Guest Columnists

New Museum Passes on Rich Culture, History

by Father Eugene Hemrick

IT IS ESTIMATED the new National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington has 33,000 objects, 3,500 of which are presently on display.

Visitors to the museum can view the glass-topped casket used to display the body of 14-year-old Emmett Till, murdered in Mississippi, a murder that sparked the 1950s and ’60s African-American civil rights movement.

The dress of Rosa Parks, who refused to give up her bus seat to a white man in Montgomery, Ala., is exhibited, as is the dress of actress and singer Pearl Bailey.

A sign that says “Colored” is attached to a segregated drinking fountain from the Jim Crow era, indicating use for blacks only.

The trumpet of jazz musician Louis Armstrong is one among numerous musical instruments of famous African-American musicians.

Sports fans can view the boxing gloves of Muhammad Ali, a striking portrait of the boxer Joe Louis, the tennis racket of Althea Gibson and beautiful life-size bronze statues of Jackie Robinson sliding into base and Michael Jordan sinking one of his famous winning baskets.

Also on display are handcuffs used by police in Cambridge, Mass., to arrest African-American Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. in 2009. And one can view the presidential campaign office of Barack Obama during his 2008 run for president.

Walking through the museum, I thought, “If a person wanted a degree in African-American history and culture studies, this museum is an excellent place to start.” As awe-inspiring as is its architecture and contents, what struck me most were the visitors, many of whom were African-American families with their children.

What caught my attention was listening to elders passing on their history to children on what it was like being African-American in their day. It dawned on me, “This is the same method of storytelling used to teach about Christ, the history of the church and its traditions.”

In the play “Fiddler on the Roof,” Tevye sings, “How do we keep our balance? That I can tell you in one word! Tradition! … Because of our traditions, every one of us knows who he is and what God expects him to do.”

The new African-American museum is spellbinding. It is like being in a temple in which African-Americans are learning more fully who they are and the richness of their culture.

Father Hemrick is a syndicated columnist for  Catholic News Service.