“On that stone block, people would have been sold away and never see their loved ones again,” Bercaw says slowly. “You know these people and honor them, so it’s a question of really seeing, really recognizing; it’s a question of saying these were human lives, and focus on the person who once stood on that block.”
Along with cool artifacts such as the fedora Michael Jackson wore during his 1992 Victory Tour and rock ’n’ roll star Chuck Berry’s bright-red Cadillac are more disturbing pieces such as an 1835 bill of sale for a 16-year-old Negro girl named Polly, for $600. There’s also an entire segregation-era Southern Railway car, which is so large, it had to be lowered into the museum before the building was complete.
“We want to make the whole concept of segregation and discrimination not abstract, but concrete and real,” explains Spencer Crew, curator of the “Defending Freedom, Defining Freedom” exhibition. “We want people to understand what that means in the lives, particularly, of African Americans in this country. … It really meant you were seen as different. You were seen as not having the same level of importance as other individuals, and it was something that was put in your face whenever you would travel, especially on trains.”
Crew suggests that people also see a plane used to train the Tuskegee Airmen, the renowned African-American pilots for the Army Air Corps service during World War II, and the lunch-counter stools from Greensboro, N.C., as well as the interactive counter that tells the history of the sit-ins.
Director Bunch says that the African-American experience is the American experience, and it is the story of the nation, not just of one community.
“This building will be available for the public to engage this rich history for as long as there is an America,” Bunch says.
Allison Keyes is an award-winning correspondent, host and author. She can be heard on CBS Radio News, among other outlets. Keyes, a former national desk reporter for NPR, has written extensively on race, culture, politics and the arts. Follow her on Twitter.