BIN Exclusive: Dr. Lonnie Bunch III Talks Black History, NMAAHC & More

By Ryan Shepard

September 20, 2021

Lonnie Bunch III
Photo: Getty Images

My tan Adidas dipped and dodged the dirt kicking up from the grass as I walked by the Washington Monument. Donning a gray hoodie that would one day be stolen by my crush and a navy blue H&M bomber jacket that I paid for with my first work-study check, I could feel the fall breeze of a Chocolate city afternoon as I weaved my way through tourists. Step by step, I could feel myself getting closer and closer to my destination while Solange's A Seat At The Table provided the soundtrack for this part of my biopic that will never be made. It was almost cinematic the way that the sun slowly set as I neared the front door.

There I was, a 20-year-old college junior rushing to get inside the National Museum of African-American History & Culture for the first time on a Friday afternoon. The museum had opened just a week earlier and tickets were sold out through the new year. However, I had let a friend talk me into showing up just before the doors closed because he told me he had the "hook-up." In other words, he told me that because he interned at the Smithsonian Institute he could sneak me in after-hours. Unfortunately, a security guard that stood about an inch shorter than Deebo, but had the same physique and menacing stare had other ideas.

Instead of spending my night sneaking through exhibits honoring Jackie Robinson and Rosa Parks, I found my way into a basement party near the University of Maryland where the DJ always played Rihanna's "Work" right after Drake's "Controlla" and the jungle juice always looked like something we shouldn't drink but did so anyway. When the sun rose the next morning, I made my way back to the museum. This time around, I didn't even approach the front door. I sat about 50 yards away on a bench across the street and wrote a few lines of a poem that I probably tried to perform at Busboys & Poets. Similar to yesterday, I was still listening to Solange's new album that had come out not long ago. Much of that day still feels like a blur, but I will always remember the way that Tina Knowles talked about Black expression during the "Tina Taught Me" interlude.

"I think part of it is accepting that it's so much beauty in being Black and that's the thing that, I guess, I get emotional about it because I've always known that. I've always been proud to be Back. Never wanted to be nothing else. Loved everything about it," she said.

"It's such beauty in Black people, and it really saddens me when we're not allowed to express that pride in being Black, and that if you do, then it's considered anti-white. No! You just pro-Black. And that's okay. The two don't go together."

Over time, the National Museum of African-American History & Culture became a place I would return to time and time again. Oftentimes, I wouldn't even go in. I would just stand outside, sit on a bench or ride by on an electric scooter. On the day that Donald Trump was elected President, I remember riding by as a man with a pale complexion and a beard akin to Dumbledore's stood outside waving a Confederate flag. Two years later, I walked by that museum in silence after learning that my friend Zay had died before seeing their way across a college graduation stage. I also remember returning to this museum on the day that Donald Trump was voted out of office. Like Henry's Soul Food Cafe, Busboys & Poets, U Street, Aqueduct Bridge and a few other places, the NMAAHC is a place that could be seen as a place of refuge for myself and so many others.

Five years have passed since Stevie Wonder, Rep. John Lewis, Barack Obama and countless others gathered for the museum's dedication ceremony, but the museum is just scratching the surface of what it will evolve into for generations to come. To get a better handle on what this museum means to me and so many others, Smithsonian Secretary Dr. Lonnie Bunch III shared a few thoughts with the Black Information Network.

Ryan Shepard: I guess we can start here. When I was looking through your bio on the Smithsonian website, I read that there was no staff, collection or funding when you took this job. When you look back at where you were in July 2005 and see where you are now, what stands out?

Dr. Lonnie Bunch III: One thing that stands out to me is the amazing array of people. Some are Smithsonian people, some are donors and others are average folks who believed in this, when maybe they shouldn't have believed, but they still gave us that support. For me, this museum shows that when you cross political and racial lines with a good idea, you can get something done. As I look back, I am so proud that the museum is there. At a time when there is discourse around issues of fairness, this museum is both a symbol and a source that can give people that sort of information, reality and a little bit of hope.

RS: Having been there multiple times, "hope" is definitely a word that I would use to describe my overall experience. I went there for the first time during my junior year of college in 2017. I went with my friend and one moment always comes to mind when I think about that experience. My friend was a freshman and I was a junior at the time. Growing up at different times and having different educational experiences, there were some things I had learned about that she hadn't and vice versa. In particular, we both knew about Emmett Till's murder, but she hadn't seen the picture of his face after he was killed. I had. When we got to the bottom floor and we went to the exhibit honoring his life and examining his death, she saw the picture and she immediately started breaking down and crying. I cry a lot myself. I've seen people cry during movies, poetry, etc. I've seen people cry from a lot of different things. However, that was the first time I saw someone moved so strongly by a museum exhibit. I use that story to ask this question. What do you think it is about this museum that moves people in that way? What do you think it is about this museum that stands out?

LB: First of all, it's the richness of the culture. The culture itself, gives you moments to cry, moments to smile and moments to draw strength from. So, I think it was really capturing the culture. I spent a lot of time thinking about how to make this place, so that it's not just a museum. I wanted this to be an institution that moves you and inspires you. I thought a lot about how Black culture is an emotion. Whether it's how you tap your toes like Duke Ellington or it's feeling the pain of our experience, it's an emotion. So, I didn't ever want anybody to be able to just walk through the museum and not be touched. I was always driven by John Hope Franklin, the great historian who chaired my scholarly advisory board until his death. He would always say, "Lonnie, I hope you can make sure that as we build this museum, that when people go through, they'll be changed." That was my "North star" saying I wanted people to be changed by either the knowledge, emotion or strength of a people. I think the staff succeeded in doing that. I don't think that anybody who goes to that museum can't have their heart touched, their brain stimulated and their ethics challenged.

