Washington’s Striking New African American History Museum

Museum of African American History in Washington Dc
Museum of African American History in Washington Dc

African American History in Our Nation’s Capital: Washington D.C.

By Susmita Sengupta

Washington D. C., our nation’s capital is surely a tourist magnet and unlike any other city in the United States.IMG 05891 A city like this, densely packed with things to do can be visited repeatedly to discover and enjoy new museums, neighborhoods and cultures.

And without a doubt, the story of the iconic sights of Washington D.C. is inextricably linked with the history, culture and contributions of Black Americans.

Meaning of America Through the African American Perspective

There always has been a significant African American population in Washington DC, starting from before the Civil War, many of whom were free Blacks.

After slave auctions were outlawed in 1850 and all slaves in the city were emancipated on April 16, 1862, the population remained and established a vibrant African American culture and heritage. Today 47 percent of DC’s population is African American.

During a recent visit to Washington DC, I made these monuments and museums a focus of my sightseeing trip and explored the influence of African American history and heritage.

Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

The beginning of this exploration must start at the newest museum to grace the National Mall dedicated to the history and culture of African Americans.

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The Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, inaugurated by Barack Obama during his presidency and opened to visits on September 24, 2016, immediately stamped an imprint on public consciousness.

My daughter and I reserved our free timed entry passes for our visit as per the museum’s rules. You are allowed to enter at any time from the stamped entry time on your pass until 4pm. Detailed information can be found here.

The Museum Architecture

Though I had seen photographs of the museum building countless times, the visual impact as we walked up Constitution Avenue was breathtaking.

Beyond the massive trapezoidal shiny bronze building, the glistening white Washington Monument created a startling vista under the glorious azure skies.

Designed by the Ghanaian-born architect, David Adjaye and assisted by lead architect Philip Freelon, the eight-story and four-level museum’s bronze lattice screen exterior is a pure architectural marvel.

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According to the exhibition devoted to the construction and building of the museum, “the architecture follows classical Greco-Roman style of using a base, a shaft, and a capital.

The capital of the corona uses as inspiration the three-tiered crowns used in Yoruban art from West Africa.” The enveloping metal lattice pays tribute to the ornamental ironwork forged by 19th-century enslaved African Americans in New Orleans.

An Overview of the Exhibits

Suffice it to say that traversing through the many exhibit halls of this phenomenal museum can fill you with gut-wrenching emotions and also bring forth joy and hope at the incredible tenacity, resilience, and forbearance of African Americans as they have pursued the goals of justice and equity.

According to the museum’s website, the NMAAHC has collected over 40,000 artifacts that are “devoted exclusively to the documentation of African American life, history, and culture.”

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And you will need at least two-three hours or perhaps even more than one visit to fully experience all that the museum has to offer.

Be prepared physically as well as mentally to absorb the complexities of Black life in North America as you take in 600 years of trials and tribulations faced by them, in one day.

A Cavernous Lobby

As we stepped into the cavernous lobby of the museum, it was almost as if I had moved into a different world. Beautiful light was pouring in through the lattice openings creating an environment of vibrant radiance and openness.

And when after completing our visit, we stepped out of the museum into the darkness outside, lit up from inside, the building glowed like a jewel.

The Must-Sees in the Culture Galleries

We started our tour with the bright, airy, and joyful spaces of the Culture Galleries or the L Galleries reached by escalators from the lobby or the Heritage Hall. These focus on the African American community (L3) and culture (L4).

My favorite in the Community galleries: is the lovely exhibit on Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune, the founder of the National Council of Negro Women in 1935. Her life’s work was beautifully presented through photographs, writings, and memorabilia highlighting her success story in spite of the obstacles she faced in her life.

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In fact, each story presented in these galleries showcase how African Americans persisted to reach new heights even with tremendous lack of opportunity.

The “Double Victory” exhibition also on L3 puts a spotlight on African American soldiers who served in the military starting from the American Revolution until the War on Terror.

African Americans in Sports

The “Sports: Leveling the Playing Field” displays showed how it was one of the first fields to accept African Americans and it exhibited this contribution through imaginative visual and material objects, such as the many Olympic medals of Carl Lewis and other such interesting items.

The Culture galleries were a smorgasbord of African American achievements in creativity. Though it was delightful to see popular cultural phenomenon items such as a jacket worn by Eddie Murphy, the tap shoes of Sammy Davis Jr. or the glossy Cadillac of Chuck Berry, what really makes an impression are the exhibits that chronicle how African cultural traditions brought forth new styles into American culture.

Exhibits such as “Taking the Stage” and “Musical Crossroads” made me see how African American actors and musicians helped in bringing about social change through their creative talents.

