Lonnie Bunch, founding director of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)
Opinion writer

“This is a story that is too big to be in the hands of one community,” said Lonnie Bunch. “It really is the story that has shaped us all.”

That story is that of African Americans. And on this weekend of the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), the seventh episode of “Cape Up” is my conversation with its founding director Lonnie Bunch. The stunning structure on the Mall is the physical manifestation of a multi-decade effort that kicked into high gear in 2005 when Bunch, a former Smithsonian curator who was president of the Chicago Historical Society, was tapped to helm the effort.


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In 2003, President George W. Bush signed the bill that made the national African American history museum a legal reality. But that was the easy part.

“The biggest part of this job was to make people believe that this could happen. But what it really meant was that I had to find ways to believe it. And to take risks,” Bunch told me at the museum last week. “For example, when we did the groundbreaking, we didn’t have all the money. So what I did is, well, let’s make the hole anyway because I knew that Congress wouldn’t let a hole stand next to the Washington monument.”

But then there was securing the collection that would tell the story of a people, of a nation.

[Tour through the National Museum of African American History and Culture]

“I knew the biggest problem was finding the collections,” said Bunch. “It was crucial for us to figure out was I right when I said that all the 20th century, most of the 19th century and pieces of the 18th century were still in the basements, trunks and attics of people’s homes.” And there was an elaborate process to unearth those artifacts.

“We went around the country, stole the idea from ‘Antique Roadshow,’ asked people to bring out their stuff. We didn’t take it,” Bunch explained. “We helped them preserve grandma’s old shawl, that wonderful 19th-century photograph. But what happened was that people get excited and they’d say, ‘Well do you want it?’ And we would say, ‘Give it to local museums first.’ Then if it was really significant it came back to D.C.”

The scene Bunch described about coming face-to-face with Harriet Tubman materials was filled with the disbelief and drama that come with this work.

Lonnie Bunch with Harriet Tubman’s shawl, Tubman’s eating utensils, Tubman funeral photos, a gospel hymns book and a wanted poster for runaway slaves. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)

“I really believed that when I got that call that the guy was wrong. There is no way he had Harriet Tubman material. I just knew,” Bunch said of the Underground Railroad leader. “So we go to Philadelphia. And literally I am so jaded. I’m saying, ‘Oh man! What am I doing here?’ He pulled out one box. Not a big box, one box. And he starts out by pulling pictures of Harriet Tubman’s funeral that no one had ever seen. Ah, he’s got my attention!

“He pulled out a knife and fork that Harriet Tubman made that she would carry with her when she went into the South to free the enslaved. And then he pulls out this hymnal,” Bunch continued. “Harriet couldn’t read, but she had that hymnal for 50 years….THAT took my breath away.”

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When I asked Bunch how he doesn’t cry in moments like that, he replied, “Oh, I cry all the time.” Adding, “What I find more than anything else is so humbling is that people trust us. They trust us with, not the stuff, but their lives.”

Listen to the podcast to hear Bunch talk more about our shared history, the artifacts that tell the story and how he would like visitors to the new African American history museum to experience it now that the doors are finally open to the public.

Bunch talks more about our shared national history and the artifacts that tell the story. Listen to the podcast to find out how he would like visitors to the African American history museum to experience it and what happens when we discover our own shared personal history. You can also subscribe on iTunes or Stitcher.

Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @Capehartj