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Telling the Untold Story

Telling  the Untold StoryPlans for three new African American museums are under way, signaling a growing interest in Black history, culture. But is it too much of a good thing?
By Kendra Hamilton

uestion: What do Washington, D.C., Fredericksburg, Va., and Charleston, S.C., have in common? Answer: Each city will, in the next three to five years, become home to a major African American museum site.
Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., who led a 15-year battle to authorize a National Museum of African American History and Culture on the National Mall, sees a momentous shift in the making.
“We have this growing movement, not just in the South but around the nation,” says Lewis, whose bill finally passed Congress with strong bipartisan support at the end of 2003 (see Black Issues, Dec. 18, 2003). “There’s a growing interest in the whole of African American history — slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction, the Harlem Renaissance,” on up to the present.
Dr. Bernard Powers, a professor of history at the College of Charleston who is working closely with the International African American Museum project there, agrees. “When you look back on the 1960s and ’70s, we were still at that time trying to convince people that something you could legitimately call slave religion and a slave family and slave culture existed,” he says.
 “The time is right,” Powers adds. “This series of projects that is unfolding nationally is really, I think, the byproduct of several decades of research, teaching and publicity in African American history and studies. So this is the next logical step.”
But Fath Ruffins, an historian at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History, is not so sure.
“There’s no doubt that (the) African American studies (discipline) and historical studies of topics in African American culture have been of tremendous importance. But I’m skeptical of the notion that the academy has had so much influence on popular culture,” Ruffins says.
Ruffins, a 25-year veteran of the museum world and co-author of a forthcoming book on African American museums, thinks a far more significant factor is the vital influx of a young museum-going audience. Relatively removed from the civil rights struggle, this generation feels far less personal shame over slavery and is, thus, freer to express curiosity and share feelings and ideas.
“I think the key is that the audience is changing,” Ruffins says, noting that writers and artists are parodying former sacred cows like Gone With the Wind and comedians are cracking jokes about what was formerly unspeakable. “And now that the audience has changed, the scholarship is there to meet them.”

Not Just a
‘Black Thing’
Observers agreed on one trend. While African Americans are certainly at the center of the momentum toward museum-building, the hunger for new sites and new stories appears by no means to be a “Black thing.”
Just ask Joseph Riley Jr., the mayor of Charleston, S.C. — a
lovingly preserved historic city whose bustling heritage tourism trade is often critiqued for its emphasis on “moonlight and magnolias” nostalgia.
But Riley, who just began his eighth term as mayor, has made waves and a national reputation for his determination to wrestle his city into the modern world. The International African American Museum —  or “I AAM” — became part of Riley’s personal vision for completing Charleston’s economic and cultural revitalization as he began weighing an African American heritage tourism concept that would link several sites around the city.
As it happened, Riley was fresh from a visit to the Afro-Brazilian Museum in Salvador, Bahia, with his son. And “I realized that what we were doing just wasn’t enough,” he says.
“In fact, as I looked at the whole story of African peoples’ experiences for almost 200 years coming to Charleston, living in the city and moving out from our part of the country, I realized there was a huge story that had been untold and that Charleston had not only an opportunity but a responsibility to help tell that story,” he adds.
Indeed, Riley’s journey is far from being unique. To a remarkable degree, the momentum for
museum-building appears to be animated by personal passion.
Riley, for example, had no trouble communicating his enthusiasm to his congressman, Rep. James E. Clyburn, D-S.C., a former history teacher who quickly arranged a breakfast meeting with the Congressional Black Caucus to begin building support for the idea.
Former Virginia Gov. Doug Wilder, champion of the U.S. National Slavery Museum in Fredericksburg, which broke ground in December, has a similar story to tell.
Wilder’s journey started during a trade mission to the African nation of Senegal in 1992. Taken on a sightseeing trip to Goree Island, the transshipment point for thousands upon thousands of enslaved people to the New World, Wilder found himself deeply moved.
“Looking into that ‘Room of No Return’ where I saw all the inscriptions of people from around the world who had visited, listening to our guide tell his tales,” Wilder says he suddenly felt the weight of history on his shoulders. “Here I am leading a trade mission with any number of White businessmen as the governor of the state where my grandparents were enslaved.
“I realized that not very much time had passed. The evils of slavery, the travails that our ancestors endured — though we touch upon them, we really don’t know that much,” Wilder says. At the very next year’s joint African-African American Summit in Gabon, Wilder announced his intention to found a museum.
And then there’s the tale of Lewis’ 15-year struggle to win authorization for the national museum on the Mall. “One year the bill passed the Senate and didn’t pass the House,” Lewis recalls. Another time he managed to win passage in the House and, with the support of Sens. Robert Dole and George Mitchell, he had high hopes that he’d win in the Senate, too.
His hopes crashed when “Sen. Helms put a hold on it,” Lewis sighs. “But I didn’t get discouraged. As I told my supporters, we must not give up, give in or give out.”
Lewis says he kept inching along, winning the support of a bipartisan group called Faith in Politics, taking congressmen on trips to civil rights museums and sites in Montgomery, Selma and Birmingham, converting key Republican allies like J.C. Watts of Oklahoma and Sam Brownback of Kansas. Eventually Lewis prevailed.
He recalls the Oval Office signing ceremony as one of the highlights of his many years in Congress. “The president looked over at me as he was signing the bill, and he said to me, ‘J.L. — we’re going to do this.’ And I said, ‘Yes, Mr. President — and we’re going to do it on your watch.'”

