Consider This #206 – John W. Franklin – Smithsonian Institution

December 4, 2019 0 By Kody Olson


– Consider this. It took 15 years of Congressional attempts before former president George W. Bush was able to sign the bill into law that allowed for the creation of the Smithsonian National
African American Museum of History and Culture. That was in December of 2003
and here in the fall of 2016, the museum’s doors are now open. I’m Yvonne Greer and my
guest is John W. Franklin of the National Museum. He’s gonna take us on a
journey from idea to fruition. Hope you’ll stick around for the ride next on Consider This. (calm pop music) Just saying the words National Museum of African American History and Culture brings shouts of celebration across much of the African American community here in the United States for reasons that are as long and as varied
as the people themselves. John W. Franklin,
welcome to Consider This. – Thank you so much, it’s a pleasure to be on your program. – I said in the open it was 15 years of Congressional attempts, but the desire for this museum to come to being has really been longer than that. – Indeed, it was our Civil War veterans who first asked for this
museum to be created in 1915. So as one of our introductory exhibitions, we have an exhibition called
A Century in the Making, which shows you the
early designs from 1915 through the more recent
designs by David Adjaye, Phil Freelon, Max Bond,
and the Smith group. So those veterans asked for a museum to be built in Washington
to tell the world the story of African Americans. Mickey Leland, the late
Congressman from Texas began offering legislation
until he passed. Then John Lewis picked up the torch and he’s the one best
associated with supporting and sponsoring legislation
for the creation of this museum. He was joined by Sam
Brownback, Republican, Senator now Governor of Kansas, Max Cleland, former Democratic Senator, and J. C. Watts, the former
black Republican Congressman from Oklahoma and the
four of them sponsored the legislation that passed in 2003. President George W. Bush
created a commission to study the possibility of the creation of a National African American museum and that commission recommended to him and he signed the legislation, the authorization creating
the museum in 2003. It then put the onus on the Smithsonian to look at five sites on
or near the National Mall to conduct feasibility
studies on the sites, to hire a Director, begin hiring staff, and to raise the half of the
price of the construction. The construction was initially
estimated at $500 million. It’s at the base of
the Washington monument and because the water table is so high, the cost went up to $540 million. Congress agreed to pay half and in 2009 we were given the task in a
very difficult financial era if you remember back to
2009 to raise $250 million. – So how did you do it? That’s an awful lot of money to raise. – Well, people feel
invested in the museum. I was speaking at the Department
of Labor last February and as I came in, the
security guard looked at my badge and said, “Oh, you work “at the National African American Museum?” He said, “I gave $100.” – Proudly.
– And he said it with the same level of pride of someone who had given $1,000, $100,000. So families have come
together and given whatever they could afford. Individuals, corporations, and foundations have been incredibly generous. As I said, Congress gave half so we had to match $270 million. The first gift came in from
Aflac, they gave a million. And so they set the bar that
high for other corporations. Most corporations gave between
a million and five million. Oprah Winfrey is on our
board and she’s the largest single donor at $21 million. She’s just been joined by Robert Smith, who gave $20 million. And the Lilly Foundation,
which had initially given us $10 million
for bricks and mortars, came asking our Director, “What
are you doing about faith?” And he said, “Well, I have
an interfaith committee “among my staff and I know
they’re in the process “of developing a proposal.” And they said, “We’d be very interested “in seeing their proposal.” When my Director Lonnie Bunch was Director of the Chicago Historical
Society and transformed it to the Chicago History
Museum, he became very engaged in Chicago and Illinois
history and culture. When Quinn Chapel burned in 2006 or 2007, he turned to me as one
of the first staff people and said, “What should we do
as a National institution?” I said, “We need to be able
to sensitize congregations “to the value of their
documents, the value “of the historic structure,
and the knowledge “that they have as a congregation.” And so we did a two-day workshop called Save Our African
American Sacred Spaces. When I lived in Chicago,
I was in high school and my father, John Hope Franklin, was at the University of Chicago and we lived between the
