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National African-American museum is reality

By Stacy M. Brown
NNPA Newswire Contributor

Mary Elliott, curator and museum specialist for the Smithsonian National Museum of African-American History and Culture, pauses next to a slave cabin exhibit during a recent media tour. (Freddie Allen/AMG/NNPA)

Mary Elliott, curator and museum specialist for the Smithsonian National Museum of African-American History and Culture, pauses next to a slave cabin exhibit during a recent media tour. (Freddie Allen/AMG/NNPA)

Washington, D.C. – 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 especially powerful.

Almost as powerful, however, is Elliott’s recounting of the vital input and assistance by one 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,” said Elliott. “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.”

Elliot said that Eileen was just over 50 and she really helped museum staffers connect with the elders in the community.

maryelliott_headshot_official_hires“It’s a hard history and sometimes people don’t want to talk about it, but she helped us to get the stories out,” said Elliot. “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 learned that Eileen died.

“She was younger than the elders that she helped get the stories from. Eileen had so much energy and spirit and was so passionate about the fact that the story was being told and told correctly,” said Elliott. “She may not be here when this museum opens and that’s heartbreaking, but I smile because her spirit will definitely be here.”

It’s been a long, arduous and incredible road to get to the Sept. 24 grand opening and Elliott has helped to research, conceptualize and design the “Slavery and Freedom” inaugural exhibition.

She also contributed to the exhibition script, 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 Catholic University of America’s Columbus School of Law, Elliott helped produce local history exhibits in the Washington, D.C. area and produced several public history programs.

Now, as the opening of the historic museum approaches, Elliott told the NNPA Newswire 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. People ask me, ‘Are you excited?’ And, truthfully, I get reflective,” 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. “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 that, ‘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.

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 and it also will possess the kind of true stories that need to be a part of the American history narrative, including those about the African continent and how diverse it is.

“So, we open with people, from the beginning, that this is a story of humanity and we see how this history flows,” said Elliott. “I tell everyone the harsh story of slavery, but the very important understanding of resistance and resilience and survival. There is a wall dedicated to the domestic slave trade and 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 doesn’t ignore the struggle many African-Americans have today, 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,” said Elliott. “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 Americans who have contributed to the development of this nation.”

Elliott said that there is also a part of the exhibit where visitors can read about 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,” shared Elliot. “But, there is another camp that said, ‘We need to stay, because we built this nation and it belongs to us.’”

September 21, 2016
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