RS: Speaking of emotions and how this museum makes people feel, I watched the address that you gave during the dedication ceremony in 2016. During your speech, you talked about an experience that involved you going to the museum early to see the sunrise and you came across a man that was so overcome with emotion that he started crying because he was so happy that the museum was being built. Hearing you tell that story made me think of my grandmother who was born in 1927 and grew up in Savannah, Georgia. She moved all the way up to Brooklyn where she had my mother, my aunts and my uncle. My Mom went on to become the first person in her family to graduate from college, my brother works on SportsCenter and all of these amazing things are possible because of the sacrifices she made. She got to see so many different things in her life She got to see Barack Obama become the first Black President, but I wish she could've seen this museum. In your life and along your journey, is there anyone that you wished could've seen this museum that can't?

LB: I mean...like you, my Dad died before we opened the museum and it was really very hard for me because he inspired me and challenged me to sort of fight the good fight. So, I wish he could see it. It was wonderful that my mother was able to see it, so that was very, very powerful. But I wish my Dad could have seen it, partly because I built the museum, for him and for your grandmother. In some ways, this was really a way to honor what they went through and for them to see themselves in a positive light. So, I think that was really for me, one of the sad moments. But you know, as I said, I'm Lonnie Bunch III. When I went up to speak, I heard them calling, "Lonnie Bunch," I'm thinking of my father and my grandfather, so it gave me great comfort that somehow they were celebrating them as well.

RS: Tragically, one of the people that will not be able to see the museum is Breonna Taylor. Recently, I read that one of the newer exhibits at the museum will chronicle some of the protest movements that have happened within the last year or so. As part of that exhibit, there's going to be a prominent portrait of Breonna Taylor featured. As the head of the Smithsonian Institute, how do the NMAAHC, National Museum of American History, etc. capture the last 18 months? How do you put all of that into perspective at a museum?

LB: We created a kind of rapid response group that went out and collected artifacts from January 6, Black Lives Matter marches in Washington, D.C., George Floyd protests in Minnesota, etc. I felt that it was important to do that because there were times that I wanted to tell certain stories and we didn't have the artifacts because nobody thought to collect them at the time. So, I wanted people to realize that part of our job was to collect today for tomorrow. Some of the artifacts we might not use, but other curators or scholars down the road will be able to use them. I also felt that this was such an important moment. There were dual pandemics - the virus and racism. I felt that it was not only important for us to document this moment, but it was also important for us to get stuff out. It was important to allow people to contextualize this moment. It was important to use history so people will have the sort of tools or weapons they need to live their lives, understand the challenges they face and help a country confront its tortured racial past.

RS: I just have two more questions. Having gone to school in Washington, D.C. and lived in Washington, D.C. for some time, what do you think it is about this city that allows the NMAAHC to fit so well within it?

LB: I think that in many ways Washington, D.C. has a unique relationship with Black America and Black Washingtonians. On the one hand, you have the educational impact of Howard University. You have some of the best minds coming through Washington and engaging students. I think you also have the sense that D.C., even though it wasn't as celebrated as Harlem in some ways, it was as rich culturally. Whether it's music, poetry or theater, it's rich culturally. What you have in Washington, D.C. is really an opportunity to dig deeply into African-American life and culture. Also, D.C. gave a larger opportunity for a Black middle class to work for the federal government. Right? So, it became a steadier, steadier gig. I think the challenge is that one should not overstate how fair D.C. was because D.C. was so regionally segregated. You still couldn't go many places even when I was a freshman at Howard in 1970. They told us that if you were going north of Dupont Circle and a gang of white kids came after you, you could run to the Turkish Embassy because they would give you cover. I remember thinking, "Boy, are you kidding me?" So, I think that in some ways the challenge of D.C. is that it is no longer "Chocolate City." Right? You see a large number of non-African-Americans moving in and the Black population has declined. I live in Shepard Park and I've been out there for 15 years now. I would say that two out of every three new couples is not African-American, so you see a neighborhood change dramatically as the rest of Washington, D.C. is. I think the challenge of Washington, D.C. is to celebrate that culture and make sure that even if it's no longer Chocolate City, once you move into Washington, you're shaped by this culture.

RS: Returning to your dedication ceremony address, you mentioned your granddaughter during that speech. Looking to the future, what do you want her and her generation to take from this museum 5, 10 or even 15 years down the line?

LB: I want the museum to be seen by people like my granddaughter as a clarion call to continue to challenge America to live up to its ideals and create a new generation of activists who recognize that they have a profound responsibility and an opportunity to sort of demand fairness. I want them to recognize that you are really standing on so many amazing shoulders, There are names you've heard of like Frederick Douglass and Fannie Lou Hamer, but there are thousands of names you've never heard of that opened doors and struggled. I want people like my granddaughter to come through the museum and never settle and always recognize they've got a chance to help a country be fair and freer. What an important goal that would be.

RS: Thank you so much for your time. I'm coming to Washington, D.C. in a few weeks, so I hope to see the portrait of Breonna Taylor while I'm there.

LB: The Breonna Taylor portrait is powerful. The last exhibition that I held them to do opens in about a week or two. It's about Reconstruction. I think it's one of the most powerful exhibitions there. They do a brilliant job of looking at the legacies of Reconstruction and one of them is racial violence. We actually collected Trayvon Martin's hoodie, so you will see that included for the first time. I think that you want to make sure that you hit the Reconstruction exhibit.

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