A People’s History. A Nation’s Story. A Battle Station.
By Cherie SaundersFebruary 12, 2017
“This Pussy Grabs Back,” “Keep Your Tiny Hands Off My Uterus,” and “You Can’t Comb Over Sexism” were among the handwritten messages carried during the January 21 Women’s March, a mass of humanity designed to put 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue on notice.
Several blocks away, a stout, bronze-colored, three-tiered crown also had its eye on the White House. Unlike our president, it has thick skin. An aluminum casing distinguishes the five-story, 400,000-square-foot National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) from its neutral-colored, block-shaped Smithsonian siblings nearby.
This raised fist on the Mall houses a precious narrative, “the American story through an African American lens,” according to promotional material. It “helps to tell a richer and fuller story of the country,” as then-President Barack Obama put it during the museum’s dedication ceremony.
Before January 20, 2017, it was poetic that the nation’s first African-American president could see the museum from a window in his home, and that NMAAHC visitors could see the White House from the building’s front porch, just by looking north along 15th and Constitution Avenue, where countless named and unnamed souls memorialized in the museum’s sobering ground floor looked toward freedom.
Since January 20, 2017, NMAAHC’s armored exterior and anchoring near the White House feels more like a battle station, where folks can mount up with stories of survival and perseverance, view artifacts and archival films, and hear pep talks and untold stories from those whose front-line work left them with war wounds, mug shots, and funerals that made national headlines.
The exhibit “Defending Freedom, Defining Freedom: The Era of Segregation 1876-1968” honors these heroes — men and women from the Freedom Rides, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the Selma to Montgomery marches, and the 1963 March on Washington. Items from the latter include organizing documents, picket signs, buttons, platform passes for speakers, and a guitar played by Joan Baez during the march.
Other remnants from the struggle include stools from the Woolworth’s sit-ins in Greensboro, the casket of Emmett Till, a segregated train car, a guard tower from Louisiana’s horrific Angola State Prison, a plane used at Tuskegee Institute to train African-American pilots for the Army Air Corps, and 10 shards of stained glass from the 16th Street Baptist Church.
Separate floors lay out the African-American story chronologically, from “Slavery and Freedom” at the foundation, up through the “Era of Segregation,” toward “A Changing America,” which covers African-American life from the death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. through the 2012 reelection of Barack Obama.
Visitors from Los Angeles will find a number of artifacts from the home front. Tucked in a third floor exhibit titled “Making a Way Out of No Way” is a pastor’s chair and acolyte robe from the historic First African Methodist Episcopal Church (FAME) on South Harvard Boulevard. Founded in 1872, FAME is Los Angeles’s oldest church established by African Americans.
FAME’s original South Spring Street lot was donated by Bridget “Biddy” Mason, whose improbable story is also part of the museum’s collection.
The Georgia-born slave was sold to a Mississippi family that converted to Mormonism and moved west, eventually settling in San Bernardino. Realizing the Compromise of 1850 had made California a free state, Mason and a group of her fellow slaves attempted escape, only to be caught just short of Los Angeles. Freed slave Lizzy Flake Rowan got word of Mason’s predicament to the Los Angeles County Sheriff. On January 19, 1856, the United States District Court in Los Angeles heard Mason’s case. She not only won her freedom, but also the emancipation of her three daughters and 10 other enslaved women and children.
Having no last name, Bridget chose the middle name of San Bernardino’s mayor and Mormon apostle, Amasa Mason Lyman. Saving much of what she earned as a nurse and midwife in Los Angeles, Mason purchased property on South Spring Street for $250, becoming one of the first black Angelenos to own land. She went on to bank nearly $300,000 in real estate, parts of which founded an elementary school for black children, a traveler’s aid center, and the rock upon which First AME was originally built. That site is now a public city park bearing her name, complete with a mural that details her life story.
“And that’s what this museum explains,” Obama noted of NMAAHC at the grand opening, “the fact that our stories have shaped every corner of our culture. The struggles for freedom that took place made our Constitution a real and living document, tested and shaped and deepened and made more profound its meaning for all people.”
