WASHINGTON — The National Museum of African American History and Culture opens here on Sept. 24, and the Chicago black experience is part of its sweeping story, from slavery to President Barack Obama.
Chicago artifacts and photos are in the museum’s vast collections, along with objects tracing the broader arc of U.S. black history including a slave cabin from the 1800s, a $600 bill of sale from 1835 for a 16-year-old girl named Polly, an airplane used to train by the Tuskegee Airmen, Chuck Berry’s Cadillac and a Gabby Douglas leotard.
Black history related to Chicago — the uplifting and the horrible — is told through a collection that covers epic events, influential figures and groundbreaking businesses that survived despite rampant racism.
From a Chicago perspective — and this is just a sampling — there is a Pullman porter cap; historic covers from Johnson Publications’ Ebony and Jet magazines; a linotype from the Chicago Defender; a pew from the Quinn Chapel AME Church; furniture from the set of Oprah Winfrey’s show and a desk from a school funded by Sears philanthropist Julius Rosenwald when Jim Crow ruled in the south.
There is memorabilia from the Nation of Islam; photos from fair housing marches in Marquette Park in the 1960s and the original casket of Emmett Till, the Chicago youth who was lynched in Mississippi in 1955 and buried in Burr Oak Cemetery in south suburban Alsip.
The collection also takes in the work of famed photographer Wayne F. Miller, who shot poignant portraits of Chicago’s South Siders between 1946 and 1948.
After the 2008 election of Obama, the nation’s first black president who adopted Chicago as his hometown, museum curators boxed up his entire Fairfax, Va. campaign office for future use.
“It’s a museum that begins under George Bush, who basically is the person who fights for it to be on the Mall and then finishes under Barack Obama. It’s a powerful narrative there,” Lonnie Bunch III, the founding director of the museum, told me.
Chicago’s stamp on the newest Smithsonian museum begins with Bunch, who was the president of the Chicago Historical Society from 2001 to 2005 and living in Oak Park when he signed on to create a museum starting from scratch – no site, no collection, no money, no staff.
At first Bunch was hesitant to leave Chicago, but “I realized that building this museum and getting it right could nurture the souls of our ancestors. That became too powerful for me to overcome.”
A historian by training, dealing with former Mayor Richard M. Daley, former Gov. George Ryan, the leaders of the Illinois General Assembly and Chicago’s corporate leaders taught Bunch “the power of a marriage that includes the corporate community, the political community and the cultural community.”
The 400,000-square foot, $540 million boxy building, covered with distinctive filigree inspired by slaves who did ironwork in New Orleans and Charleston, sits on the National Mall near the Washington Monument.
Then-President George W. Bush signed the legislation creating the museum on Dec. 16, 2003. Obama spoke at the groundbreaking ceremony on Feb. 22, 2012, and Bunch wanted the museum open before Obama left office.
“That was pressure of my own creation. I thought it was critically important to do that, so that also gave me leverage to keep people moving,” said Bunch.
Obama and Bush will be at the ribbon-cutting.
The building is the product of four design firms, with star architect David Adjaye the name associated with the structure and its iconic sheath.
Extraordinary planning went into the building, in that the design in part was dictated by its contents.
A 77-ton segregation-era Southern Railway car – which Bunch found on a siding in Chattanooga, Tenn., — and a concrete guard tower from the Angola prison in Louisiana were so big that they were lowered into an underground level of the museum on Nov. 17, 2013; the building went up around them.
These objects are a way to show, not tell. “Rather that write what segregation was, let them see it. Let’s find ways to make history accessible,” said Bunch.
A major challenge for Bunch was figuring out what to put in the museum, calibrating the tension and balance between the celebratory and the things to cry about. “It had to be right,” he said.
He organized road shows to dig up what people had in attics and trunks. Bunch’s tour to find and save African-American treasures kicked off on Jan. 19, 2008 at the Harold Washington Library in Chicago, as hundreds of people brought things in for curators to evaluate.
The museum is organized around 11 galleries, with artifacts including Harriet Tubman’s shawl; slave shackles, a dress worn by Rosa Parks; and exhibits about Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights struggle, up to the current day Black Lives Matter movement.
As Bunch collected artifacts, crafted exhibits and juggled all the elements that go into designing and constructing the museum, he also oversaw a massive fundraising campaign.
Linda Johnson Rice, chairman of Johnson Publishing Company, Inc. and the publisher of Ebony and Jet magazines, is the co-chair of the Museum Council. She has worked with Bunch for years on bringing the museum to life.
Oprah Winfrey, whose Chicago-based show and Harpo Productions led her to becoming a billionaire, is the biggest museum donor; her foundation contributed $21 million.
“Oprah is one of the people that has stayed with me for a decade,” Bunch said. “She has obviously given significant money, but she’s given significance of herself. I’ve spent a lot of time talking to her about, ‘How do you tell stories? What’s the way to understand your audience?”
The 350-seat Oprah Winfrey Theater in the museum will be a venue for performances and forums.
Chicago’s major museum contributors also include Bulls legend Michael Jordan and Boeing, based in the city, each kicking in $5 million. The MacArthur Foundation, based in Chicago, donated $2 million.
Million-dollar-plus-donors are Rice’s Johnson Publishing Company; Exelon; J.B. and M.K. Pritzker; and Caterpillar, headquartered in Peoria. Allstate, in Northbrook, and State Farm, in Bloomington, each gave $500,000.
Among those at the $250,000-and-above level are Obama pals Eric and Cheryl Whitaker; at the $100,000-and-above tier are Martin Nesbitt, chair of the Obama Foundation and his wife, Anita Blanchard, and Johnson Publishing CEO Desiree Rogers.
Chicagoans giving more than $25,000 include African-American arts specialist Diane Dinkins Carr and her husband, Louis.
Obama, at the 2012 groundbreaking, noted that slaves were once traded and civil rights marches took place near where the museum now stands.
Said Obama then: “And it is on this spot — alongside the monuments to those who gave birth to this nation, and those who worked so hard to perfect it — that generations will remember the sometimes difficult, often inspirational, but always central role that African-Americans have played in the life of our country. This museum will celebrate that history.”