The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Category: Smithsonian History
Smithsonian staff and Americans across the nation are making final preparations for the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in just two days. Their work is the culmination of efforts to commemorate African American history on the National Mall that began over 100 years ago. While those early efforts did not come to fruition, their work many generations ago laid the foundation that these upcoming opening celebrations rest on.
The first men and women to advocate for the commemoration for African American contributions to American history knew well the significance of telling this story in the nation’s front yard. They were African American veterans of the Civil War, members of the nearly 180,000 U.S. Colored Troops who put their lives at risk for a nation that did not grant them equality under the law. At the end of the Civil War, the victory parade through Washington, D.C., the Grand Review Parade, excluded U.S. Colored Troops and denied them the recognition and applause they earned serving their country. Fifty years later, in 1915, another Grand Review Parade celebrated the anniversary and African American veterans were determined to participate. U.S. Colored Troop veterans formed a Committee of Colored Citizens of the Grand Army of the Republic to support African American participation in the parade. The committee provided help with housing, food, and logistical costs for veterans who were coming to D.C. to march in the parade, but, importantly for us, after the parade they used the leftover funds to set up a National Memorial Association to create a more permanent memorial to African Americans’ military contributions.
Within this National Memorial Association, the proposal to create a memorial building soon evolved into a building housing a National African American Museum to commemorate African Americans’ “contribution to America in the military service, in art, literature, invention, science, industry, etc.” (70th Cong., 1st sess. H. Rept. 353. 1928. Accompanying H. J. Res. 60). This museum would also be an educational center, giving inspiration and pride to future generations by the example of those who have contributed to the advancement of the nation. Despite significant grassroots support, congressional opposition made an authorizing law for a commission to construct the museum a nearly impossible goal. Yet, fourteen years later on March 4, 1929 an authorizing law, Public Law 107, was signed by President Calvin Coolidge. However, timing was not on their side. The law was passed with no guaranteed funding and just seven months later the stock market crash of October 1929 presented a major setback for the Commission.
Seventy four years later in 2003 Congress again authorized the building of a National African American Museum. This time, momentum gathered rather than waned, and now, thirteen years after that it is finally about to open. As we celebrate this achievement and all it represents, let’s take a moment and remember the men and women of the National Memorial Association, Committee of Colored Citizens of the Grand Army of the Republic, and the US Colored Troops who shared this vision of the importance and power that this museum holds.
Learn more about the incredible history of the National Museum of African American History and Culture on our updated history page.
- U.S. Colored Troops History, African American Civil War Memorial and Museum
- “A Place of our Own: The National Museum of African American History and Culture," Howard Dodson. Callaloo Vol. 38, No. 4 (2015) 729-741.
On March 14, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., speaking at Grosse Point High School in suburban Detroit, described “two Americas.” The citizens of the beautiful version of America “have the milk of prosperity and the honey of equality flowing before them.” They have “food and material necessities for their bodies, culture and education for their minds, freedom and human dignity for their spirits.” But, King warned, there was another America, one in which segregation and discrimination compelled African Americans to “walk the streets in search for jobs that do not exist” and “live in vermin-filled, distressing housing conditions.” In this other America, black children were relegated to overcrowded, underfunded schools that remained segregated despite the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown vs. Board of Education fourteen years earlier. King reiterated his commitment to non-violence, but refused to condemn the riots that had shaken American cities each summer since 1964. King told his audience that “a riot is the language of the unheard” spoken by those left “with no other alternative” but “violent rebellions” to draw attention to injustice and inhumanity. It would be “morally irresponsible” to refuse to listen.
Three weeks later, on April 4, 1968, while King was in Memphis to support the city’s striking sanitation workers, King fell to an assassin’s bullet. That night, riots erupted in over 100 cities across the nation in grief over King’s murder, and in anger at being relegated to that “other America,” in neighborhoods ravaged by disinvestment and deindustrialization.The riots in Washington, DC raged for five days and were only quelled when President Lyndon B. Johnson mobilized nearly 14,000 federal troops.
As the smell of smoke drifted across the National Mall, among those willing to listen was Smithsonian Secretary S. Dillon Ripley and John Kinard, the institution’s first black museum director. Two years before the riots, Ripley had grown concerned that, while attendance at the museums on the Mall was robust, very few black faces could be seen in the crowds there. In 1967, he decided to establish the Anacostia Neighborhood Museum in Southeast DC. Ripley hoped that bringing the Smithsonian to Anacostia would also bring black Anacostians to the museums on the Mall. He then recruited Kinard to run the museum, empowering a talented and well-known community organizer whose vision for the new museum would radically challenge the relationship between the Smithsonian’s museums and the communities they served.
When the Anacostia Neighborhood Museum opened in 1967, its exhibits were not focused explicitly on African American history. However, the riots that followed in the wake of King’s assassination, inspired Kinard and his staff to make “Anacostia [into] a full-fledged museum that would highlight and address issues germane to black people, and particularly their history.” Significantly, they also decided that the community would determine what to put in the museum. What resulted was a remarkable series of exhibitions that focused on the issues and problems the community had long faced: mass incarceration, pollution, unemployment. They also mounted exhibitions featuring the history of Anacostia and famous residents like black abolitionist Frederick Douglass. This was something new for the Smithsonian. Though earlier exhibitions had featured African American culture and history, none had done so in such a focused and sustained way.
In the aftermath of the 1968 riots, when the Smithsonian debated whether to restrict access to the museums on the Mall, they rejected this option. That they instead opted to make the Smithsonian more accessible is testament to Secretary Ripley’s commitment to democratic Smithsonian and Kinard’s commitment to black life and culture.