Also found in “Making a Way Out of No Way” is the story of Howard “Skippy” Smith, the famous Hollywood Airshow skydiver who partnered with Eddie “Rochester” Anderson to launch the Pacific Parachute Company in San Diego in 1942. The company manufactured parachutes for World War II pilots through 1944.
Hollywood’s black stunt performers are given a long overdue close-up in the museum’s fourth floor exhibit, “Taking the Stage.” The Black Stuntmen’s Association formed in 1967 to confront Hollywood’s discriminatory policies that kept black stuntmen and stuntwomen from studio work.
For years, white stunt performers would paint their faces and bodies to double for black stars, a practice known in the stunt profession as “painting down.” Bill Cosby dealt a major blow to the racist shortcut by refusing to have “painted down” white men double for him on the set of I Spy, having earned clout as TV’s first black lead character in a drama. His African-American stunt double, Calvin Brown, was a founding member of BSA.
With assists from the NAACP and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the group won 32 racial discrimination lawsuits against Hollywood studios. The victories generated more opportunities for all minority stunt performers, as well as white women who were passed over in favor of white stuntmen in heels and wigs.
A blue leather Black Stuntmen’s Association baseball cap was donated to the collection by co-founder Willie Harris. His big break came during the bank robbery scene in the beginning of 1971’s Dirty Harry, in which he doubled for the thief who rolls down stairs and onto the street after being shot by Clint Eastwood. Also on display is a horse saddle used by former BSA president Ernest “Ernie” Robinson, who doubled for the other bank robber foiled by Dirty Harry in the same scene.
Entire rooms of the museum honor historic African-American achievements in theater, television, and cinema. Video monitors run continuous loops of iconic moments from screens big and small, including NBC’s The Cosby Show and even Fox’s Empire. Blurbs and photos from all 10 plays in August Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle are displayed in chronological order. Nearby are those red, gold, and purple dresses from the 1976 Broadway production of Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/ When the Rainbow Is Enuf.
Behind glass casings are rows of mannequins wearing familiar costumes: Eddie Murphy’s jacket from Beverly Hills Cop II, one of George Jefferson’s suits, and a gown worn by Flip Wilson as his female alter ego, Geraldine.
Running daily throughout the museum’s first year is director Ava DuVernay’s 22-minute short August 28: A Day In The Life Of A People. Quietly commissioned by the NMAAHC as an “orientation film,” DuVernay depicts six momentous events in black history that occurred on that date, including the abolition of slavery in the United Kingdom in 1833, the 1955 lynching of Emmett Till, Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech in 1963, Hurricane Katrina’s devastation of New Orleans in 2005, and Barack Obama’s DNC nomination acceptance speech in 2008. Don Cheadle, Regina King, Angela Bassett, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Lupita Nyong’o, David Oyelowo, Michael Ealy, André Holland, and Glynn Turman star in the project.
Historic figures in sports are not forgotten. Visitors can take selfies next to life-sized statues of Compton’s own Venus and Serena Williams, Jackie Robinson sliding into base, or John Carlos and Tommie Smith giving the black power salute at the 1968 Olympics.
These upper-floor multimedia celebrations of sports, entertainment, food, business, and the military are a welcome respite after the first two levels, which demand inner fortitude and quiet reverence. An intact slave cabin from Charleston County, South Carolina; Harriet Tubman’s hymnal; a Bible belonging to Nat Turner; slave identification tags; and slave shackles crafted for a small child — these shape the sobering “Slavery and Freedom” exhibit on the ground floor.
NMAAHC tells the God’s honest truth about this country at a time when “alternative facts” are becoming the norm. The winds have indeed shifted in Washington, but the brown battle station will always remain within shouting distance of our nation’s seat of power — a resplendent protest sign forever visible from the White House.
Its message: “I will not be ignored.”
Cherie Saunders is a Maryland-based freelance journalist covering entertainment news and pop culture.
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