Changing America’s narrative: The National Museum of African American History and Culture
MARIAN WRIGHT EDELMAN | 10/31/2016, 5:56 p.m.
Children’s Defense Fun
“In the shadow of the Jefferson Memorial, the Lincoln Memorial, the King Memorial, and the front yard of the Washington Monument, like a phoenix, our museum will rise … Believe me, if we can build a museum … there’s nothing that you can’t do. There’s nothing you can’t reach. There’s nothing you can’t teach, but it begins with the vision, and it begins with a vision that maybe nobody else can see.” – Rex M. Ellis, associate director for curatorial affairs, National Museum of African American History and Culture
The Sept. 24 opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture is the realization of a dream that’s been a very long time coming, beginning a century ago, when Black leaders first proposed a memorial to Black Civil War veterans. Rex M. Ellis, the museum’s associate director for curatorial affairs, speaking to young teachers during the Children’s Defense Fund’s 2016 Freedom Schools training, shared his hopes that the museum will help light the way for the next generation of Americans and that the museum’s vision will “change the master narrative of our nation.”
“When people come to the Smithsonian now, they’re not just going to hear about American art or American history … We have a 76-ton train, a segregated train car that was built and adorned as a segregated car in the 1940s. We brought that train all the way from Berea, Kentucky, down 14th Street. It took two 16-wheelers to bring that 76-ton train down, and then two cranes … that lowered it into the museum, and as it was lowering into the museum, I said to the director, ‘We are bringing a part of our history that will [be here] forever’ – because we had to put the train in, and then build the roof over the top of it. So the train is going to be there. Segregation is going to be there. Segregation and lynching and slavery and everything that we have gone through as a people is now a part of a master narrative.”
Ellis shared how special the opening of this museum is to him.
“For museums around the world, the question is, are we going to contribute to the solution to the problems and challenges of our nation and our world, or are we going to sit back like Nero and watch Rome burn to the ground? Our plan is to use our museum as a way to make America better.”
The new museum opens at a critical inflection point in our nation’s history. By capturing America’s struggle to overcome our birth defect of slavery and our ongoing struggle to close the gap between America’s creed and deed, for the first time, our children will be able to accurately learn the too often hidden or misstated history of America. With this museum, I hope new generations of children will grow up not only learning the truth about who we are and where we came from, but also what they can do to create a more equal and just America.