The new National Museum of African American History and Culture is in part a celebration of black heritage, a commemoration of civil rights leaders and a reflection on aspects of the past that still cast a shadow on American society.
There’s a display featuring Muhammad Ali’s boxing gloves, a glass case containing Harriet Tubman’s lace shawl and an exhibit honoring Rosa Parks’s history-defining act of civil disobedience.
For schoolchildren, touring the Mall’s newest museum will be an educational journey through the historical lens of black life in America. It also will mean helping students better understand the atrocities committed during the era of slavery and the lynchings in the Jim Crow South.
“How do we help teachers protect this history?” said Mary Elliot, a co-curator of the museum’s history collection. “You can’t deny it or avoid it.”
Elliot said that signs outlined in red will be posted throughout the museum to provide a warning to adults that certain materials may be inappropriate for children or sensitive visitors. She also noted that the museum’s Smithsonian Institution staff is working with educators to help them discuss such traumatic episodes in U.S. history.
A tour of the museum begins in the dark, narrow corridors of the building’s subterranean floors and opens with the stained wood slats of a slave ship and a pair of shackles.
A quotation from a ship captain inscribed on one wall describes life for slaves crossing the ocean: “We had about 12 negroes did willfully drown themselves and others starv’d themselves to death for ‘tis their belief that when they die they return home to their own country and friends again.”
Further in the museum students will see a stone auction block that once stood in nearby Hagerstown, Md., and a bill of sale for a 16-year-old slave who was bought for $600.
“African Americans endured being sold on the block and being devalued to mere laboring hands, feet, backs and wombs,” an inscription beside the auction block reads.
Students also will encounter a bullwhip used against slaves. Elliot, who is African American, said that she held the whip before its installation in the museum. Grasping the weapon in her hands, she said, left her full of sorrow.
“It’s heavy,” she said, surprised by its weight, noting that whoever held it thought: “ ‘I’m going to beat someone with this.’ It’s mind-blowing.”
Many artifacts in the museum represent bleak moments of our times. A scarlet robe worn by a member of the Ku Klux Klan glimmers in a case. A wall describes the Tuskegee syphilis experiment in which black men were unethically mistreated. The cracked, light green leather of a Woolworth’s lunch counter stool remains a humble reminder of a consequential civil rights demonstration.
The museum also will display the casket of Emmett Till, who was 14 years old when he was savagely beaten, shot and killed for allegedly flirting with a young white woman.
Leslie Hinkson, a sociologist at Georgetown University, said that such horrific tales of prejudice and racism must be addressed with children.
“This is a history that in many ways has been sanitized in schools and sanitized in our collective consciousness,” Hinkson said. “I think that we do need to walk a very fine line to make sure our children are aware and educated, but we do it in a way that is age-appropriate.”
Hinkson, who has three children, said that she thinks the warning signs in the museum will help give parents the option to move past disturbing exhibits — but admits that for the most part, they shouldn’t.
Hinkson said that parents should be aware of what is age-appropriate in the museum but that they should not shy away from emotionally raw exhibits. She said that is largely the point of the new museum: visitors’ exposure to the difficult history of blacks in the United States.
Skipping exhibits that describe the rape of young black women or the lynching of young black men is a disservice, she said.
“It would seem like taking your child to the Holocaust Museum and not expect to deal with the Holocaust,” Hinkson said. The warning signs allow parents “to brace themselves to possibly answer very complex questions from their young children.”
“As a parent, I think that’s a good thing,” she said. “As an educator, I think it could be a good or a bad thing. It could give parents who aren’t comfortable talking about these things, but maybe should, it gives them an out. It gives them an opportunity not to have to grapple with those questions.”
Hinkson said that instead parents should view the signs as an indication that “this is where things get deep and heavy, so are you ready? It’s more of an opportunity to steel yourself.”