black Hebrew Israelite temple on 63rd Street and Mosque
Number Two on 53rd Street, all of which were in
existing historic buildings. And so we created our Save Our African American Sacred
Spaces as a pilot project to help clergy and congregations
preserve their papers, preserve their furniture,
preserve their buildings, and preserve the knowledge
of their history. – And is that essentially
what this National Museum does for all of African American
history in the United States? – Yes. So the National Trust
for Historic Preservation was a partner in that pilot
project and they said, “This could be a national program.” And so that’s what we proposed
to the Lilly Foundation and they gave us an
additional $10 million. That’s how they’re in the
$20 million category now for the creation of the
Institute for the Research of Black Religion. So we’ll be able to help
congregations of all kinds across the country
digitize their collections, interview their members, as
well as preserve their heritage. – So someone from central
Illinois who’s heard about the new museum who
can’t wait to get there, maybe take their children, grandchildren, go on vacation with the
family, what can they expect? There’s a little bit of everything from slavery to reconstruction
to the Civil Rights movement on to today. – Well, it’s a museum
of history and culture and my late father chaired the
scholarly advisory committee. Most museums have a single
commission or single board. We have a council, which
is our governing body and responsible for raising the money, but our scholarly advisory
council has helped deepen the scholarship that
the museum is based on. Our scholars wanted to make
sure that what we present to the public is based on the most recent and most accurate scholarship in art, in history, in culture. And so when you come to
the museum, what you see above ground is only 40
percent of the building. 60 percent is below ground and covers the entire five and a half acre site, which goes from 14th
Street to 15th Street, Constitution to Madison. – So take us through the floors. – We like to say our address is between the 14th Amendment, the 15th Amendment, and Constitution because
it’s all so important to our history.
– I like that, yes. – So when you come in the
building, you must begin with the history and the history begins in an elevator that takes you from today down three floors and
you’re in Africa in 1400 observing the complex
societies across the continent and their rich political history, culture that they embody in the
people who are brought over. For those of us who grow
up in the United States, we assume that most of the enslaved people were brought here. Only five percent of those
taken across the Atlantic come to the United States. Of the 12 million, six
million are taken to Brazil. Roughly a million each to
Jamaica, Haiti, and Cuba. Fewer than 500,000 come
to the United States. So part of the mission of the museum is to situate the U.S. story
in an international context. One of the great finds that we have and a sacred space within the museum are relics from a sunken slave ship. Six ships left Mozambique
in southeast Africa in 1794 headed for northern Brazil north of Bahia, north of Pernambuco to the
region called Maranhao. Four of them made it to
Brazil, one went down off of Cape Town and
with our South African Museum colleagues, we’ve been excavating that slave ship wreck. The ship was called the Sao Jose. Because human cargo weighed less than wood or coffee or sugar or
molasses, slave ships had to be weighted down by iron bars and the bars are about this long and about that big around
and that’s what’s left at the bottom of the ocean from a ship that went down 300 years ago. – What an amazing find. – So we have those, that
ballast as it’s called, and we have a pulley to
raise and lower the sails from a slave ship. And in that space, you
learn what it was like to be captured. We use as much as possible
personal narratives, so these aren’t general slaves. These are real people
with names and children and we give voice to the enslaved. So the lowest level, you go from Africa and you could have arrived in a Brazil or in a Jamaica or in
a Peru or in a Canada, but we’re focusing on those who arrived here in the United States and we look at the different regions. People who came to the
South, people who came to the Southwest, people who
came up the Mississippi River to what was the Louisiana purchase and then eventually part
of the United States. We look at slavery in the North and we take you from 1500
through the Revolutionary War through the Civil War
to the end of slavery. – What an amazing journey
and we’re still downstairs. – Right. From there, then you go
up to the second level where you look at the
battle against segregation from the late 19th century to 1968 and Martin Luther King’s assassination is that turning point. And so we end with his
