Lonnie G. Bunch III is settled in an office at L'Enfant Plaza lined with first-edition history books, various hats that he doesn't wear, and special photographs of family, the famous and the unknown.
On the job for just 10 weeks, the founding director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture loves looking into history through photographs. Among his personal keepsakes are a couple of tintypes and daguerreotypes from the 1840s and 1850s.
"Photographs allow me to look into people's faces. I can say, 'Who is that person?' They remind me this is a person's history. While we remember slavery, we can't forget the enslaved," he says.
Bunch knows there are plenty of voices to tell the stories of the Kings, the Robinsons and the Powells, and plenty of stories to tell.
But history is made up of bits and pieces of everyday lives, not just those of the extraordinary achievers.
Bunch tells of his father's enjoyment of John Hope Franklin's "From Slavery to Freedom," and his explanation about black men and their mustaches. It "was a sign of freedom that you could choose to grow a mustache," the husky, bespectacled historian says. Now, the eminent Franklin sits on the scholarly committee for the museum.
"I want to talk to the elders within the African American community. I want to get their sense, and their blessing, and an artifact or two," Bunch says. He wants to pin down the stories about the beginnings of desegregation. "I've begun to think about the transformative generation, the link between the bad times and good times," he says.
But that's not all. His job over the long haul is to promote a history that has been a stepchild among academics and museums, and to establish the Smithsonian's credibility as the nation's custodian of that history.
It may be a very long haul. In all likelihood the African American museum won't open until about 2015. The Smithsonian Board of Regents must select a site, probably at its January meeting. Then the drive begins to raise the $300 million to $400 million needed for the building.
Staff must be hired and Bunch and others must sift through many ideas about its focus and exhibits, decide what to collect and then go about acquiring artifacts. He is mulling organizing a national collecting initiative.
"We've gotten, 70, 80, 90 calls, saying, 'We have some things,' " he says, including a call from someone who had two Ku Klux Klan robes.
Sitting back in his leather chair, Bunch leaves aside the taught history and thinks about how his own family illustrates one emerging aspect of the museum's timeline: the lives of black Americans in the 20th century.
The journey goes from Woodland, N.C., to Belleville, N.J., and from the fields to a dental practice to the classroom.
"I'm from a family that isn't too far removed from the rural South," says the 52-year-old Bunch.
And they were talkers, wherever they gathered. "They would talk about working in a factory and going to a ballgame. They talked about Jackie Robinson," he says.
His grandfather, Lonnie Griffin Bunch, was a member of the W.E.B. Du Bois "Souls of Black Folk" generation. A sharecropper in North Carolina, he was determined to do better and graduated from Shaw College in Raleigh, N.C., in 1910. He wanted to go to the dental school at Howard University, but he couldn't afford to pay an entire year's tuition upfront. So he moved to Atlantic City and pushed tourists in jitneys up and down the boardwalk, while his wife, Leanna, worked at a hotel. After earning enough money, he entered and eventually completed dental school, then moved to New Jersey and worked as a dentist for the rest of his life.
"I marvel at my paternal grandparents and how these people transformed a family," the historian says.
Lonnie Bunch Jr., a member of Richard Wright's "Native Son" generation, also studied at Shaw and would tell his son about how every black person going south had to change into the Jim Crow train cars in Washington.
"But when he and the other GIs came back from the war and went back to school, they wouldn't go back into the Jim Crow cars. They stayed right where they were," says Bunch, "and my father claimed they had integrated the railroads that very day."
With a degree in chemistry, Lonnie Jr. wanted a job in science but became a middle-school teacher. His wife, Montrose, was born in Woodland, graduated from Shaw and became a third-grade teacher.
Lonnie G. Bunch III, a member of the "Manchild in the Promised Land" generation, was raised in Belleville, N.J., and earned his bachelor's and master's degrees from American University. After a few years of teaching, Bunch entered the museum field and started wrestling with the role of public historian, the scholar who brings his knowledge to the people.
In 1983 he worked at the new California Afro-American Museum in Los Angeles, which opened with a sprawling exhibition, "The Black Olympians, 1904-1950."
"That was the first time I had to deal with government officials, the first time I had to think about strategy and funding," Bunch says. "And the question was: How do you take these museums and make people care?"
