This weekend, Washington is the place to be — to see and be seen — at the opening of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. Twenty-five years from now, there will be no African American in the United States who was not in this city on Saturday, Sept. 24, 2016. Just as 53 years after the event, there are no African Americans who did not participate in the 1963 March on Washington. And, yes, there is no adult African American male alive who was not on hand for the Million Man March in 1995.
Of such stuff history, legacy and myth are made.
There are, to be sure, other galleries with exhibitions, programs and collections that document African American life, history and culture. But the African American Museum’s opening will go down as a seminal moment, not only for its more than 100-year journey to the historic Mall but also for its achievements in architectural building design, collections and artful presentations.
The story of slavery and freedom told so movingly inside the museum, however, is also a painful and shameful narrative heard beyond the building’s grounds.
Visitors don’t have to enter the building to learn about slavery or see symbols of the black struggle to defend freedom during the long era of segregation that followed enslavement.
Venture no farther than the streets of our nation’s capital.
The museum’s depiction of the impact of African American life on the country, captured in artifacts and programs, can be found in real life and real time in the District’s African American experience.
Face north on Constitution Avenue and turn right toward the eastern horizon.
On the east side of the Anacostia River sits Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling. Bolling wasn’t always a Defense Department asset.
Generations earlier, the land was home to the tobacco plantation of George Washington Young, the largest slaveholder in the District. Young kept Washington, D.C., blacks in bondage until they were emancipated in 1862.
Ten blocks east of the museum on the southwest corner of 4th and G Streets NW sits the space once occupied by the now-gone Washington Jail, where runaway slaves were held.
It didn’t take much to be declared a runaway. Getting caught on the street after sundown without written permission from the master was enough to get you put behind bars — until the owner showed up, paid a fine and took you back.
Located behind the African American Museum and eastward to Independence Avenue and 6th Street SW is the site of the now-razed Washington Armory, where city leaders organized their first militia company to patrol the streets to prevent slave insurrections.
From the corner of 3rd Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW to 7th Street and Independence Avenue SW was the epicenter of the slave trade, a short stroll east from the African American Museum. Chained slaves could daily be seen passing the Capitol and the White House. They were kept in pens and cells in the downtown area and on the Mall. Slave auctions were held in city taverns and on the streets.
We know this history from the contributions of several historians, but a standout is the work of James M. Goode in his publication, “Capital Losses: A Cultural History of Washington’s Destroyed Buildings.”
In the District, the chains came off in 1862, but even after slavery gave way to emancipation, the city — including the city of my youth — remained locked in separate racial worlds. The African American Museum’s exhibition on the era of segregation illustrates those times. A tour of the District helps paint them.
At the National Theater on Pennsylvania Avenue NW, a 10-minute walk from the museum, African Americans were admitted to the upper gallery when it first opened in 1835, only to be excluded entirely in 1873. It took decades of pressure before the theater opened on an integrated basis in 1952.
Jim Crow in our nation’s capital did not end voluntarily. The courts declared racially segregated restaurants illegal in 1953, and the Supreme Court desegregated D.C. public schools in 1954.
Downtown was available for white entertainment. African Americans had the U Street Corridor. Hospitals, colleges and universities, churches and neighborhoods were racially separated — as some are now. The District’s racial, social and economic divides — “One DC” rhetoric notwithstanding — are still on display for all to see.
The African American M useum is a welcome fixture. The African American experience still evolves.
Study and celebrate stories of the past. Look with pride upon contributions and achievements of the present. But the creation of a National Museum of African American History and Culture, a monumental triumph, doesn’t mark the end of the struggle or even a turning point.
Just as a soul-stirring march and the election of our first African American president did not usher in racial nirvana.
Outside the majestic walls, daunting challenges remain. Museum visitors 25 years hence will see evidence of what today’s proud visitors did — or failed to do — to make real the meaning of freedom.
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