assassination and then look at the modern period from
1968 on where we have the benefit of the Civil Rights laws, the Voting Rights Acts,
the Fair Housing Act, the beginning of African
Americans being elected to local, municipal, county,
state, and national office, the rise of black studies in universities across the country, the rise
of the black museum movement. The DuSable Museum, for example, is one of the earlier museums created. We’re the new kid on the block. This National African American
Museum is the most recent, but the first African
American Museum was opened at Hampton University
right after the Civil War and they have collections
of American Indians who are students there. They have the earliest
African American art because the artists came
there, taught there, their students produced
art in the 19th century. They have the famous Banjo
Lesson by Henry O. Tanner. So we go from the earliest museums to the most recent museums. – And how did you get all of the artifacts in the museum because that $540 million was really to get the building built? – That’s right. We have not only benefited
from the generosity of financial donors, but the generosity of donors of artifacts of art. And each piece that we
receive has its own story of how it came to us. I was taking a visitor through
the museum the other day after having seen Birth
of a Nation, the new film by Nate Parker. It’s the story of Nat
Turner and the rebellion he led in Virginia in 1831. The Bible that he had is central
to the story in the film. We have the Bible in the museum. And we first exhibited
it several years ago in an exhibition that looked at the Emancipation Proclamation and the March on Washington. And Nat Turner’s Bible
faced Harriet Tubman’s shawl that Queen Victoria gave her. Now, the Nat Turner Bible
came from a white family who lost family members
in the massacre of 1831 and it kept the Bible. – [Yvonne] And shared it. – When they heard that the
museum was going to be created, they decided to give it to the museum. Charles Blockson, a professor
at Temple University, learned when an aunt of his passed that she had willed him 39 objects that had belonged to Harriet Tubman. He didn’t know she had them. It included the shawl, her
hymnal, her fork and knife, photographs of her we’d never seen before, her funeral program,
photographs of her funeral. He put it under his bed. Then he said, “If my house catches fire, “I lose this and the
world loses this forever.” So he dialed my Director
and said, “I have things “that belong to Harriet Tubman. “Would you like to have them?” Now these are two really iconic figures, but families, black and
white, have come to us and we have a small
conference room in our offices near the door, the temporary offices before we moved into the building, and any day I could pass by there and see little children,
adults, and elders giving their family
treasures to the museum with such pride. – And that in enough of itself
is such a historic moment. I get goosebumps just thinking about it. I mean, growing up
hearing of Harriet Tubman and watching A Woman Called
Moses played by Cicely Tyson and to know that you can go
to our museum in Washington and see those artifacts,
it makes history real. – Right. I used to chair a state
commission in Maryland on African American history and culture and I made sure that our
meetings moved around from county to county and
we would go to listen. Who were your people? Where did they grow up? What were the institutions they created? And in western Maryland,
I learned that there was an auction block in someone’s yard. And it was just sitting there. It had a plaque on it
because some famous people spoke from it standing on it, but when I told the curators
about this slave block, they said, “Do you think
that they’ll give it “to the museum?” We had a challenging
time tracking them down, but they gave it to the museum. So we’re the Smithsonian,
we’re supposed to have these really powerful objects and we do. – [Yvonne] And you do. – And they show the
breadth of our history. We’ve lived in different
parts of the country and those stories are different. So you begin with history
on the lower levels and it comes all the
way up to Oprah’s studio and the President Obama’s inauguration and then you leave the history galleries and there’s a restaurant
called Sweet Home Cafe. – Oh, yeah? What’s on the menu? – I was one of the tasters
so I had to taste everything. Gave it the thumbs up or the thumbs down. So it’s divided into regions like the American Indian
Museum’s restaurant is. So we have foods of the
North, the codfish cakes, the pepperpot stew, the Boston
baked bread, the oyster stew. We have the South, where
you would expect to find the fried chicken– – Yes, collard greens and sweet potato pie.
– The collard greens, sweet potatoes, macaroni and cheese. Then we have the Creole South,
where you get your gumbo. – Jambalaya.