In 1989 he returned to the Smithsonian, where he had worked for a year in the late 1970s. Joining the staff at the National Museum of American History, Bunch held a series of management and curatorial posts, eventually becoming the third-ranking administrator. It was a time when the museum was wrestling with the question of how to present history and how to modernize exhibits, as well as the controversial issue of what influence deep-pocket donors should have on exhibitions.
But what Bunch wanted to do most of all was to make history accessible.
Curators Lonnie Bunch and Bill Yeingst thought of only one thing when they heard that F.W. Woolworth's was shutting down its store in Greensboro, N.C.
The lunch counter.
In 1960, four black college students sat at that chrome, wood and glass counter and refused to leave. Others joined the sit-in; a boycott followed, and several months later the whites-only counter was integrated.
Three decades after that, Bunch and Yeingst made a series of calls about acquiring some part of the counter for the Smithsonian Institution and headed south to Greensboro. They talked to residents about how their history was the nation's history and told them this evidence of their contribution to the civil rights movement belonged in the Smithsonian.
Bunch was sensitive to the community's desire to keep the artifact, Yeingst remembers, but steadfast in arguing that the counter "was something we wanted." A 12-foot piece, four seats' worth, was donated to the Smithsonian.
Back at American History, where he was a chief curator, Bunch decided he wanted the Woolworth's counter to be in direct sight of the Star-Spangled Banner, another icon of freedom.
"There is a notion that America is a place that tries to perfect itself," he says. "The four students had stood up and changed America."
One of the things people remember most about Bunch's tenure at American History was his diligence during the swift creation of the permanent exhibition "American Presidency: A Glorious Burden."
"We were on a ridiculously short schedule. We were deciding how big the cases were before we knew what was going in them," recalls Harry Rubenstein, curator of political history. "There was constant pressure and no room for mistakes."
A couple of months into the project, Bunch noticed the last three rooms were too small for the materials. "Lonnie took the responsibility of saying we have to tear down the walls. Almost anyone else would have said we have to live with it. It was a gutsy decision," Rubenstein says.
Bunch became one of the leading -- and one of the very few -- African Americans in the museum field. That there were so few other black professionals led him to write a paper called "Flies in the Buttermilk," in which he criticized the exclusion of minority professionals at America's cultural institutions. People are still talking about it, and Bunch is still taking notes. "There is some improvement, especially in the art museums," he says, but the topic is still a frustrating one.
Bunch left Washington in 2000 to become the president of a mainstream historical society, the Chicago Historical Society. In its 149 years, it had never had a black leader. In the throes of modernization and reorganization, Bunch helped raise $21 million for its 150th-anniversary capital campaign. But then the opportunity to create the national African American museum called.
His family is still in Chicago, with his younger daughter a high school senior. His wife, Maria Marable Bunch, is associate director of museum education at the Art Institute of Chicago, and his older daughter is a Loyola University law student.
The hats on the shelf, he explains, are not for personal use -- he never wears a hat. He keeps them to remind himself of events and successes, such as the 1994 Smithsonian show in Japan that he curated. There's also a white construction hard hat with the Smithsonian's sun symbol on it, which hopefully will be replaced soon by one for the new museum.
Bunch has many constituencies to satisfy about the new museum's direction -- historians, the public, other museums, funders.
"They want everything. They want it to meet every need that has not been met," says Claudine Brown, an officer with the Nathan Cummings Foundation and former project director for a study on the feasibility of an African American museum.
"Museums are designed to exist in perpetuity. It can't meet everybody's need when it first opens its doors."
If the museum opens in 2015, Lonnie Bunch will be 62. Persevering on a long road to a goal is a lesson he learned from his family. On his wall is a black-and-white photograph from the 1880s, which he has hung in each of his offices. It says worlds about not giving in to fatigue, pain and others' definition of who you are. It's of a sharecropper, petite and thin, with a hoe over her right shoulder, her cotton basket hugging her left side.
"She's returning from the fields; she is small and powerful," Bunch says. It reminds him: "If I'm tired, I don't have a right to be."
After all, those people who pressured Congress in the 1920s to approve a memorial for black citizens passed on that determination to those who finally succeeded in 2003.
Now it's Bunch's turn: "I have to stay passionate and be a drum major for history."