Past is Prologue

Clint Schemmer writes about history, heritage preservation and the American Civil War.  On Facebook: Past is Prologue  On Twitter: @prologuepast  ContactEmail Clint or call 540/374-5424.

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‘Voices silenced in the past will be heard now’

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I hope that you had a chance on Wednesday to see a few minutes of the groundbreaking ceremony for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.

I did–via the wonders of live streaming video and, later, C-SPAN–and was moved.

I don’t know how one could help but feel that way when Smithsonian Secretary G. Wayne Clough acknowledged that his venerable institution had written black people of out of its programs exhibits for decades, well into the 20th century.

“Voices silenced in the past will be heard now and in the future,” Dr. Clough promised.

One example that Smithsonian officials noted: In February 1862, as war split the nation, the Smithsonian Institution barred famed abolitionist Frederick Douglass from speaking at a lecture series intended to persuade President Abraham Lincoln that he should end slavery.

Ironically, the campaign to recognize African American history in Washington began in 1915, when black veterans of the Civil War sought a monument on the National Mall.

So it certainly seems fitting that the Smithsonian’s newest museum will sit on a five-acre Mall site between 14th and 15th streets, N.W., near the Washington Monument.

But count me among those who did not know that African Americans were bought and sold on what is now the Mall, or that slave pens stood nearby, as President Obama and other speakers at Wednesday’s ceremony oted.

The museum site, seen in the foreground, is across 14th Street from the National Museum of American History and northeast of the Washington Monument. (SMITHSONIAN INSTITUTION)

“It was on this ground long ago that lives were once traded, where hundreds of thousands once marched for jobs and for freedom,” Obama said. “It was here that the pillars of democracy were built often by black hands.”

He was referring, I believe, to the fact that the White House and the U.S. Capitol–their stone hewn from quarries in Stafford County, Va.–were largely built with slave labor. (Find the president’s full remarks here.)

But all of the speakers, including civil rights leader and museum champion John Lewis–who delivered the keynote address last May at the University of Mary Washington’s 100th annual commencement–also noted that the museum will spotlight the triumphant American spirit. The Smithsonian’s 19th museum will be not only about black history, but American history, they stressed.

Obama talked about what he wants his daughters, Sasha and Malia, to experience when it opens in 2015:

“I want my daughters to see the shackles that bound slaves on their voyage across the ocean and the shards of glass that flew from the 16th Street Baptist Church, and understand that injustice and evil exist in the world. But I also want them to hear Louis Armstrong’s horn and learn about the Negro League and read the poems of Phyllis Wheatley. And I want them to appreciate this museum not just as a record of tragedy, but as a celebration of life.”