“Don’t feel bad. That happens a lot,” a museum employee chimed in.
I felt a little sorry for the lost tourists. While the African American Civil War Museum serves an important purpose — highlighting the role that African American soldiers, sailors and resistance fighters played in winning the war and ending slavery — it’s an undeniably modest affair compared with the massive, state-of-the-art National Museum of African American History and Culture on the Mall. At least the Civil War museum, which opened in 1999, was less crowded.
“Start here,” the employee said, pointing me to a pair of tall partitions that looked like pages torn from a giant history textbook. A maze of text-covered partitions takes up most of the one-room museum.
Surprisingly, the chronological exhibit begins not with the run-up to the Civil War, but when the first Africans were brought to Jamestown as slaves (or perhaps indentured servants — historians disagree on their legal status) in 1619. Sneaking a peek at the end of the labyrinth, I found that the museum’s main exhibit concluded not with the surrender of Robert E. Lee, but the election of President Barack Obama. That’s quite a lot of history to cover — nearly 400 years — in a single, albeit large, room. (It’s about the same time span that the NMAAHC covers in its bottom four floors.)
Skipping ahead to the Civil War, I was fascinated to learn that in the 1840s and ’50s, people of African descent were already preparing to fight. In the North, private militias drilled and marched openly in annual Emancipation Day parades that celebrated the freeing of enslaved people in the West Indies. Meanwhile, deep in the swamps of the Carolinas, pockets of escaped slaves defended themselves against recapture and, later, became valuable sources of intelligence for Union officers.
I was riveted by the story of one daring act of resistance, where an enslaved 23-year-old sailor named Robert Smalls quietly took control of a Southern gunboat when the officers were ashore, steered it past Confederate checkpoints, and handed the valuable vessel to the Union Navy — freeing himself, his family and several other enslaved people who were onboard. He later became the first African American captain of a vessel in U.S. service, piloting the very steamer he’d stolen.
I also learned that it was only in the second year of the Civil War, when it became clear that the North couldn’t win without African Americans, that President Lincoln allowed the Army to begin enlisting soldiers of African descent. (The Navy was already integrated on the eve of the Civil War, and many black sailors had served with distinction in the War of 1812.)
While the museum’s text was top-notch, the objects on display weren’t as impressive. The first objects I encountered were two small statues without labels. A little ways from there, I found a nearly dadaist assemblage of an old-fashioned-looking dress, a cardboard cutout of Harriet Tubman and a new-looking gravestone bearing the name of a Civil War soldier. A screen displayed an array of nearly illegible Civil War documents, not all of which were oriented right-side up.
What the museum does have in abundance are slave shackles — I counted nine. These shameful and compelling artifacts were well-labeled, as was a cabinet with Civil War buttons, bullets and a canteen used by a black Union soldier.
After the Civil War section, the narrative zoomed ahead through the World Wars and the civil rights movement to the present day. There, perhaps to commemorate the invention of television, I found some multimedia exhibits. One screen played a PBS documentary about Emmett Till over a display case showing a Jet magazine article about the teenager’s tragic lynching in 1955, after he allegedly made a pass at a white woman.
“At the Smithsonian African American museum, they have a whole Emmett Till memorial, with his casket,” I told my fellow tourists.
“My mom kept that magazine, to teach us about how things used to be,” one of the two women replied.
“I didn’t learn much about African American history, in Florida public schools,” I said. “I was taught that the Civil War was fought over states’ rights, not slavery.”
Until these sorts of misconceptions are cleared up, I’m happy to see a proliferation of African American history museums. But if you only have so much time for D.C.’s, hit the big one on the Mall over this neighborhood institution — and don’t plan your day around a hastily skimmed Metro map.
It’s been fun being your D.C. tourism columnist, but now I must say goodbye. I’ve had some great adventures over the years. Thanks for coming along!