On September 24, 2016, the long awaited National Museum of African American History and Culture will open its doors to the public. The museum will join the ranks of 18 others that bear the name of the Smithsonian Institution. Folks around the country have been eagerly anticipating the opening, and Smithsonian employees are no exception. Some, like the National Museum of American History, have opened temporary exhibits highlighting achievements of African Americans throughout history. The Smithsonian Institution Archives Institutional History program has been collecting oral histories of African Americans who have worked at the Smithsonian. In our collections, we have interviews of Louis Purnell, the first African American curator at the National Air and Space Museum. There are interviews of Lonnie G. Bunch, the current Director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. We have the interviews of Jeannine Smith Clark, a Smithsonian docent and Emeritus Regent, Shireen Dodson, the former Smithsonian Comptroller, and Annie Sullivan, a Smithsonian worker in the Building Management Division at the National Air and Space Museum. There are many more interviews that have been and are still being conducted and planned to add to the rich variety of experiences at the Smithsonian.
Part of my internship duties was to process these interviews, either to get them ready to be sent to transcription services or to do final edits and formatting for the transcripts. I had the opportunity to listen to stories and experiences of people that before coming to the Smithsonian I had no knowledge of. I was able to gain a better understanding of what it is like working at an institution like the Smithsonian, whether it is with museum collections, finances, or administration. Through reading these interviews and listening to the stories that have been told, I have gained an invaluable understanding of what people have had to go through as African American workers in the United States. Louis Purnell expressed it best when he said “you have to be twice as good to appear equal” to the white employees at the Smithsonian. Though they faced discrimination and a difficult journey, they persevered and, whether behind the scenes or out in front, helped the Smithsonian grow and become the world famous institution it is today.
The men and women in these interviews spoke not only of hardship, but of the wonderful experiences they had working at the Smithsonian. They told of opportunities they would not have had anywhere else, and of times when they got to say “I did that, I contributed to some of the greatest museums in the world.” The men and women interviewed impacted the Smithsonian in various ways, but all of their stories help contribute to the assurance that their history will not be swept under the rug anymore, and that their stories will be heard. Having the opportunity to be a part of a story that is so much bigger than just the Smithsonian, and spans the entire history of the United States, for even just two months is an experience that cannot be repeated. This project has allowed me to grow scholastically and to think even more critically of the opportunities I have had and will continue to have and will serve as a constant reminder never to take for granted what I and others have been able to accomplish because of the work of those who have come before.
Jeannine Smith Clark and the Increase and Diffusion of Cultural Education, The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Record Unit 009578, Oral History Interview with Louis Purnell, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Record Unit 009620, Lonnie Bunch Interview as American Association of Museums Centennial Honoree, Smithsonian Institution Archives