Lonnie Bunch on John Lewis

Dedication Ceremony of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

Lonnie Bunch is the secretary of the Smithsonian Institution and was the founding director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington D.C. Over at Politico he reflects on the life of civil rights activist and congressman John Lewis.

Here is a taste:

I first got to know Congressman Lewis when the Smithsonian hired me to make real the centurylong dream of a museum on the National Mall dedicated to the history and culture of African Americans. Without his persistence, the museum might never have existed. Upon his election to office in 1986, one of the first bills Lewis introduced was legislation to create the museum. He continued to champion it, building enthusiasm for the project among his colleagues and constituents for 15 years, before the National Museum of African American History and Culture Act finally passed the House and Senate and was signed into law by President George W. Bush.

Every time I met with the congressman, I was struck by his patience and perseverance, qualities one would expect from someone who had been deeply involved in the struggle for civil rights since he was a teenager. Inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s radio sermons and the movement to integrate Alabama’s schools, John Lewis gave his first sermon at Macedonia Baptist Church in Troy, Alabama, when he was just 15. When he later attended the American Baptist Theological Seminary, he tried to start a campus chapter of the NAACP, only to encounter resistance from the school’s leaders, who were reluctant to lose the white support they counted on. Lewis became adept at overcoming resistance throughout his life and shared wisdom about doing so with many people—myself included. As I struggled to build the National Museum of African American History and Culture, I cannot count the number of times I looked to his example of fighting the good fight every day.

Read the entire piece here.

Lonnie Bunch on race in America


Lonnie Bunch is the secretary of the Smithsonian Institution and the founding director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Over at The Atlantic, Adam Serwer talks with Bunch about our current moment.

Here is a taste:

Adam Serwer: Since George Floyd was killed by a police officer in Minnesota on May 25, we’ve seen weeks of protests. Why do you think this is happening now?

Lonnie Bunch: I’ve always shown that protest is the highest form of patriotism. It’s where people demand a country live up to its stated ideals. And I think the pain that came with the murder of George Floyd—but with a long history of this pain—I think people said, I’m tired of mourning. Let me do something besides mourn. Let me challenge a country to live up to its stated ideals. And I think that’s what you’re seeing in the protests.

Serwer: Some activists and black leaders have said that this moment feels different from, you know, previous protests. Obviously there have been outcries against police brutality before—I’m thinking of Ferguson, Baltimore. Do you agree that this moment is different? And why or why not?

Bunch: I think there’s some parts of this that are different, but let’s be honest: This is part of the long arc. What’s clear is that this is part of an arc that says that, as long as America has viewed itself as a democracy, it’s also been a place of racism, of systematic racism, and discrimination. So for me, this is something that I’ve seen many times before, through the eyes of the past. What’s different this time is that, one, you’re seeing such a diversity of people around the world clamoring for America to do better, clamoring for the struggle against police violence to be taken seriously. But you’re also seeing, I think, people who I’ve never heard speak before. I see police officers, some members of police departments, and police chiefs raising questions about, we can do better, we can do differently. So I am hopeful, but I’m not sure I’m optimistic, because we’ve seen this happen, time and time again.

Read the entire interview here.

Lonnie Bunch III: Dismantle Confederate Statues, Group Them Together, and Contextualize Them


I just read Robin Pogrebin and Sopan Deb’s New York Times article titled “Trump Aside, Artists and Preservationists Debate the Rush to Topple Statues.” The article quotes Lonnie Bunch, director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Here is a taste:

Mark Bradford, the renowned Los Angeles artist, says Confederate statues should not be removed unless they are replaced by educational plaques that explain why they were taken away.

For Robin Kirk, a co-director of Duke University’s Human Rights Center, the rapid expunging of the statues currently underway needs to be “slower and more deliberative.”

And Lonnie G. Bunch III, the director the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, proposes that the dismantled statues be grouped together and contextualized, so people understand what they stood for.

In state after state this week, artists, museum curators, and historic preservationists found themselves grappling with lightning-fast upheaval in a cultural realm — American monuments — where they usually have input and change typically unfolds with care. Many said that even though they fiercely oppose President Trump and his defense of Confederate statues, they saw the removal of the monuments as precipitous and argued that the widening effort to eliminate them could have troubling implications for artistic expression.

“I am loath to erase history,” Mr. Bunch said. “For me it’s less about whether they come down or not, and more about what the debate is stimulating.”

Read the entire article here.

The Noose That Brought History To Life


Lonnie Bunch, the founding director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, has turned to the op-ed pages of The New York Times to address the noose found recently at the museum.

Here is a taste of his piece:

The person who recently left a noose at the National Museum of African American History and Culture clearly intended to intimidate, by deploying one of the most feared symbols in American racial history. Instead, the vandal unintentionally offered a contemporary reminder of one theme of the black experience in America: We continue to believe in the potential of a country that has not always believed in us, and we do this against incredible odds.

The noose — the second of three left on the National Mall in recent weeks — was found late in May in an exhibition that chronicles America’s evolution from the era of Jim Crow through the civil rights movement. Visitors discovered it on the floor in front of a display of artifacts from the Ku Klux Klan, as well as objects belonging to African-American soldiers who fought during World War I. Though these soldiers fought for democracy abroad, they found little when they returned home.

That display, like the museum as a whole, powerfully juxtaposes two visions of America: one shaped by racism, violence and terror, and one shaped by a belief in an America where freedom and fairness reign. I see the nooses as evidence that those visions continue to battle in 2017 and that the struggle for the soul of America continues to this very day.

Read the entire piece here.

I also recommend this conversation between Bunch and American Historical Association director Jim Grossman.

