Sign up for our free newsletter
It’s no secret that the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture’s collection is expansive—nearly 37,000 objects, by the museum’s count. Among the tens of thousands of artifacts that compose its collection, there’s no shortage of pieces specific to history of black culture in D.C., which is really just the history of D.C.
Mary Elliott, the co-curator of the museum’s “Slavery and Freedom” exhibition, tells City Paper that in curating for the museum, she brought experience with digging through her own family history that includes links to Booker T. Washington and the 1921 Tulsa race riot. The museum’s addition to the prestigious Smithsonian landscape squarely places the African-American story in the American capital, the site people equate with the creation of a nation.
Below are some of the D.C.-specific artifacts you can expect to see in the museum.
Pulpit and chairs from the Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church
There’s a lot of history in the walls of this M Street NW church. The congregation was founded in 1838, and the building boasts the superlative of being one of D.C.’s oldest black-owned properties. Over the years, it’s opened its doors to some of the most prominent figures in African-American history: from Ida B. Wells and Booker T. Washington to President Barack Obama. This church was regularly attended by Frederick Douglass and hosted both his and Rosa Parks’ funerals.
The Metropolitan AME’s roots extend back to the Free African Society, the first black mutual aid society in Philadelphia, which was established after the Revolutionary War in 1787. Elliott says that visitors may be surprised to learn about the number of African Americans who petitioned for their freedom in the 1700s, some successfully. “African Americans didn’t just docilely chore away in the fields,” she says. “They fought for freedom.” Churches have always played a prominent role in these efforts, not just providing a sanctuary, but “to really help people find their footing after freedom came,” Elliott says.
First edition Benjamin Banneker Almanac from 1793
Born in Maryland in 1731 to a free African- American woman and a former slave, Benjamin Banneker boasted many talents, most of which were self-taught. But of the many things he was known for, his most notable accomplishment—at least to District locals—was assisting in the 1791 survey of the land that would become D.C. Through his work, Banneker developed a correspondence with then-Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson and gave him a copy of his almanac, “to show Jefferson that African-Americans are intellectuals and go beyond enslavement,” Elliott says.
Aquia Creek sandstone
Perhaps the most moving moment of Michelle Obama’s speech at this year’s Democratic National Convention was the emotion in her voice as she mentioned waking up every day “in a house built by slaves.” But the White House is far from the only D.C. landmark built by both free and enslaved African-American labor. The museum features Aquia Creek sandstone from a local quarry that was mined for the U.S. Capitol building. D.C.’s position as a wedge between the North and the South and the political powerhouse of a newly liberated nation marks it as an unusual point of pain for African-American history. “We wanted people to know that D.C. played a pivotal role,” Elliott says. “This was where the decision-makers were, and every day, coffles of enslaved men would walk by the Capitol.”
Panel from Resurrection City
The Civil Rights movement hit a pivotal moment in 1963 with the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, which helped push the momentum necessary for the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. But the work of the movement did not end there. The Poor People’s Campaign carried on the struggle, with a renewed focus on economic freedom and justice, which had been brought to greater national attention by President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty. Guided by Martin Luther King, Jr., the movement unfolded on the National Mall in May 1968 under the new leadership of Ralph Abernathy, after King was assassinated.
Protesters set up a shantytown on the Mall, occupying the ground between the memorials and the Capitol, until they were evicted six weeks later. The museum’s exhibition “A Changing America: 1968 and Beyond” features a wood panel from Resurrection City. “It has this great language calling out American Indians, African Americans, Latino, you name it, they go through all of it,” Elliott says. “It has a phrase about how there will never be any walls built up. And you know how the language out there today is, ‘I’m going to build a wall,’—this one from the 1970s that’s been preserved actually talks about how there will never be any walls built up between people.”
Serving pieces from Wormley’s Hotel
Much like it is today, Lafayette Square—the park that sits in front of the White House—was the center of political activity in D.C. in the 1800s. And at the other end of the park sat James Wormley’s hotel, which hosted many historic—and secret—meetings throughout its tenure. Opened in 1871 by James Wormley, the son of free African Americans, the hotel quickly developed a glowing reputation in the city for its fine, European-inspired dining and elegant rooms. Wormley remained politically engaged as well, successfully lobbying Congress for the creation of public schools for African Americans in D.C. The hotel not only attracted a steady stream of tourists but also catered to prominent politicians and presidents, commonly hosting meetings for legislators. The most historic was a pseudo-secret meeting in 1877—known as the “Wormley Compromise” or “Compromise of 1877”—to resolve the contested presidential election of 1876 between Samuel J. Tilden and Rutherford B. Hayes. The close popular vote depended on the electoral votes of three Southern states, ultimately resulting in the election of Rutherford and the end of Reconstruction. The hotel’s legacy long outlives the building, which was demolished in 1906.