Eleven inaugural exhibitions feature some 34,000 artifacts, including a railroad passenger car that dates to the Jim Crow era, a shawl worn by Harriet Tubman, and a traveling trunk that belonged to the family of the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison.
Looking back, of course, cannot be done without paying homage to Civil Rights Champion Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. One exhibit traces the trajectory of King’s career, from his rise to prominence as the leader of the national civil rights movement to his work as an anti-war activist and advocate for those living in poverty through historic photographs, prints, paintings and memorabilia.
The $540 million building that will house the new museum and the many exhibits and artifacts contained inside will, as Smithsonian officials said, be a place where all Americans can learn about the richness and diversity of the African-American experience, what it means to their lives and how it helped us shape this nation.
It’ll be a place that transcends the boundaries of race and culture that divide us, and becomes a lens into a story that unites us all.
And, to pay it forward and to make sure that all of this has become a reality are historically black organizations like the fraternity, Alpha Phi Alpha, a founding donor who immediately poured $1 million into the efforts.
“Many who have donated to the museum have done so with ultimate trust,” Museum Director Lonnie Bunch said in an earlier interview.
The Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity’s contributions to the museum doesn’t end with a monetary donation. An oil painting of Julian Herman Lewis, a charter member of the Xi Lambda Graduate chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha which was installed on May 15, 1924.
Lewis, whose parents were born into slavery but later became educators, came to be known as the “Father of Anthropathology.”
He earned a bachelor’s degree in 1911 from the University of Illinois.
A year later, he earned a master’s degree and entered the University of Chicago where he earned a Ph.D. in physiology and pathology, graduating magna cum laude.
Reportedly, Lewis was the first African-American to earn both a medical degree and a doctorate and, in 1913, he became the first black individual to be inducted into Sigma Xi, the scientific honorary, and the first African-American to be a member of Alpha Omega Alpha, a medical fraternity.
“What we will have in the museum is a place for dialogue and the exploration of historical movements. We can facilitate a discussion of what reparations really mean, providing a key to the debate,” Bunch has said.
The museum’s exhibitions will show how segregation – a direct outgrowth of enslavement – and its shadows shaped the country for so long and how African-Americans were treated, both legally and informally.
For example, one of the museum’s key artifacts, the guard tower from Louisiana’s Angola prison, will show how the prison systems were repurposed plantations and populated by black men exploited as free labor through convict leases.
“That is why the moral debt is what most concerns me. African Americans helped force America to live up to its stated ideals,” Bunch wrote in a column for The Smithsonian.
“This nation’s sense of citizenship, its notion of liberty, its understanding of justice for all owes a debt to the African American; these are the people who believed in the promise of America, and who, by their struggles, helped make that promise more accessible to all,” he said.
How does a nation repay its moral debt? The greatest repayment would be to ensure that African-Americans now and generations from now, have access to quality education, affordable health care and neighborhoods that are safe.
That would make all those who once suffered smile, because they didn’t suffer in vain, Bunch said.
Today, it’s all about paying it forward, particularly after taking the long look back.
“So, we open with people from the beginning that this is a story of humanity and we see how this history flows and I tell everyone the harsh story of slavery but the very important understanding of resistance and resilience and survival,” said museum specialist and curator Mary Elliott.
“There is a wall dedicated to the domestic slave trade, the middle passage, but when you see the extent of the information and the way it will be presented, it will blow people away,” she said.
The museum also doesn’t ignore the struggle many African-Americans today have, particularly the recent rash of police shootings and violence with individuals of color.
“We don’t hold back on violence during the period of slavery and people will see how this ebbs and flows and that this violence [today] is nothing new and to understand it in a historical concept to wrestle with how to end it and to also understand that African-Americans are human and African-Americans are Americans who have contributed to the development of this nation,” Elliott said.