Too Much of
a Good Thing?
But the question can justly be raised: With three new museum projects in the pipeline plus two major museums set to open in 2004 — the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center on Cincinnati’s riverfront and the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American Culture in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor — is all this museum activity too much of a good thing?
Ruffins certainly doesn’t think so. “There may be as many as 6,000 museums in the United States, but only 150, certainly no more than 200 of them have an African American focus,” Ruffins says. “Some of those African American sites are fairly large, like the Wright Museum in Detroit, but they range all the way down to Great Blacks in Wax in Baltimore and very small doll museums, like the one in Indianapolis that’s in a lady’s house.
“So the museums are by no means of equal size or scale, and they certainly represent considerably less than 5 percent of the total,” she explains.
“It’s healthy what’s happening in Charleston and what’s happening under the leadership of former Gov. Wilder in Virginia,” Lewis says. “Everybody can’t come to Washington, so I don’t think we’re competing.”
“I see the museums as complementary,” Powers says. “There will no doubt be some cooperation between us all, though I’m not so naïve as to think there will be no conflicts. But we’ll all be working toward building a synergy.”
Clyburn agrees. “Does Hampton duplicate Howard?” he asks. “I think people will agree that they’re quite different — that they offer different experiences.”
Indeed, the Fredericksburg site is putting its emphasis squarely on the need to tell the story of slavery, says Dr. Vonita Foster, executive director. The first phase, to consist of up to 100,000 square feet in exhibits and storage, is being designed by C.C. Pei, the son of I.M. Pei, and will include the largest replica of a slave ship in the continental United States. Construction of the $200 million facility, Foster says, will begin in 2004 with the museum set to open in 2007.
The team working for the past 18 months on the $40 million Charleston project initially considered a focus on slavery, then rejected it, Clyburn notes. Instead, the museum will educate visitors about Charleston’s central role in turning Africans into Americans.
Indeed, explains Clyburn, more Africans came to the United States through the port of Charleston than any other location. “And that’s an international story that encompasses not only the role of African nations but also Barbados and other Caribbean nations,” he adds.
The team envisions a 50,000- to 60,000-square-foot facility right on the water, with a rooftop observation point from which visitors can see Sullivan’s Island, where slave ships landed and enslaved Africans were quarantined before being allowed to mingle with the general population.
The museum will be an “extension of the whole ‘living museum’ aspect of visiting Charleston,” says Terrie Rouse, an Atlanta-based consultant who serves as the project director for strategic planning. “If you can go to the museum and see a discussion of rice culture (in Africa and America), and then take a trip to a rice plantation, or just walk up the street and see women making baskets used in winnowing rice in the traditional African way on Market Street, then that’s not just an institution in isolation — that’s a whole ‘living history’ experience.”
Ruffins predicts that building the museum on — or near — the National Mall will be a long process. She notes that the Holocaust Museum was authorized in 1979 but did not open to the public until the 1990s and that the Museum of the American Indian, likewise, was authorized in 1989, but will not open for another year or so.
“The other two are rooted in place and in the vision of the founding individuals, which is the way that the majority of museum projects evolve. The one on the Mall is a national museum and a national process, which brings a whole different level of involvement in who is telling the story and what is the story that will be told,” she explains.
“It’s potentially a contentious process, so, yes, people will be duking it out in various ways. Many people on various sides will try to bend the museum to their various national or political purposes. For example, I don’t think it’s an accident the president signed the bill in a year that he’s heading into an election campaign,” Ruffins adds.
The Smithsonian is currently selecting regents for the museum, and half of its up to $300 million price tag will be raised from private sources, in what Ruffins characterizes as a “challenging” fund-
raising environment.
“So I look at Congressman Lewis — here he’s 15 years into his personal struggle and it might be another 15 years before he can walk in the building. It will be fascinating to see what happens,” Ruffins says. 

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