Friday at the Annual Meeting of the Organization of American Historians in New Orleans


Friday appears to have been a busy day for American historians in New Orleans.  The OAH offers some highlights at Process blog.

The highlight of the day was the afternoon plenary session “African American History, Art, and the Public Museumfeaturing Lonnie Bunch III, the director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture

Here is a taste:

“This plenary session was a unanimous ‘no brainer’ for the program committee and OAH president Nancy Cott to organize,” said program co-chair Robert Self of Brown University. “We wanted to recognize and honor one of the most important developments in public history in the last decade or more.”

“The audience was not disappointed,” Self continued. “Lonnie Bunch explained the political strategy (make congressional allies before you need them), the economic strategy (tap corporations and the wealthy black donor class), the collecting strategy (encourage ordinary people to donate materials to local museums, which would feed the national museum), and the rhetorical strategy (African American history is American history). He and Richard Powell reflected on the decade-long process of collecting and curating more than four centuries of black history in North America. Bunch also revealed that an astonishing 70 percent of the museum’s permanent collection came from the attics, basements, and storage closets of ordinary people. The plenary offered a fascinating look at how Bunch guided the museum from an idea to an architecturally powerful new building on the National Mall, curating an intellectually honest and unflinching portrait of black American history and culture. Thank you, Lonnie, Richard, and the excellent moderator, Darlene Clark Hine.”

Read the entire post here.

National Museum of African American History and Culture: The Backstory

Museum of African American History and Culture, (NMAAHC) construction site

There is a lot of buzz up here at Messiah College about the September 24 opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington D.C.   Over the last week I have learned about at least one field trip and two more that are in the works.  (Washington D.C. is a two hour drive from Mechanicsburg, PA).

In the September 2016 issue of Smithsonian Magazine Lonnie Bunch, the museum’s founding director, tells how the museum “came to be.”

Here is a taste:

This moment was born out of a century of fitful and frustrated efforts to commemorate African-American history in the nation’s capital. It was in 1915 that a group of African-American veterans of the Civil War proposed a museum and memorial in Washington. In 1929, President Calvin Coolidge actually signed enabling legislation for a memorial celebrating “the Negro’s contributions to the achievements of America,” but the Great Depression put an end to that.

Ideas proposed during the 1960s and ’70s found little support among members of Congress. The desire to create a museum was resurrected in the 1980s thanks to Representative Mickey Leland of Texas, among others. A bill introduced by Representative John Lewis of Georgia in the late ’80s spurred the Smithsonian to launch a formal study of what an African-American “presence” on the National Mall might be. The study concluded that that presence should be a separate museum, but budget concerns curtailed the initiative.

In 2003, a commission appointed by President George W. Bush studied the question again and issued a report whose title reflected its verdict: “The Time Has Come.” Congress passed the law authorizing the museum that year.

All that was left for the museum’s director to do was to articulate a vision, hire a staff, find a site, amass a collection where there was none, get a building designed and constructed, ensure that more than $500 million could be raised from private and public sources, ease the apprehension among African-American museums nationwide by demonstrating how all museums would benefit by the creation of NMAAHC, learn to work with one of the most powerful and influential boards of any cultural institution and answer all the arguments—rational and otherwise—that this museum was unnecessary.

I knew that the new museum had to work as a complement to the National Museum of American History on the Mall. I’d worked there for 12½ years, first as a curator and then as the associate director of curatorial affairs. (A colleague and I collected the lunch counter from the Greensboro sit-ins, one of the museum’s signature artifacts.) But I’ve been a historian for my entire professional life. I knew that the story of America is too big for one building.

Read the entire piece here.

The National Museum of African American History and Culture


AfricanLonnie Bunch is founding director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. In an interview with USA Today he talks about what visitors to the museum can expect. On September 24, Barack Obama will dedicate the museum.

Q: When people walk in to the museum, what will they see?

A: They’ll get to see some amazing artifacts that I’m stunned that we have … like, oh, Nat Turner’s Bible, or a hymnal that Harriet Tubman carried with her. Or you’ll see pieces from a slave ship that we brought up from off the coast of South Africa. … But you’ll also see things that will make you smile. You’ll see Chuck Berry’s guitar. Or you’ll see the Mothership from George Clinton or you’ll see beautiful quilts that will make you realize the creativity that was at the heart of this community.

Q: Is there an object that is particularly meaningful to you?

A: I am still overwhelmed by the piece of wood that we brought up from a slave ship off the coast of South Africa. … The tribal chieftain from that community told me that when you go back to where that ship is, if you could take soil from Mozambique, where most of the people came from, and if you could sprinkle that soil over the ship, then for the first time since 1794, our people will sleep in their own land.

Q: Did you do that?

A: I did. We sprinkled the soil over the ship and we really felt the power of both ancestors and the power of helping people understand a big story, a horrific story, by looking at a piece of wood that was touched and stepped on by the enslaved.

Q: The debate about race in this country isn’t just history. Will the Black Lives Matter movement be included in the museum?

A: It’s crucial for us to help people realize that history is not nostalgia. History is this amazing tool that helps people live their lives to understand the challenges they face. When we look at things like Black Lives Matter, it’s crucially important for us to interview people involved, to go to Baltimore and interview people around the crisis there. To begin to collect artifacts — shirts that say ‘Black Lives Matter’ or the posters that people carried.

One is part of the job of any museum is to anticipate what historians will want to know 50 years from now. … The other part of it is to recognize that if you want to be a place of value, a place of meaning, you’ve got to let people to use the past to understand better the present.

Read the entire interview here.