Bunch: Smithsonian’s African American museum to tell ‘unvarnished truth’

lonnie-bunch-742The history of Blacks in America is not necessarily a pretty one … but it is an important one.

While the story of African-Americans includes the triumphs of Dr. Charles Drew, Jesse Owens, Joe Louis, Jackie Robinson, Elijah McCoy, Madam C.J. Walker, our current president, Barack Obama, and numerous others; it also includes the inescapable truths of brutal slavery, sharecropping, lynchings, bombings, Jim Crow and even being subjected to government experimentation. And the story cannot be told without exploring the horrific Middle Passage, where enslaved Africans were transported as a commodity to the New World. The tale of the African in America is quite a tale indeed. But the Smithsonian, under the direction of historian Lonnie Bunch, is hoping to tell the story – the good, the bad and the ugly – and in the process bring about healing.

“Often, when you look at history like the African-American story, a lot think it’s a story for just a small segment of the population or for certain people,” said Bunch, the director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. “Crafting this museum helps all Americans see how important of a story this is to all, and my hope is that it can help us come together as a nation.”

Bunch said the museum on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., which will be complete within 18 months, will seek to tell the story of African-Americans in its entirety.

“As (historian and author) John Hope Franklin said, ‘we’ve got to tell the unvarnished truth,'” said Bunch, who told of the words of a Mr. Johnson who is an African-American who lives on a former slave plantation in South Carolina. “He said, ‘your job is to help people to remember not what they want to remember, but what they need to remember.’

“So, this museum has to be a place to remember (the Rev. Dr.) Martin Luther King, Jr., Sojourner Truth and Gordon Parks but it also has to be a place that tells the story that nobody remembers – the story of the African-American woman who was a slave but never let it strip it of her humanity. This is not a Black story for Black people … this is the quintessential American story,” said Bunch.

For the museum’s director, one of the major challenges of telling the “unvarnished truth” is knowing that people of all sides are uncomfortable with the realities of history when it comes to African-Americans. Bunch said he received hate mail from whites who said he was drudging up the past and he has had more than a couple of African-Americans applaud his and the museum’s efforts, but ask that the museum not mention slavery. At one point he was advised to use the example of the Holocaust Museum to tell an unpleasant story but Bunch noted one key difference in the story of the Holocaust and that of atrocities upon African-Americans.

“With the Holocaust, the bad guys aren’t American,” said Bunch.

But overall, in his travels to find pieces for the museum, Bunch said the reaction has been overwhelmingly in favor, with people donating wonderful items for display. The museum has upwards of 35,000 items including items once possessed by Harriet Tubman, a plane flown by the Tuskegee Airmen, glass shards from the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., and even the bible of Nat Turner – who lead the nation’s most well-known slave uprising. Turner’s bible was actually donated by a white woman whose family suffered the greatest loss of life during the uprising.

Bunch shared his insights on the coming museum while in St. Paul speaking at the Penumbra Theatre. The museum, which came about by an Act of Congress in 2003, was first discussed as early as 1913, according to Bunch. The museum has a significant local connection as Rep. Betty McCollum (D-MN) serves as the lead Democrat on the committee that funds the Smithsonian. McCollum was on hand at Penumbra and noted the rich history of African-Americans in the Twin Cities.

“It’s fitting Mr. Bunch is here in Minnesota – particularly St. Paul,” said McCollum. “We are home to Pilgrim Baptist Church – the oldest African-American church in Minnesota – with a history deeply rooted in the Underground Railroad and America’s struggle for racial equality and social justice.”

Thus far, the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture has received nearly $450 million in donations – much of it coming from private citizens. For more information:

April 22, 2015
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