BY CRYSTAL A. DEGREGORY, PH.D. AND JOCELYN IMANI, PH.D.
The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), which has been collecting items to tell the story of America through the lens of Black America for more than a decade, opens to the public on Saturday, September 24, 2016. Described by museum officials as “an unprecedented local, national and international event unlike any other opening of a cultural institution in America or globally in recent memory,” the opening of the newest Smithsonian museum is historically significant to all Americans.
The earliest efforts to found a federally-mandated museum celebrating black life, history, and culture date back to 1915. A modern push for it began in earnest in the 1970s to little effect until a much more serious legislative push began in 1988. Led by an anti-poverty activist turned congressman and Texas Southern University alumnus Rep. Mickey Leland, and Civil Rights Movement veteran Rep. John Lewis, an alumnus of American Baptist College and Fisk University, these legislative efforts eventually led to authorization of the museum in 2003. A site was selected in 2006, the museum design was approved in 2009, and on February 22, 2012, President Barack Obama helped break ground.
Among the museum’s more than 37,000 artifacts are many items relating to historically black college and university culture. You can see the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral program, Rosa Parks’ dress, Oprah Winfrey’s set, or the 2014 Bayou Classic championship trophy. Here are just five of the most beloved HBCU-related treasures in the collection that no HBCU alumni should miss.
Harry T. Moore’s pocket watch
Florida Memorial University alumnus Harry T. Moore founded the Brevard County, Florida local chapter of the NAACP in 1934. Fired for his political activism in the 1940s, he became a full-time, paid organizer for the Florida NAACP which he built to a peak of over 10,000 members in 63 branches in just his first two years. The Moores tirelessly fought for better schools, voting rights, and an end to lynching and police brutality at both the state and national level. On Christmas Day, 1951, a bomb was placed beneath the floor joists directly under his bed exploded. Moore died on the way to the hospital while his wife died nine days later. Their killings were the first murders of a prominent civil rights leader since World War II. This pocket watch survived the blast.
Althea Gibson’s tennis racket
In what was perhaps the whitest of sports, Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University alumna Althea Gibson broke the color line. She became the first black person to win a Grand Slam title in 1956 when she won the French Open and; she won both Wimbledon and the U.S. Nationals the following year. She won both again in 1958, and was voted Female Athlete of the Year by the Associated Press in both years. Ranked number one in the world in 1957, Gibson retired from amateur tennis in late 1958 with a record 56 singles and doubles titles, including 11 majors. Often compared to Jackie Robinson, she was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame and the International Women’s Sports Hall of Fame in 1971.
Eddie Robinson’s record-setting football
Arguably the greatest football coach in NCAA Division I history, Eddie Robinson was the head coach at Grambling State University for a total of 55 years–from 1941 to 1942 and again from 1945 to 1997. A graduate of the now-defunct Leland College, Robinson built Grambling State into a college football powerhouse at a time when segregation barred black players from white southern college programs. Coaching every single game from the field, he retired in 1997 with a record of 408 wins, 165 losses, and 15 ties. For his record, the NCAA recognizes his as the second winningest coach in NCAA Division I history and the third winningest overall. Robinson was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1997. More than 200 of his players went on to play in the American Football League, Canadian Football League, and National Football League, including Super Bowl XXII MVP, Redskins quarterback Doug Williams.
Johnnetta Cole’s Bennett College presidential robe
By the time she authored “Conversations: Straight Talk with America’s Sister President” in 1993, Dr. Johnnetta B. Cole, the first African-American female president of Spelman College, was already synonymous with the nation’s oldest and most distinguished black college for women. A cultural anthropologist by training, fifteen-year-old Cole was an early admit to Fisk University during the early 1950s. Despite transferring to Oberlin College, Cole’s time at Fisk exposed her to important black intellectual discourse through contact with figures such as poet and Fisk librarian Arna Bontemps. After her decade-long headship of Spelman (1987-1997), Cole assumed the presidency of Bennett College for Women in 2002 through 2007. She is currently the director of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African Art and a member of the NMAAHC Scholarly Advisory Committee.
Woolworth lunch counter stools
North Caroline A&T State University‘s “Greensboro Four”–Franklin McCain, Joseph McNeil, Jibreel Khazan (formerly Ezell Blair, Jr.), and David Richmond–took seats at the segregated lunch counter of Woolworth’s in Greensboro, North Carolina on February 1, 1960, ushering in the Student Sit-in Movement. The four purchased toothpaste and other products from a desegregated counter at the store with no problems, but were subsquently refused service at the store’s “whites only” lunch counter when they each asked for a cup of coffee. Following the store’s segregationist policy, its staff refused to serve them and the manager instructed them to leave. They did not. Returning the following day, more than twenty black students, including those from Bennett College for Women also joined the sit-in. By the fourth day, more than 300 protesters took part and the protests were expanded to include the lunch counter at Greensboro’s Kress store. The primary event took place at Woolworth’s, located at 132 South Elm Street which now the International Civil Rights Center and Museum.
President Barack Obama will deliver the keynote address at the NMAAHC Dedication Ceremony on Saturday, September 24, 2016. He will be joined in attendance by his wife First Lady Michelle Obama, former President George W. Bush and Mrs. Laura Bush, U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, Congressman John Lewis, Smithsonian Secretary David Skorton and the museum’s founding director, Lonnie Bunch. The occasion will be marked by readings of African American literature and musical performances and it will be streamed live at nmaahc.si.edu. Free timed passes will be required for entry to the museum throughout grand opening weekend. The museum has posted FAQs about grand opening weekend on its website. Visitors in Washington, DC are encouraged to participate in the Freedom Sounds Music Festival that will be held as part of the grand opening festivities. Visitors who are unable to travel to Washington, DC are encouraged to participate in one of the Lift Every Voice events that will be held across the country throughout the inaugural year. They can be found here: https://nmaahc.si.edu/lift-every-voice/directory.
Events will be taking place through December 2017, there are still opportunities to host a Lift Every Voice event in your city. Use the hashtags #APeoplesJourney and #NMAAHC to be a part of the history=making museum on your social media platforms. More information can be found here: https://nmaahc.si.edu/lift-every-voice.
Dr. Jocelyn Imani is the 2016-2017 Andrew Mellon Curatorial Fellow at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. and adjunct professor of history at Coppin State University. She received her bachelor’s degree from Fisk University in 2009, magna cum laude with W.E.B. Du Bois Honors, and her Ph.D. with Distinction in African Diaspora & Public History from Howard University in 2015. She is an HBCU advocate and a 2014 White House HBCU All-Star. A proud southern belle, she is a native of Nashville, Tennessee.