The new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture contains an exhibit that features slave cabins, one that curator and museum specialist Mary Elliott called powerful.
Almost as powerful, however, is Elliott’s recounting of the vital input and assistance from one local citizen who inspired many seniors and others to participate in the new museum.
“To get all the stories together about the slave cabins, we brought in the help of a genealogist and we used our local research here and reached out to the community,” Elliott said.
“And, when we were dismantling the cabin, the community came out and it was black, white, young, older men and woman who were there. But there was one young woman whose name was Eileen and she was very important.
“Eileen was just over 50 and she really helped us connect with the elders in the community because it’s a hard history and sometimes people don’t want to talk about it but she helped us to get the stories out,” she said. “She was a real dynamic person.”
After taking the cabins to Virginia for conservation work and hosting a listening session that included Eileen and Eileen’s grandmother, Elliott and the museum’s staff learned that Eileen had died.
“She was younger than the elders that she helped get the stories from,” Elliott said. “So the most important thing is to honor the people who honored this and Eileen had so much energy and spirit and was so passionate about the fact that the story was being told and correctly.”
“She may not be here … when this museum opens and that’s heartbreaking, but I smile because her spirit will definitely be here,” she said.
The museum, adjacent to the National Mall, will open Sept. 24 after years in the making. Nearly 30,000 opening weekend tickets reportedly were issued within one hour of availability.
It’s been an arduous but pleasant road to the grand opening, said Elliott, the curator and specialist at the museum. She has helped research, conceptualize and design the “Slavery and Freedom” inaugural exhibition, as well as contributed to the exhibition script. She also consulted with expert scholars and identified and secured collection donations, including the antebellum slave cabin that will be featured in the museum, according to the museum’s website.
A graduate of Howard University and the Catholic University of America’s Columbus School of Law, Elliott helped produce local history exhibits in the D.C. area and produced several public history programs.
As the opening of the historic new museum looms, Elliott told NNPA News Wire what she’s most excited about and how she’s handling all of the excitement surrounding the historic grand opening.
“I really appreciate the collective effort to get the story out and let people know what they are going to see before they get here,” said Elliott, who has served as a contractor and consultant to various organizations including the National Visionary Leadership Project, the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, the Reginald Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and the Humanities Council of Washington, D.C.
“People ask me, ‘Are you excited?’ And, truthfully, I get reflective,” she said. “I think about family, relatives, ancestors, those I knew personally and those before them. I think about my church family and my community and I get so full because I cannot wait for people to see the museum not just as a building, but to hear people say about our history, ‘I never looked at it that way, wow,’ and to have them think a little differently about their approach to American history and understanding the African-American experience.”
Elliott has more than 20 years of experience in researching and presenting African-American history and culture. Her personal research focuses on African-Americans from antebellum slavery through the Jim Crow Era, with a specific concentration on migration and community development.
Research has taken Elliott to Virginia, South Carolina, Louisiana, Mississippi and Oklahoma, covering subject matter including slavery and freedom in America, Reconstruction, the all-black towns of Oklahoma and the National Negro Business League.
With a lifelong interest in Black history, Elliott’s extensive research revealed that her own family is connected to Booker T. Washington, one of the foremost African-American leaders of the late 19th and early 20th centuries who founded the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute that became Tuskegee University.
“I was really passionate about the research I was doing on my family and then I realized that this was even bigger,” Elliott said. “I started to see this amazing picture of African-American legacy and I found all of these primary resources and that really illuminated it for me and I thought it was as if someone took our history, tore it up into little pieces, and blew it into the wind. You had to go and track it down and put these pieces back together and see what the picture really was.”
When first invited to apply to work for the new museum, Elliott initially scoffed at the idea.
“I was so deep into doing my own research and, in my background,” she said, noting that her paths could have taken her elsewhere as she holds a law degree and she’s already passed the Maryland Bar. “[The museum] just didn’t cross my mind. So, when a friend of mine asked me to apply, I was like, ‘No,’ but then she convinced me after about a week.”
Anxiously awaiting the Sept. 24 opening, Elliott said the deep roots of African-American history will offer visitors the kind of truths that should lead many to think deeply. The museum will possess the kind of true stories that needs to be a part of the American history narrative, including those about the African continent and how diverse it is, she said.
“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,” Elliott said. “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.”
The museum also doesn’t ignore the struggle many African-Americans today have, particularly the recent rash of police shootings and violent incidents involving individuals of color, she said.
“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. “There is a part in the exhibition where there are African-Americans who struggle with the concept of whether to stay in this nation or to leave.
“There is one camp that said, ‘We need to leave because this is no longer safe for us,’” she said. “But there is another camp that said, ‘We need to stay because we built this nation and it belongs to us. This is the land we have developed.’”