Museum is an online institution that is lobbying Congress for a building on the Mall, as is a group called Friends of the National Museum of the American Latino.

image captionThe completed museum will require visitors to walk over a water feature - in homage to African slaves' passage across the Atlantic

But does giving each group its own museum - separate from the main Museum of American History - further segregate those who should be part of the American "melting pot" experience? Does it give special treatment to marginalised groups?

Virginia Congressman Jim Moran objected to the museum on those grounds.

"The Museum of American History is where all the white folks are going to go, and the American Indian Museum is where Indians are going to feel at home. And African Americans are going to go to their own museum. And Latinos are going to go their own museum. And that's not what America is all about," he told a Congressional committee in 2011.

"It's a matter of how we depict the American story and where do we stop? The next one will probably be Asian Americans," he added. "The next, God help us, will probably be Irish Americans."

But defenders say the museum fills an important void.

"The reasons for the existence of a National Museum of African American History and Culture are just as valid as they are for those other museums," says Leslie Hinkson, an assistant professor of sociology at Georgetown University.

"Until black history becomes properly woven into the story of America as opposed to stitched on at the fringes, then it's necessary."

Mr Bunch says the museum will describe "the quintessential American story".

"It's not a black museum for black people," he says.

The debate over black history, how best to tell it, and its place in the wider American story remains controversial because the US is still grappling with race, says Mr Bunch.

"Slavery is still the last great unmentionable in American life," he says. "Part of the challenge for Americans is that we've always framed ourselves as the good guys. We saved Europe in World War II, we fought the communists. So it's hard to say that this is a story where some of us are culpable. Wrestling with that is a painful thing."

To tackle such thorny issues, the Smithsonian Institution, the museum's umbrella organisation, employed psychologists and conducted extensive research into potential audiences and how to engage them. Surveys predict 70% of the new museum's visitors will be white.

And there's growing awareness of African history in Latin America.

The first historic artefact donated to the new museum was a wooden boat seat from Ecuador bearing a carved spider - the symbol of the West African god Anansi.

According to Deborah Mack, who heads community outreach at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, the spider has become part of folklore among black coastal communities throughout the Americas and particularly in Louisiana.

"There's not a single country in Latin America that doesn't have an African population that originates in the slave trade - with the exception of Chile," she says. "Americans tend not to know [about this]. One of our goals is to highlight these stories."

And when the Supreme Court does decide the validity of affirmative action in university admissions, expect that story one day to be told at the National Museum of African American History and Culture as well.

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