As I stood in line recently with 32 Harrisburg Academy 8th grade students, waiting to board an elevator that would take us to the depths of the new National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), it was clear we had scored one of the hottest tickets in Washington, D.C. Within two months, nearly 72,000 visitors have toured the only national museum devoted exclusively to African American life, history, and culture. On that October day, we were among the fortunate holding “timed” passes. At this point, such passes are sold out through March.
Visiting less than two weeks after the museum opened, our students could only begin to absorb the 3,000 items on display. The tour starts deep underground, echoing the claustrophobic hold of a slave ship. Students pass through exhibits depicting slavery in the United States, and then eventually they come face to face with the multi-story “Thomas Jefferson.” The words of the Declaration of Independence loom large behind Jefferson, along with bricks representing Monticello; on each brick is the name of one of Jefferson’s slaves. Students immediately recognized the paradox.
Our group continued weaving its way through the lower floors, seeing an exhibit highlighting Harriet Jacobs, a slave who hid for seven years in an attic crawl space. This 8th grade class had just finished reading a novel highlighting Jacobs’ life: “Letters from a Slave Girl.” To preview our visit, we discussed many of the exhibits. Throughout the tour, students would find me and ask questions — “Have you been to the Emmitt Till room yet?” “So who were the Lovings, and why couldn’t they get married?”
As if coming up for air, we emerged from this tragic history into an inauguration, then a sea of Motown music, crowds cheering for Jackie Robinson as he slid into home, and much more. The questions continued — “Where’s Louis Armstrong’s trumpet?” I heard laughter as students discovered legends like Flip Wilson and Redd Fox.
Shortly after leaving the museum, we gathered outside to talk. I commented — pointing at the Washington Monument towering above — “Isn’t this an amazing classroom?” We discussed memorable moments, but finally ended with this question: Why is this museum important? Many students echoed the words of President George Bush, who spoke at the opening ceremonies less than two weeks before our visit. “A great nation does not hide its history,” he commented. “It faces its flaws and corrects them.” As one student added: “This museum is important because Black history is American history.”
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