Many of the exhibits in this space are similarly monumental, such as a giant bale of “King Cotton.” Schoolchildren learn—or at least they used to learn—how Eli Whitney’s 1793 cotton gin became the economic engine of the South. What was often left out of that story is how the cotton gin increased the demand for slaves to pick the cotton that fueled an entire economy. “The Empire of Cotton” touched all Americans, South and North, as well as much of Europe.
Another focal point in this exhibit hall is a reconstructed 1853 slave cabin from Point of Pines Plantation, Edisto Island, South Carolina. “The four walls offered some privacy, but no security,” we are told. “As property, no enslaved person was free from assault by slave owners, even at home.”
The slave cabin and the cotton bale make a strong impression. But throughout the museum I found the smaller items, the ones you come upon by yourself or in small company, to be the most memorable. A little tin folder poignantly reminds us of how vulnerable African Americans have been whether enslaved or not. The handmade case held the “freedom papers” of Joseph Tranmell of Virginia, a free black man required to register his status annually with county courts from 1852 to 1865. He carried this small tin with him at all times, and we can imagine the catastrophic consequences if he had lost it or had it taken from him.
Near the slave cabin is a remarkable collection of pottery. “You know, the potters at that time were overwhelmingly black, because they brought those skills from Africa,” a woman standing next to me said. Together we took a closer look and discovered the remarkable story of David Drake—a.k.a. “Dave the Potter.” Drake was enslaved in Edgefield, South Carolina, where his artistry—and likely his audacity—led him to do something most slaves didn’t dare. He signed his work. The museum has a “Dave” storage jar from 1852. An 1858 stoneware churn signed by Dave sold for $130,000 at auction in 2012.
The museum has an excellent cafeteria, “Sweet Home Café,” offering African American cuisine from various sections of the country. It also has on display a long lunch counter designed to recall the groundbreaking 1960 sit-in at the Woolworth’s in Greensboro, North Carolina. Instead of surly waiters enforcing “whites only” policy, this counter offers cushy stools and an extensive touch-screen “menu” of civil-rights history. Nearby, you’ll find an actual stool from the Greensboro counter, along with a dress Rosa Parks was sewing in 1955, the year she sparked the massive Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott.
Indeed, throughout the museum, objects that have been touched by human hands, for good or ill, are the most affecting: Nat Turner’s Bible; Harriet Tubman’s hand-tatted shawl, a gift from Queen Victoria; Lena Horne’s elegant dresser set; Marian Anderson’s diary; Whitney Houston’s red evening gown; Little Richard’s richly embroidered jacket; a rough slice of rope used in a 1931 lynching. Or the black and white dolls, used by psychologists Kenneth and Marie Clark in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education hearings, to show Supreme Court justices the negative psychological effects of segregation on black children. Unlike some museums, it would be hard to find anything here that isn’t relevant today. Every issue raised is still with us. And while a museum such as this is long overdue, in a way the timing of its opening has been especially welcome.
Barack Obama was still president when he gave the museum’s dedication address. Imagine if the opening had been scheduled after Jan. 20, and attended by a newly inaugurated president who has been cheered by white nationalists and who had shown little to no understanding of what such a museum represents. President Trump, along with Dr. Ben Carson, his only black cabinet nominee, did visit the museum to mark Black History Month. Carson, a distinguished neurosurgeon, is in fact featured in one of the museum’s exhibits. Too bad Trump didn’t bring his chief strategist, Steve Bannon, or his attorney general, Jeff Sessions—two political figures not known for placing the welfare of African Americans high on their list of priorities.