News | Feb. 10, 2016

DLA employees get preview of new Smithsonian African American museum

By Chris Erbe

John W. Franklin, of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, spoke to employees of the McNamara Headquarters Complex Feb. 3 to commemorate African American History Month and discuss the features of the forthcoming museum. The Defense Contract Audit Agency, the Defense Logistics Agency, the Defense Threat Reduction Agency and the Defense Technical Information Center sponsored the event.

Franklin’s presentation, “Hallowed Grounds: Sites of African American Memories,” incorporated the history of African Americans into a discussion of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, which will open Sept. 24, 2016, on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

Anita Bales, director of the Defense Contract Audit Agency, delivered the opening remarks and described the future attraction as “the only national museum devoted exclusively to the documentation of African American life, art, history and culture.”

“This is a place where all Americans can learn about the African American experience and the many ways it has shaped our nation and impacted struggles for freedom around the world,” Bales said.

Beginning his presentation with the history of the forced migration of Africans to the Western Hemisphere, Franklin noted that Africans were first brought to the Americas by the Spanish in the 1500s. The Dutch brought African slaves to the area between what is now Connecticut and Delaware in the 1600s, until around 1660, when the British took over. The Danes brought Africans to what are now the Virgin Islands in the 1650s. The French brought West Africans to the Louisiana area in the mid-1700s to grow rice, which the slaves used to make a native African dish called gumbo.

“The study of the African Americans in the United States is a complex history that begins well before the Colonial revolution,” Franklin said.

In between his history presentation, Franklin wove in facts and information about the Smithsonian’s newest museum.

“The architecture of this stunning building, which looks like three crowns on top of one another, is inspired by the top of a Yoruba Nigerian veranda post,” Franklin said. “The outside of the building comprises 3,600 metal mesh panels inspired by the work of African American blacksmiths in Charleston and New Orleans.”

Franklin informed the audience that the number of Africans brought to the Americas through the slave trade totaled 12.5 million, of whom 6 million went to Brazil and 1 million each to Cuba, Haiti and Jamaica. Surprisingly, fewer than 500,000 came to the United States, most brought here to grow sugar.

“So the United States is just a small part of this huge global story,” Franklin said.

The historian brought out the fact that, before becoming a city, the District of Columbia was divided into plantations, the land worked by slaves. In fact, he said, the current neighborhood of Mount Pleasant took the name of the plantation that once stood there. Jenkins Hill was the name of a plantation that stood where the U.S. Capitol stands today.

“So you see, African Americans were in Washington, D.C., before it was Washington, D.C.,” Franklin said. “Many of them cleared the land and built the buildings that make up the city that we see now.”

The Smithsonian’s 19th museum is near the Washington Monument and will be the first “green” building on the mall. David Adjaye, a native of Tanzania, designed the building. The federal government funded half of the $540 million cost of construction; the rest will come from private donors. Museum officials expect from 3 to 4 million visitors each year—there will be no charge for admission.

Items in the museum’s collection include a powder horn owned by an African American who fought in the Revolutionary War; objects that belonged to Harriet Tubman, African American abolitionist, humanitarian and Union spy; a biplane flown in training by the Tuskegee Airmen; a Jim Crow-era railroad car; Louis Armstrong’s trumpet; Michael Jackson’s fedora from his 1992 “Victory” tour; Rosa Parks’ homemade dress; Chuck Berry’s cherry-red Cadillac and much more.

“All this work we’re doing in the museum is not just for us,” said Franklin. “It’s for the young people now and the young people yet to come.”

President Obama is expected to cut the ribbon at the opening ceremony in September, according to a Smithsonian press release. He also participated in the groundbreaking ceremony in February 2012, where he said, “When our children look at Harriet Tubman’s shawl, or Nat Turner’s Bible or the plane flown by Tuskegee airmen, I don’t want them to see figures larger than life; I want our children to see how ordinary Americans can do extraordinary things.”

Visit the website of the National Museum of African American History and Culture for more information.