Museum finds rich harvest in Carolinas

A slave cabin on Edisto Island before it was dismantled and sent to Washington for display.
A slave cabin on Edisto Island before it was dismantled and sent to Washington for display. Smithsonian

They come from around the world and across the centuries. They come from attics and chests, from warm, loving hands and the grip of the cold seabed.

They are artifacts that will tell the stories at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, now rising near the Washington Monument.

They come, too, from the Carolinas, objects big and small, and when the museum opens in 2016, its outer skin will bear the imprint of symbols imported from Africa in the memories of the enslaved.

Lonnie Bunch, the museum’s founding director, said designs on the building’s shell are inspired by the old ironwork of Charleston. Decorative shapes made by blacksmith slaves commonly sprang from artistic cultural emblems from West Africa.

“When we began designing the building, we took the ironwork from the enslaved people of Charleston,” Bunch said. “That’s the inspiration for much of the building. So much of America’s history is hidden in plain sight.”

Bunch was in Charlotte recently to be honored by the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture.

Congress pledged $270 million for the new Washington museum, about half of the cost of construction and gathering exhibits. Donations paid for the rest.

For a decade, Bunch and others have been collecting items for display, some of them so massive that they had to be installed before the building was enclosed.

One was a 1920s guard tower from Louisiana’s infamous Angola Prison. Another was an 80-ton segregated railroad car from the Jim Crow era.

“Some director 50 years from now will be cursing me,” Bunch said, “saying that the train has to stay. They will be there forever, basically.”

Collecting artifacts

To find items, Bunch and others went on a national “Antiques Roadshow”-style tour, encouraging people to show their treasures.

“We started with zero,” he said, “and we now have collected over 40,000 artifacts. Most of history is still in trunks, basements and attics. That was the formula we followed.”

Curators would coach people on how to preserve their items, and sometimes suggest they donate them to museums. But the big, important discoveries wound up on their way to Washington.

Someone in Philadelphia had the shawl that abolitionist Harriet Tubman was photographed in three days before her death in 1913. Then out came Tubman’s hymnal.

“By the time he pulled that stuff out, I was crying,” Bunch said.

“Here was material from Harriet Tubman that no one has ever seen, probably worth a million dollars that we didn’t have. He said it deserves to be in the Smithsonian – here, it’s yours. It’s like people have been waiting to share these things with the world.”

Carolina artifacts

Charleston and South Carolina’s Lowcountry have been rich grounds for mining artifacts. Among them:

▪ A red flag that announced slave market day in Charleston, on loan from the South Carolina Historical Society.

▪ Student desks from the black Hope Rosenwald School in Pomaria, S.C.

▪ A rusted branding iron bearing an artistic symbol from West Africa, found in Walterboro, S.C.

But the biggest item was a slave cabin from the early 1800s that was on the Point of Pines Plantation on Edisto Island, S.C.

It was taken down in 2013, board by board, and reassembled in Washington to represent the slaves who worked the fields and raised generation after generation there.

Bunch, born in New Jersey, has a significant Carolina connection of his own: His mother’s family came from Northampton County, and his father’s people are from Wake County. His mother now lives in Cary with her two sisters.

Some items stay put

One key artifact from North Carolina will stay in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History: The lunch counter from the 1960 Woolworth’s sit-ins in Greensboro.

Bunch helped harvest that exhibit while working at the Smithsonian and getting his Ph.D. at American University.

It wasn’t easy to acquire, he said. He had to persuade Woolworth’s corporate leaders that it was of such historic importance that it needed to be in the Smithsonian. “It was where change began that led to a ripple effect throughout America,” he said.

It belongs in the history museum, he said, and should stay there.

“I realize what’s very important is that this new museum shouldn’t be the only place in the Smithsonian that examines race. It’s important that the different museums tell different stories.”

Overall message

Other items for the museum include a pew from the Quinn Chapel of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Chicago, a powder horn that Prince Simbo, an African-American soldier, carried into battle in the Revolutionary War and artifacts retrieved from the wreck of a Portuguese slave ship off South Africa that sank in 1794 with about 400 aboard.

Brenda Tindal, historian at the Levine Museum of the New South, finds it exciting that the new Smithsonian museum will open in the wake of the new National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta and International Civil Rights Center & Museum in Greensboro.

“It almost feels like the new museum is a capstone in curating the African-American experience,” she said. “This museum is dedicated to both a top-down and bottom-up view of American life and the African diaspora.

“We have a tendency to focus on those heroic moments like the Civil Rights movement, but this museum adds texture to the less heroic moments and helps people understand the black experience in the United States from the trans-Atlantic slave trade to the contemporary Black Lives Matter movement.”

Bunch says that while the museum will examine themes of slavery, segregation and the civil rights struggle, it is fundamentally an exploration of the blended American experience.

He hopes visitors find it transformative.

“You will be changed – but you won’t be changed because you’re only seeing slavery and discrimination and racial violence,” he said. “You’ll also realize why you tap your toes to Aretha Franklin and Duke Ellington.”

Mark Washburn: 704-358-5007, @WashburnChObs

Bank donates Gullah exhibit

Among the items donated to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture are 61 historic black-and-white images of Daufuskie Island off the South Carolina coast.

Donated by Bank of America from its extensive corporate art collection, the photos were taken by Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe and chronicle life on the island, whose distinctive language and culture grew from its African heritage.

From the end of the Civil War until resort development intruded in the 1970s, Daufuskie Island was an isolated settlement of the Gullah people, freed slaves and their descendants, believed to be the last pure bastion of Gullah/Geechee tradition. She documented the island from 1977 to 1981, when fewer than 90 people lived there.