A major step in examining the history of slavery and of race in the United States was the 2016 opening of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture on the Mall in Washington DC. Founding director Lonnie Bunch calls it a “space where Americans can debate issues, come together, and maybe find common ground.”
On April 1 I visited the Museum of African American History and Culture with high school students and teachers from the Minneapolis-St. Paul region participating in a “Civil Rights Research Experience” sponsored by the West Metro Education Program. The students were focused on discovering historical patterns, the role of institutions in the oppression and liberation of people, and the way language conveys meaning. Visiting the museum with these students really helped me understand its impact and importance. I was especially impressed with the connections these young people drew between the exhibit on Emmett Till with the death of Trayvon Martin and how the treatment of the Scottsboro Boys in Alabama in the 1930s was eerily similar to the treatment of five Black teenagers in New York City in 1989 who were accused of rape and rampaging in Central Park.
The West Metro Educational Program Civil Rights Research Experience is both an academic and leadership program. Student volunteers participate in Saturday classes before the intense visits to historic sites The goal of WMEP Student Programs is to provide opportunities for youth to “Build bridges across multiple identities; Engage in history and participatory action research; Develop anti-racist student leadership skills; Access intergenerational learning from multiple perspectives; and, Develop into our next generation of educators.” Student participants come from the Eden Prairie, Hopkins, Minneapolis, Robbinsdale, St. Anthony/New Brighton, St. Louis Park, and Wayzata school districts. This year, in addition to the Civil Rights experience trip, WMEP student groups explored the Afro-Latino world and Hopi life and culture.
One of the things that makes the Museum of African American History and Culture so powerful is the way it is organized. Artifacts are used to illustrate the historical narrative, but the narrative remains primary. The museum groups displays into five exhibitions; Slavery and Freedom, 1400-1877; The Era of Segregation, 1877-1968; A Changing America, 1968 and Beyond, and Community Galleries and Cultural Expressions. The historic exhibits are below ground level; visitor climb from past to present; from slavery to freedom. The history of African Americans in New York City is prominent in each of the exhibits.
The slavery era exhibit has plaques highlighting New York laws regulating and oppressing enslaved Africans in the city. Exhibit artifacts include early photographs, a copy of Freedom’s Journal, the first Black newspaper published in the United States, and Harriet Tubman’s shawl and gospel hymnal. While the museum is not about slavery, the history of slavery and its continuing impact on American society is prominent. The Slavery and Freedom section opens with “The Paradox of Liberty.” Text from the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights is on a high wall behind a statue of Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration and a Virginia planter and slaveholder. Behind Jefferson are bricks with the names of the hundreds of people he claimed to own. He stands surrounded by statues of prominent opponents of slavery including Toussaint Louverture, Benjamin Banneker, and Phyllis Wheatley.
On their Civil Rights Experience trip the forty teens not only visited the Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington DC, but also the Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville, Kentucky; the John Rankin House underground railroad site in Ripley, Ohio; Howard University where they spoke with Dr. Edna Medford, Director for History of New York’s African Burial Ground Project; abolitionist and slavery sites in New York City; and the Audubon Ballroom where Malcolm X was assassinated in Harlem.
On the bus trip from Washington DC to New York I got to join in conversations with students and staff who spoke out about the significance of what they learned at each stop. Lately the political scene in the United States has left me depressed. However the insights and enthusiasm of these young people gave me hope for the future.
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On the Brooklyn Promenade I introduced the Minnesota students to the history of slavery in New York City via a rap by my alter-ego Reeces Pieces.
My name is Alan Singer, PhD / We need to talk about slavery.
It’s time to tell the truth about local history / New York was land of slavery.
Dredged the harbor, cleared the land / Unloaded ships as the city grew grand.
Eighteen-sixties was time for war / But New York mayor wanted to withdraw.
City’s elders backed the South / They wanted cotton, had no doubts.
Citibankers and ATT / Were all involved in complicity.
But freedom fighters stood their ground / Through the centuries echoes their sound.
New York City, was it free? / Abolition and complicity.
The erased past cannot hide / Slavery’s History was genocide.