Adventures in DC: National Museum of African American History and Culture

This is the line for tickets to the National Museum of African-American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., last Thursday. The museum is the newest of the Smithsonian museums, and timed entry passes, which are free, are booked through December 2018. The only way to get a ticket the day of a visit in D.C., if one didn’t plan six months in advance, is to haunt the web site at 6:30 a.m. or get in line at 1 p.m. for walk-up release tickets.

Fortunately, I had friends who were already in this line, and when I joined it at 12:39, I waited for less than an hour to get a ticket into the museum. It was worth the effort and wait.

I started my visit with lunch at the Sweet Home Cafe, which featured soul food from different areas of the American South. I had buttermilk fried chicken, scratch-made macaroni-and-cheese, and fresh cornbread. My other choices were collard greens, potato salad, gumbo, barbecue, and a wide variety of other foods. I also added a mini-carrot cake to my tray to share with my companions. More on soul food in another post; it’s become one of my cooking goals since I adopted my oldest two children, who are African-American and requested it when they became a part of the family as teens.

After eating, I headed down to the very bottom level, which is where the permanent exhibits begin. They start with the history of the sugar trade in the fifteenth century and the gradual institutionalization of slavery. The exhibits include African artifacts, shackles and pieces of slave ships.

As patrons move through the exhibits chronologically, they move up vertically, too, with the very bottom level dealing with the debates over slavery at the founding of the United States, life as a slave, and the gradual movement, fought for with blood and pain, out of slavery. The ramp up to the next level begins with a presentation about the Emancipation Proclamation, on display next to a draft of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which legally freed the slaves.

Also on that bottom level? Harriet Tubman’s shawl, and Nat Turner’s Bible. For those who don’t know, Tubman escaped the in humane conditions she was living under as a slave, but returned nine times to the South to help others escape. Turner’s rebellion against slaveholders ended with his execution.

The next level outlines the long struggle from freedom through the beginning of the Civil Rights movement, including cabins from all-black settlements and the Emmitt Till Memorial. The counter from the Greensboro Walgreens that witnessed the first sit-in also looms large in this level.

The third level, rising up from the Civil Rights struggles, features contemporary African-American contributions and ends with an exhibit about the first African-American President, Barack Obama.

Outside the permanent exhibits, there are three levels above ground that feature rotating culture galleries. On my visit, one featured Oprah Winfrey and another featured hip-hop music.

The sheer volume of artifacts collected for the Museum, in context, makes the experience both moving and inspirational. I highly recommend a visit on your next trip to D.C.

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