It’s within this fraught political context that the most comprehensive exhibit of black history in America has operated for the better part of a year, almost serendipitously overlapping with the rise of the current administration. The NMAAHC has attracted more than 2.5 million people thus far and averages about 8,000 visitors daily, including President Trump shortly after his inauguration. Even though the museum is rife with symbols of fortitude and freedom—and notably sits close to monuments dedicated to Presidents Jefferson and Washington, both of whom owned slaves—it isn’t wholly insulated from the increasingly conspicuous polarization taking place outside its walls. Events like the white-nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August make the museum’s director, Lonnie Bunch, think deeply about how history can help people have reasoned debates about issues like the country’s current racial tension. “This is a moment that is going to force America to recognize that it’s in a war for [its] soul,” Bunch told me. Shortly before the Charlottesville rally, which left one counter-protester dead, visitors found a noose hanging inside the museum.
When asked how he conceives of the museum’s role today, Bunch said, “Part of what you want is people to understand that the journey is long, the road is crooked, but ultimately the opportunity to effect change is still there regardless of what party is there and who is in the White House.” In curating the museum, Bunch sought to strike the right balance between depicting painful moments and offering examples of black people’s unique resilience.
A typical journey through the museum progresses both chronologically and vertically. Visitors begin on the lowest level of the building with exhibits about how the African slave trade evolved starting in the 15th century; they can then climb their way upward through floors dedicated to the Antebellum era, the Civil War, Reconstruction, Redemption, and the civil-rights movement, and into the present-day achievements of notable black people in sports, the arts, and government. The exhibits’ timeline ends not after Obama’s election, as one might expect, but with the rise of Black Lives Matter and modern racial-justice movements. After visiting the museum for the first time prior to its unveiling, my colleague Vann Newkirk called the exhibits “triumphant and crushing at once, both a celebration of how far black people have come in an ongoing struggle for equality, and a reminder of the near impossibility of that struggle.”
One of the most indelible examples of the staunch resistance to racial progress is what happened to the Little Rock Nine. In an act of bitter opposition to the Brown v. Board of Education decision to integrate schools, the Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus ordered the state’s National Guard to bar a group of African American students from entering the all-white school they’d been assigned to. Later that month, federal troops successfully escorted the nine teenagers into Little Rock Central High School. But the students in question subsequently faced near-constant harassment from their classmates, and after only a year, Faubus closed the school for the 1958-59 term in an effort to stymie African American attendance. On Tuesday, the NMAAHC concluded the celebration of its inaugural year with a panel discussion spotlighting six members of the Little Rock Nine who faced an angry white mob in 1957.