Musing on the National Museum of African American History

Experience tells me that I am not alone as fall creeps stealthily into our lives. Early evenings, falling leaves and an evitable autumnal languor herald a season when many of us find ourselves in a reflective mood. On the one hand, we yearn to hang on to the carefree days of summer. Still, we know it’s time to face the facts, which means re-visiting a jumble of memories. So I spent last evening absorbed with the memories conjured by the opening of the National Museum of African American History. (http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2016/09/24/495302034/national-museum-of-african-american-history-opens-its-doors)

My ritual morning click on The Writer’s Almanac reinforced the reflective mood.   Today’s show recalled the day six decades ago when the “Little Rock Nine” walked into Little Rock Central High School. Protected by federal troops they bravely “put a face” on the legendary decision by the Supreme Court to strike down the doctrine of “separate but equal.” (http://writersalmanac.org/episodes/20160925/)

My thoughts turn to the tragically slow trajectory of history. Thus, as I share in the celebration of the NMAAH I wonder about the world faced by the grandchildren of the Little Rock Nine.

It seems to me that there are times when we better understand seismic forces if we have a thread that ties us to the enormity of a movement or societal awakening. For me, the thread to the narrative preserved in the National Museum weaves through the story of the Brown vs Board of Education decision and the bravery of the Little Rock Nine and their families.

Some reflections:

For five years in the 60’s my days were spent as a fledgling librarian at the District of Columbia Teachers College. As an agency of the DC Public Schools, the College, like virtually all the of the nation’s capital, operated under the political thumb of the United States Congress. DCTC was a merger of two teacher education institutions — Wilson (historically White) and Miner (historically Black)* – a marriage forced by the same Brown vs Board of Education decision. Any observer of school integration or white flight in the 60’s would instantly know that, by the time I showed up at DCTC, the student body and the faculty were 99.9% African American.

Totally immersed in an environment that was far beyond my experience, I learned in a way that has shaped my life.   As a librarian I learned about brilliant Black writers, the Harlem Renaissance, about the paucity of research on the African American experience. I learned, too, about emerging authors who were turning their attention to young African American readers.

As a newbie on a professional team of outstanding Black librarians I heard the stories of powerful African American leaders – writers, educators, artists, athletes, politicians, leaders of the faith community, veterans of wars and labor movements. In time I grasped what my elders shared about the unique characteristics of African American academic institutions, their fraternities and sororities, about the Washington, DC Gold Coast, and, of course, I absorbed back-stories on the civil and human rights movements of the era. Above all, I learned about the pain – and about the unflinching hope — that inspired the Black community’s compulsion to speak out and stand up for the inalienable rights so long trampled by the diabolical myth of white supremacy.

My life has been forever enriched by this long ago experience – the daily brown bag lunch in the back room, the petty gripes and celebrated birthdays, the wisdom shared with patient generosity of spirit by my older and much wiser co-workers.

All of these memories flowed as I viewed the spectacular opening of National Museum of African American History. The impact of the Supreme Court decision, the turbulence of the 60’s struggle for human and civil rights, the history we share but too often prefer to ignore or deny.  All of this history I learned by listening to my elders – wisdom shared over long lunches in the “back room” of DCTC. My oral history learning was not so much about facts but about the power of a people to believe, to hope, and put their shoulder to the wheel of freedom – not for individual gain but for the good of the race and of society.

The National Museum of African American History makes a powerful statement – the stories behind the objects can “put a face” on those who lived their lives and helped to shape a history filled with pain and injustice could not break the spirit of my colleagues and their forebears.

________

* (In an earlier post I wrote about Myrtilla Miner, the white woman for whom the African American college was named – an interesting historical footnote —https://marytreacy.wordpress.com/tag/myrtilla-miner/)

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