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What To See in the History Galleries

After the joyousness of the Culture Galleries, we made our way to the concourse. Home to the History Galleries on Concourse levels C3, C2 and C1, the exhibits here are truly difficult to choose from. These galleries make the visitors experience the brutality faced by 3.5 million West Africans and their descendants over a period of 600 years and counting.

We descended onto C3 via an elevator that immediately placed us into the darkness of the 1400s, where we walked through exhibits experiencing a slave ship’s scary, claustrophobic space below deck where slaves were crammed in inhuman conditions. The air was quiet and gloomy as we all made our way through these areas.

Paradox of Liberty

The “Paradox of Liberty” hall on the other hand starts out in a stress-free manner; the displays on the founding of the United States are spectacularly placed under a high ceiling but soon we were enmeshed in the complicated matters of slavery and freedom. The statue of Thomas Jefferson was surrounded by the names of his 600 slaves.

There are many such must-sees on C3, C2, and C1, ranging from Harriet Tubman’s pretty silk lace and linen shawl, a gift from Queen Victoria, or the violin belonging to a slaveholder which he gifted to his enslaved man, Jesse Burke, to the absolutely dehumanizing stone slave auction block from Maryland or a set of shackles rescued from a shipwreck.

The “Emmett Till Memorial” is extremely moving wherein we stood in a line waiting to enter the room where the casket is placed on a pedestal surrounded by photographs and mementos. Emmett Till was 14 years old when he was murdered in Mississippi in 1955 after whistling at a white woman.

Segregated Railways

In the exhibit on segregated railways, we walked through a segregated railway car for a first hand experience. While at first glance not much seemed different, a closer look showed how the seats though cushioned were tighter and the bathroom was bare bones in the part of the car used by African Americans.

Portraiture at National Portrait Gallery

A visit to the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery situated on 8th and G Streets NW is an absolute must to see the innovative iconic paintings of Barack and Michelle Obama. The first paintings to be commissioned from African American artists by the Gallery, the artworks are delightfully playful in an out-of-the-box style.

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They created an immediate sensation when they were first unveiled in February 2018 during the Gallery’s 50th-anniversary celebrations. The paintings are back after a year-long tour around the country when people flocked to see them.

New York-based artist Kehinde Wiley’s portrait of Barack Obama, imagines him sitting on a carved wooden chair, arms crossed and slightly leaning forward surrounded by a sea of shimmering green leaves, purple, yellow, orange and white flowers peeking out from around. Each flower represents a place in President Obama’s life.

The painting was large and exuded a certain vivacity but also seriousness, so very different from all the other staid Presidential portraits in the permanent exhibition titled “America’s Presidents.”

Michelle Obama, as painted by Baltimore artist Amy Sherald, is in a sitting pose and my eye was instantly drawn to her boldly geometric, voluminous gown.

There she sat, her white gown interspersed with black and gray and splashes of color, looking thoughtfully out at the viewer, a picture of style and grace. Both paintings epitomized their legacy by being beautifully unconventional.

The Calmness at Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial

At 1964 Independence Avenue SW, with a magnificent view of the Tidal Basin and the Thomas Jefferson Memorial, lies the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, dedicated to one of the very prominent leaders of the Civil Rights Movement.

I entered through an open-to-the-sky doorway-like space, the Mountain of Despair, created out of two gigantic boulders, into the memorial plaza. I faced the back of the memorial, and I walked to its front to take in the impressive view of the carved likeness of Dr. King, a 30-foot-high statue emerging from the boulder known as the Stone of Hope.

The names are a part of the text of his “I Have a Dream” speech. Embedded into the stone is that part, “Out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope.” Dr. King’s features look out over the waters of the Tidal Basin and in that beautifully clear day, it brought in a tranquil feeling in me.

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Experiencing the Grand Lincoln Memorial

And lastly, I decided to complete this trip by visiting Lincoln Memorial, the truly iconic memorial built to honor Abraham Lincoln, the 16th American President, and certainly a place that can be revisited many times.

Built like an ancient Greek temple, with 36 gigantic columns where each representing a state at the time of Lincoln’s death, the memorial is extraordinary. The stately statue of Lincoln sitting down was designed by Daniel Chester French, who depicted him leading the country during the Civil War.

While visiting this emblem of equality, freedom, and justice, as I stood at the top of the stairs, looking out over the water to the Washington Monument far away, I took a moment and recalled once again MLK Jr.’s iconic “I Have a Dream” speech. On August 28, 1963, King stood on the steps of the memorial and delivered his momentous words to a crowd of 250,000 civil rights supporters.

It was an ideal end for this trip.

Susmita Sengupta


Susmita Sengupta, an architect by background, from New York City, loves to travel with her family. Her articles have been published on GoNOMAD, Travel Thru History, Go World Travel, Travel Signposts, and In The Know Traveler.

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