African American Museum's Lonnie Bunch Is on a Mission

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The discoveries can come through late-night e-mails, conversations with elderly black women over weak tea, or at a community center where someone brings in their great-grandfather's diploma.

Such is life at the moment for Lonnie G. Bunch III, the founding director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, who is working diligently to bring essential documents and artifacts of the black American story to the public. So far he has a Selmer trumpet once owned by jazz innovator Louis Armstrong, a Jim Crow railroad car from outside Chattanooga, Tenn., a sign from a Nashville bus that reads "This part of bus for colored race," an 1850 slave badge from Charleston, S.C., and a porcelain drinking fountain labeled "colored."

The museum also has a house built about 1874 in Poolesville by the Jones family, freed slaves who founded an all-black community in Montgomery County, as well as a letter signed by Toussaint L'Ouverture, the leader of a successful slave revolt in Haiti, not to mention a cape and jumpsuit from the late soul superstar James Brown, and the 700 garments and 300 accessories from the Black Fashion Museum, which closed in 2007...

... "The exhibitions and opening the building are the priorities," says Bunch, acknowledging that Smithsonian-worthy artifacts can come from both expected and surprising places. "Much of the 20th-century and some of the 19th-century materials are in people's attics and basements and homes," he says. Consequently, Bunch has cast an especially wide net.

Just last week the museum accepted a highly unusual donation: the original coffin of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old boy killed in Mississippi in 1955, whose battered body in an open casket became a pivotal rallying cry for the modern civil rights movement. When the news broke this summer that the empty casket was being neglected in a Chicago cemetery, Bunch's and Till's relatives got in touch with one another. "That was serendipitous," he says.

Bunch, who expects to have a curatorial staff of eight by the fall, is pinning down priorities and establishing focus. He asks himself: What are the stories we want to tell? "I don't know how, but we will discuss slavery. We will do segregation, the civil rights movement, music and leisure," Bunch says. "It's an evolutionary process. Here are the big stories, and that allows the staff to think about what kind of material we need."

On the museum's wish list is a slave cabin and a slave ship. "We have some manifestations of slavery -- shackles and clothing. And we have identified several cabins. We need to have the real provenance and we are trying to find one that had limited use after slavery," Bunch says. The ship might be harder, but he says he'll settle for part of an authentic ship. "More than likely, we will have a piece, like the pieces of the [Jesus's] cross, and use technology to build it out. The question is how do you humanize the big moments. If you have a piece of a ship, you can tell the story of that one ship."...

... This is the fourth time Bunch has attempted to build and/or expand a museum collection. He is drawing on experiences at the California African American Museum in Los Angeles and the Chicago Historical Society. "In California, I went to two or three churches every Sunday and told people what we were doing," he says, and he reached out to black Olympians such as Matthew "Mack" Robinson, Jackie's brother, who won a silver medal in the 1936 Olympics.

"I have had a lot of weak tea with wonderful elderly black ladies," he says. "I was building a sense in the African American community that the history had to be preserved."

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