Dr. Lonnie Bunch III, the 14th secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, arrived at about 10 a.m. in the Solomon Brown Suite atop the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
The suite provides unparalleled views of the National Monument and other District landmarks. And it was only fitting that Bunch would want to meet there.
At such heights, it was easier to appreciate more fully the museum’s founding director’s decades of work and determination to bring such a cultural landmark to fruition.
“I wanted a building that would reference the spirituality, resilience, uplift, and hope that have been key elements within the African American community that have shaped America’s identity in ways most Americans do not understand,” Bunch said.
On this bright D.C. morning, Bunch talked about his new book, “A Fool’s Errand: Creating the National Museum of African American History and Culture in the Age of Bush, Obama, and Trump.”
Nine hours later, Bunch would sit for a discussion moderated by “60 Minutes” anchor Scott Pelley. That session was open to all of the nation’s media.
But, this particular Tuesday morning was Bunch talking directly to his community — through the Black Press.
“If anyone wants to understand core American values optimism, resiliency, and spirituality, where better to look than African American history,” Bunch said. “I think the Black Press has always been the guardian of our community. It’s always been the place where facts are found that are not told in other places. It’s a place where you can understand the richness of the community.
“What I love about the Black Press today is that it’s a place that reminds people the power of the African American community, and in some ways the Black Press is critically important,” he said. “What [the Black Press] does is it reminds us that there are many different lenses to understand a story. If you don’t have the lens to the African American community, where are you going to find your story? For me, the Black Press is crucial not for the past, but for the future.”
Bunch spoke of the 400th year since the first Africans were kidnapped and forced into slavery in Virginia. Several floors below the Solomon Brown suite and in the basement of the famed museum are the gut-wrenching exhibits, artifacts and other emblems of the darkest time in American history.
“By personalizing history, we wanted the visitor not to explore slavery as an abstract entity, but to experience it in a way as to care about the lives of those enslaved,” Bunch writes in “A Fool’s Errand.”
While opening the museum before the eyes of the world three years ago was an unparalleled success, Bunch writes about the bittersweet time he noted as officials broke ground.
“Just four days after the triumphant groundbreaking ceremony that made us all feel so good about the possibilities of America, the murder of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida, pointedly and painfully destroyed any notion that the nation was moving into a post-racial era,” Bunch states.
“Throughout Obama’s presidency racial hatred and racist epithets were hurled at the commander-in-chief. Not nearly as high profile as the president, the museum, even in its developmental stage, provoked anger and racist threats as well from those who felt a changing America was leaving them behind,” he wrote.
In its first four months of operation, the museum surpassed one million visits. Three years later, lines still wrap around the building on Constitution Avenue.
For Bunch, it’s all proof that his mission which began decades ago, was no fool’s errand.
“It’s been great,” he said. “The response has been tremendous from all people.”
Bunch spoke of the museum’s dedication ceremony and how one moment captured the essence of what the landmark was all about.
“Who could ever forget the hug between former President George W. Bush and Michelle Obama,” Bunch said. “That embrace said it all.”
News outlets called it the “hug felt around the country.”
President Obama and former first lady Laura Bush followed the lead of their mates and also embraced, signaling to the nation and the world that bipartisanship could prevail.
The moment also signaled that the museum was not just about African Americans, but white America and all people, too.
“To some, visiting the museum allows them to find hope … that the current poisonous political partisanship and racial antipathy will one day be overcome,” Bunch said.
A historian, author, educator and curator, Bunch has enjoyed a career of near-unparalleled success. He was the founding director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture and has held numerous teaching positions including at American University in D.C., the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, and the George Washington University in D.C.
A graduate of American University, Bunch, was elected in 2017 to serve as a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He’s also the recipient of the President’s Award from the NAACP and the Impact Leader Award from the Greater Washington Urban League.
Last year, the Phi Beta Kappa Society presented Bunch with the Phi Betta Kappa Award for Distinguished Service to the Humanities and the National Education Association honored him with the Award for Distinguished Service to Education.
Earlier this year, Bunch was appointed secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, the first African American to hold that position in the organization’s 173-year history.
He oversees 19 museums, 21 libraries, the National Zoo, numerous research centers and several education units and centers.
Now, with “A Fool’s Errand,” Bunch said he has a simple message to convey.
“History matters,” Bunch said. “You can’t understand yourself or the future without looking back. History is an amazing tool to live your life. More than anything else, it challenges you to be accurate.”
To purchase “A Fool’s Errand,” go to Amazon.com.