– Your Po’ Boys. Your shrimp and grits. And then we have the West
where you get a different kind of barbecue and trout
and dishes known in the West. On the upper floors,
we have a second floor which is our learning
floor with our classrooms for young people. We have a powerful education
staff that are studying how young people learn. And we have to offer multiple
facets and multiple ways of learning and knowing. We have our library
there, we have our center for African American media
art where you can access our photographs and our
visual art collections. Then the third and fourth
floor are museum floors with high ceilings. And the third floor has on
the west side of the building our military history
gallery, starting from the Revolutionary War to the present day. And when you look at the
outside of the building, they look like there are
gaps in the bronze mesh that surrounds the building. Those are to take advantage of the vistas that the building affords. So when you’re in that
military history gallery and you’re seeing the people
who won most often posthumously the most important military
honors that we have, the window frames the Washington Monument and you can see the World War Two Memorial and Arlington Cemetery behind it. So you’re seeing, you’re making connection between what you’re
seeing and what’s outside. Similarly, when you’re learning about the March on Washington, it
gives you a different vista on the Mall where the March took place. On the east side of the building, we have our sports history
section on the third floor and in the center of that floor, we have two exhibitions. In the very center is one
called The Power of Place because if you grew up in Illinois, it’s a different
experience from growing up in Massachusetts or
Florida or the West coast. And if you grew up in the
early part of the 20th century, your experience is different from people who are young now. So we look at 10 different
communities over time and my mother’s people
are from North Carolina, but my father’s people get
to Oklahoma in the 1830s enslaved to Chickasaw Indians. We get to Oklahoma through
the Trail of Tears. So we look at black Tulsa
before, during, and after the destruction of black
Wall Street in 1921. – This is all so powerful
and I can talk to you forever and it just digs at me that
there are time constraints on this program, but I do
want to get to the richness of the impact that could
be had of this museum on the situation happening
in America today. We recently held a town hall meeting here in central Illinois about race relations, not just in our community
but the country over. What role do you think
this museum can play in helping bring people together? Because I would imagine
there is some hesitation amongst white Americans that says why do we even need to have a museum that separates African
American contributions from those of every other American. – Right. Because the museum goes from
the deep past to the present, it helps people see that some of things we’re seeing now are not new. When black Tulsa is
destroyed, the black men are rounded up and walked
down the streets like this. And we have photographs from
1921 of black men surrendering. So we had a discussion in
Switzerland about Tulsa and the people who came
back to Tulsa decided to share that experience
with the people of Tulsa. It was an interracial
delegation looking at what the massacre of 1921 meant to them in the past and the present. When they came back from Switzerland, they held a forum in Tulsa
at the Historical Society and it was one of the greatest gatherings of blacks and whites that
had occurred in Tulsa and it occurred the day before the most recent shooting in Tulsa. Tulsa didn’t break out in riots. They already were in dialog. Charlotte erupted the next week in riots and we think we can’t
take credit for that, but that’s the kind of
dialogue about the past and the present that you
have to have in communities to link the past to now. So we feel that this museum is created to help all people look at
American history and culture through the African American perspective. What the Civil War meant to us, what World War Two meant to us, what Vietnam meant to us,
what our experience was. When my late father shared
President Clinton’s initiative on race, one of the
members was Bill Winter, the former white governor of Mississippi and the day that they
convened for the first time near the White House, Governor Winter said that he had been on a radio program about the 50th anniversary about the end of the World War Two. And the other person being interviewed was a black veteran from the same war. He said by the end of the
program, he understood that they had been
fighting in different wars because the challenge of
the African American soldier was a very different experience
than he had experienced. And he said, “We need to reeducate America “so that they understand
the African American “experience as well.” And that’s what this
museum is created to do. – And it is my sincere
hope that this happens and happens quickly and happens
loudly and happens proudly. Thank you so very much, John W. Franklin from the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. It has been a pleasure and an education and I thank you. – It’s a pleasure for me as well. – And I think you for
watching Consider This. I’m Yvonne Greer, we’ll see you next time. (calm pop music)