Traveling Exhibit

Making the Case for a National Black Museum

Lewis was finally able to build a consensus in 1994, giving him a decent shot at having his bill passed, only to have North Carolina Republican Jesse Helms manipulate Senate rules and keep the measure from coming to a vote. When Congress reconvened, it was with a Republican majority that emphasized expense-slashing. An African American museum, an idea that had always been pushed by Democrats, was not on the agenda. "The thinking was that Congress was talking about a balanced budget," says Claudine Brown, then project director for the African American Museum Project. "And so we were told that there would be no new projects until the budget was balanced."

Yet museum advocates held out the prospect that Democrats could once again finagle control of Congress, and put the African American Museum back up for discussion. That control, with the exception of a two-year reprieve in the Senate, never came. Now it appears that if a museum is built, much of the important work will be done under the stewardship of a Republican-dominated government.

Taking note of the political realities, Lewis enlisted a more diverse coalition of allies than the corps of liberal academics who backed the project in 1991. The new panel includes whites, African Americans, scholars, businessmen, Democrats, and Republicans. "Some people think that Republicans are not interested in certain issues. I beg to differ," says commission chair Bob Wright, who has long been active in the Republican Party. "John Lewis kept this issue alive. But it really has become a bipartisan effort. . . . I don't think it's a Republican or Democratic issue."

illustration: Heath Hinegardner

Bipartisanship has its advantages. With Republican legislators co-sponsoring the effort, moving it through Congress should be substantially easier. It will not ease what is almost certain to be another intense debate over what the museum should look like and the conclusions it should draw about the country that so often played an ignominious role in African American history. Already the Holocaust museum has been mentioned as a model. "This museum, like the United States Holocaust Museum, should take the visitor through the different eras of the African American legacy," said Brownback in a statement. "From slavery, the Emancipation Proclamation, the Reconstruction, and Exodus to Kansas, through the civil rights movement to present day and beyond."

Brown notes that in almost every city, the Holocaust Museum comes up as a possible prototype for discussing the Middle Passage and slavery. "The feeling is that [the Holocaust Museum] is very effective, and we should be telling that part of our story with equal effectiveness," says Brown. Assiduously researched and deftly assembled, the Holocaust Museum works to demonstrate the singular horror of the ghettos and concentration camps.

But there are critical differences between the Holocaust and the many travesties that dot the African American experience. First, the Holocaust did not happen on American soil. Second, few would romanticize it—there's no Gone With the Wind for Nazi Germany. No descendants of the Nazis turned out to protest the museum's depiction of Germany, unlike here, where descendants of Confederate soldiers serve in Congress and could take issue with the museum's perspective on the Civil War.

The legacy of the South and the Confederacy has long been a sticking point in the American mind. Southern whites remembered an idyllic past that extolled admirable virtues like independence, rugged individualism, and chivalry. From the black perspective, the South is an Auschwitz—birthplace of Jim Crow, the Tuskeegee syphilis experiments, and the Rosewood massacre. Much of the South's dark past is closer than we think. Latter-day segregationist Strom Thurmond, who once filibustered for a day in hopes of derailing a civil rights bill, is just now leaving the Senate.

Grappling with the horrors committed under the foreign Nazi regime is one thing. Grappling with America's own native holocaust is quite another. "It is not possible to tour [the Holocaust Museum] . . . and not come away muttering, 'How could they?' " recently wrote Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen recently. "A museum dedicated to African American history would produce the same result. It is not possible to see pictures of slaves in chains or the charred bodies of lynched men and not ask yourself, 'How could they?' But the 'they' in this case are not Germans or other Europeans. They are we."

These are weighty issues, ones that, for now, the presidential commissioners will not have to address. Content is not in their immediate purview. For now, the panel must deal with more mundane yet essential tasks, like nailing down a location and putting together a fundraising plan. While proponents of the museum are happy to see it progressing, the legislation signed by Bush does not guarantee the construction of a museum. Two of the bill's sponsors won't be present when Congress reconvenes—Senator Cleland lost his re-election bid and Representative Watts is retiring. Museum supporters are in a battle for space, as the National Park Service will not allow building past a certain point on the Mall. Furthermore, there are several other museum ideas being floated, including one dedicated to Hispanic Americans.

The presidential commissioners certainly have a vision for what they would like to see occur on the Mall. Wright argues that the vision should be inclusive, neither ignoring nor becoming weighed down by some of the darker aspects of American history. "I think that when you talk about history, you have to really talk about it as it was," says Wright. "But the story of African Americans goes beyond just slavery."

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