In June of 2017 I visited the African American Museum. It wasn’t open to the public yet, but I was able to get tickets through a local group that was having a bus trip. So my parents, sister, and I boarded the bus in York, PA to ride down to DC.
The Founding Director of the museum wrote, “This building will sing for all of us.”
And it did. The three tier architecture was inspired by the Yoruban Caryatid.
We took a group photo, and inside we went. After descending a spiral of steps, some of the group decided to go straight into the museum. My professor mentioned that the food was to die for, so I made a bee line there. Plus I was hungry. I mean who wouldn’t want this?!
Stepping into the restaurant solidified that everyone should experience this museum. If you physically visit, splurge on the food. I bought fried chicken, collard greens, and corn bread. Fish isn’t my thing, but the one my mom bought nearly made me cave and try it. The dining hall had a large dedication to the sit-in protests.
Underneath the large photo were smaller snapshots with descriptions. All of the different forms of protest against segregation were met with violence-. Black Americans and allies were trying to change the long held fabric of America.
After finishing our meal, it was time to enter the actual museum.
The first level of the museum was the darkest–figuratively and literally. As you moved up through the levels, the lights brightened. And for a good reason. The first level is the beginning of it all–the start of the modern slave trade. The rise and perfection of racist ideas in America did not occur overnight.
The weight of history hit me like truck. Preserved shackles were displayed. Tiny hands wore these. Can you imagine being so married to hate that you deemed children as subhuman threats? Or not even human? Seeing it in the flesh gave a grave reminder that there’s still a section of society who justify this and wouldn’t be upset to see this occur again.
Deaths on slave ships were caused by inhuman conditions. The enslaved were kept side by side, shackled together. Disease ran rampant. People of different languages and dialects were placed together so they could not communicate. Women and children were often kept in an enclosure. They endured horrors and violence at the hands of the crews.
One in ten slave ships rebelled. The dead and rebels were thrown into the ocean. Others would choose the ocean themselves. Sharks followed slave ships because they knew easy meals would be given.
Bury me in the ocean with my ancestors that jumped from the ships, because they knew death was better than bondage.Black Panther
The absolute loss to humanity will never be known. The slave trade is often justified with the idea that Africans lived as animals. That Africa was conquered because it was full of lesser humans. But that isn’t true. Africa was full of progressive societies–warrior queens, scientific advances. Africa is and was a diverse continent with different tribes and countries. Colonialism tried to destroy it, but it found a way to survive. So many lives were lost to the slave trade. A wall was dedicated to slave ships from different countries.
It had sobering numbers of how many Africans were forced onto the ships and how many survived. The slave trade was seen as a business, but Africans were still expendable on the trek across the ocean.
We moved through the Middle Passage, where we read more about the journey across the ocean.
For every quote in favor of the slave trade, there was one that refuted it. While many during that time were complacent, people still stood up for what was right.
I came to an area about the progression of the idea of race in the Chesapeake. It showed how slavery was enforced during the whole person’s lifetime. Policies were created where the status of children was determined by the mother. Eventually anyone in an interracial marriage was banned from colonies, minorities were denied the right to vote, and it was legal to dismember enslaved people. It took a little over 100 years between the initial settling of the area to all Black and Native American people being denied the right to vote.
The average lifespan of an enslaved person on a plantation was 7 years.
The next section dealt with the American Revolution. Part of the Declaration of Independence was on the wall in all of its perfect irony.
America holds numerous people as infallible heroes so I was happy to see the museum not show Jefferson as one of them.
The museum showed that history doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Actions cause reactions. In every stage of the first level, I saw the people and thought processes that combatted what was occurring. People fought for what was right.
The next section was Slavery and the Making of A New Nation.
Nat Turner’s Bible was on display. It was in great shape for its age, and a powerful piece of history to have survived since the 1800s. Other rebellions, like Deslonde’s Rebellion, were highlighted.
In 1808, the banning of the international slave trade went into effect, even though people maneuvered around it and still trafficked humans. Slave ships still entered the country. Enslaved people faced horrors on plantations. The reaction to rebellions like Nat Turners were laws requiring a ratio between white overseers and enslaved people, the forbidding of teaching the enslaved how to read, and the discontinuation of enslaved gatherings.
Many enslaved people passed through this believed Hagerstown, Maryland slave block. Families were broken up at slave auctions, and never saw their loved ones again. There was a reason for this. The best way to kill a culture in a span of a generation was to separate children from their families. The children had no ties to songs and language and a sense of history. It is the reason why on slave ships people were shackled together with people from different languages and tribes. It’s hard to fight back if you cannot communicate with your neighbor.
A hard wall to read was full of the descriptions of enslaved people sold at auction.
We continued walking and read the section about the Dred Scott Case.
We passed a slave cabin. It’s the perfect example of why the life span of a slave was so short. For so much of the labor to fall on the backs of the enslaved, they were still seen as expendable. If given inadequate living, how can you expect to thrive?
One of the strongest figures in American history was Harriet Tubman. She is the hero everyone should know. Her shaw was on display.
An act of resistance was embracing the joys life could give. The horrors of slavery were still hard to read though. Seeing the actual tools used on humans is far different from reading about them in a book. This period of American history often solely focuses on pain, for good reason. But I think sometimes we forget that these were real human beings that lived, that loved, that laughed, that smiled, that lost, that fought. They were more than props. The culture was brutal and unfair, but these people still lived. And they found ways to win.
The growing dissent with slavery led to the next section about the Civil War. Slavery was a three billion dollar industry and cotton was worth $250 million. A lot of money was tied up so slave owners weren’t going to allow freedom to come easy for the enslaved. It wasn’t a glorious cause. It was to uphold racism and slavery. We can tip toe around using the word racist by sugar coating it with ‘they went to war for the economy’ or ‘they wanted to uphold their lifestyles.’ Or save our breath by saying racism.
Black Americans fought in the Union Army and were segregated. Black soldiers had to prove their worth to even be a part of the Union Army. When more soldiers were needed, Black soldiers finally had their chance to serve.
Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, which is often seen as the freeing of all enslaved people. But that isn’t so. States that were loyal to the Union did not have to free enslaved people. Nor did the confederate states under Union control. It was signed to weaken still rebelling confederate states.
Today is Juneteenth. Enslaved Black Americans in different parts of the country had to wait until the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to be freed. It took until June 19th, 1965 for the enslaved people of Galveston, Texas to hear word of the war ending and them being free. Slave owners didn’t want to give up their free labor so some didn’t mention the ending of the war nor the Emancipation Proclamation. They needed to be forced to free the enslaved by governmental forces.
Juneteenth may seem like a new holiday. But it isn’t. Black Americans, particularly Black Texans, have been celebrating it since after the war. Having it made into a federal holiday has been in the works for decades.
Freedom didn’t mean equality. But today, we can celebrate and hope we can learn about the past to make the future better.
I am descended from slaves. I will never fully know my family background because white supremacy and racism stole it. Their names are lost in American history, because American history did not deem them worthy of memory. But there’s one thing I do know. While I will never know who they were or completely about their lives, I am the living memory of their footprints upon the earth.
What a deeply moving description of your visit, and your family history.
Thank you for this detailed analysis. You selected some of the most meaningful exhibits and I’m sure you had to leave out even more. I have a long list of places to visit but this museum has now been added.
Betsy in WI