Reflections on the Opening of the National Museum of African-American History and Culture
Today, the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) opens on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. The Museum seeks to understand American history through the lens of the African-American experience, and is the only national museum devoted exclusively to African-American history and culture.
To celebrate and mark the event, we sat down with National Trust Senior Field Officer Brent Leggs, who spoke about the significance of the museum’s opening and some of the connections between what the museum is doing and the work of the National Trust.
Can you talk about the significance of this museum opening in the context of preserving American history and, specifically, African-American history?
African-American history reminds me of a beautiful quote from the movie Eve’s Bayou: “Memory is a selection of images; some elusive, others printed indelibly on the brain. Each image is like a tapestry of intricate texture, and the tapestry tells a story, and the story is our past.”
I think when we preserve black culture in its material form, we tell the stories of America—the stories of who we are and where we come from. I feel strongly that black culture, black landscapes, and black history matters; that our collective identity matters; that the National Museum of African American History and Culture matters. Our shared culture is embodied in new and old buildings and the history they keep.
Howard University alum Ossie Davis said, “Any form of art is a form of power. It has impact. It can affect change. It can not only move us; it makes us move.” The nation and world will be moved by the museum’s stunning architecture, and empowered by the vastness and richness of the black experience in America.
As a preservationist, we are the social stewards of American culture. In this context, I see intersections between this federal institution and the many historic sites across the country where that culture was created. Together these historic sites tell a more authentic and truer American story—stories of injustice, achievement, and beyond.
Can you talk about some of the parallels between what the NMAAHC is doing and the work of the National Trust?
The museum’s modern architecture is imbued with historical awareness. The four design principles rooted in African and African-American culture create a new form of historic preservation, or preserving memory, and in many ways it helps to expand the work that we do and meaning of historic preservation. Like the museum, historic sites have stories to tell and are embodied with culture that must be preserved for the world to experience and learn from.
From Fort Monroe National Monument in Virginia, where three enslaved Africans self-emancipated; to Joe Frazier’s Gym in Philadelphia, where a boxer became a world champion; to a Negro League ballpark called Hinchliffe Stadium in New Jersey that launched the career of Larry Doby; to the A. G. Gaston Motel in Birmingham where civil rights leaders launched a mass protest movement called Project C, these indelible places must be preserved and honored for generations to come.
It seems somehow appropriate that the initial planning for the March on Washington took place inside the “war room” of the A.G. Gaston Motel, and the March on Washington itself took place right next to where the new museum now stands.
What are you most excited about with this new museum?
I am excited that all of this material culture is being stewarded, conserved, interpreted, and shared with all Americans, for free. And I think, in essence, visitors can have their collective identifies reconstructed through the process of touring that museum; they will begin to understand that the black experience goes beyond slavery and a painful past, but also includes achievements in all sectors of society. The museum will immerse the visitor in the lives of extraordinary and ordinary people and the events that shaped our nation.
From the perspective of a preservationist, I’m excited that both corporations and a diverse set of philanthropists have financially supported the creation of the museum, and I hope they become inspired to join the cause of the National Trust to also help us to celebrate and conserve black landmarks and landscapes.
Are there any connections between the exhibits at the museum and the work the National Trust has done?
At the National Trust, we believe our work is about truth and service. We are flipping the script on the long-standing American narrative and focusing on African-Americans as actors in history rather than spectators. For this reason, we are intentional in selecting African-American National Treasures that are rooted in activism, achievement, and architecture. In essence, we are reconstructing our national identity.
For example, the museum features many iconic figures in African American history, like Madam C. J. Walker, America’s first self-made female millionaire. We’re working to preserve her beloved estate, Villa Lewaro, in Irvington, New York.
At the Mountain View Officers’ Club in Fort Huachuca, Arizona, we’re preserving the legacy of black veterans. In Chicago, we honored the life of A. Phillip Randolph and the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters by securing federal designation for the Pullman National Monument. At Howard University’s Founders Library, we’re preserving the memory of pioneering black architects like Albert Cassell, and the legal accomplishments of Thurgood Marshall and Charles Hamilton Houston. There are many connections between the exhibits at the museum and our work.
Do you see the work of the NMAAHC and the National Trust as ideologically linked?
The work of Lonnie Bunch and his team securing $250 million from Congress to build the museum is an example of political activism in its purest form in the same way that the National Trust and other stakeholders are asking President Obama to use the Antiquities Act to create the Civil Rights National Monument in Birmingham that would include the A.G. Gaston Motel, among other important sites.
Like the museum, we take seriously our social responsibility and are working to build a cultural ethic for preserving black culture, black history, and African-American historic places, and we stand with the museum in pursuit of this important work.
I think you can understand the identity of our nation by the places we preserve and honor. The opening of the museum and the preservation of African-American National Treasures work hand-in-hand to add beauty and depth to this tapestry called America, and bring life to the stories from our past.