Smithsonian National Museum of African-American History and Culture
Saturday, Sept. 24
10 a.m. (outside)
‘Freedom Sounds: a Community Celebration’
Friday, Sept. 23-Sunday, Sept. 25
Grounds of the Washington Monument along Constitution Ave. between 15th and 17th streets
Visiting the museum
Grand opening weekend hours are Saturday, Sept. 24 1-8 p.m.
Sunday, Sept. 25 7 a.m.-midnight
The museum is at the corner of 14th Street and Constitution Avenue, N.W. on the National Mall
Admission is free but timed passes are required for the foreseeable future
Free timed passes are available at nmaahc.si.edu or by calling 919-653-0443 or 800-514-3849
Starting on Monday, Sept. 26, same-day passes will be available to the public starting at 9:15 a.m.
Full details at http://nmaahc.si.edu/
How many LGBT items are in the new Smithsonian National Museum of African-American History and Culture and is it enough to please gay historians?
It’s a tough question to answer because some ostensibly gay items may not be presented as such. It’s now widely believed, for instance, that “A Raisin in the Sun” playwright Lorraine Hansberry was a closeted lesbian for much of her short life (she died at age 34 in 1965), but to what degree does this factor into her representation in the museum, for instance?
Slated to open this weekend with a ceremony Saturday morning in which President Obama will speak, the museum has yet to be assessed by the public. And curators acknowledge it’s impossible to please everyone. Descendants of the Quander family, whose roots can be traced back to slaves at George Washington’s Mount Vernon, have publicly expressed disappointment at not being represented in the inaugural museum displays, for instance. But whether there’s enough LGBT representation overall to please gay historians is yet to be determined.
Nothing included in the 100-years-in-the-making museum (officially established in 2003), which cost $540 million to build ($315 million came from private funds) and which broke ground in February 2012, was considered lightly. Among artifacts included in the 400,000-square foot building situated on five acres adjacent to the Washington Monument on the National Mall, are Harriet Tubman’s hymnal, a slave cabin dating to the early 1800s, a dress handmade by Rosa Parks, a fedora worn in concert by Michael Jackson, pieces of a slave ship, a plane from the Tuskegee Institute used to train African-American pilots during World War II, a bill of sale for a black teen named Polly in 1835, glass shards from a Baptist church bombed in Birmingham, Ala., in 1963 and, of course, much more. About 3,000 items are on display from the museum’s collection of about 37,000 items, most of which are stored in a Smithsonian storage facility in Suitland, Md. Only about 200 items of the 3,000 on display are loans; the rest have been bequeathed or given to the museum.
For William Pretzer, supervisory museum curator of history who worked on the exhibit “A Changing America: 1968 and Beyond,” LGBT history and the Civil Rights Movement are inextricably linked.
“The African-American freedom movement inspired other groups to organize and agitate for their own liberation, so the feminist movement of the early ‘70s, the Hispanic-Latino Chicano movement, the American-Indian movement and the LGBT movement, are all connected,” says Petzer.
A section dubbed “the movement marches on,” includes a Stonewall badge for instance, as well as items from other movements.
“These issues are all connected,” Pretzer says. “Class, immigration, national origin, sexual orientation — they’re all issues of identity.”
Over the last several years, curators hosted programs around the country to give advice to the public on how to preserve items of historic significance. Some items were donated, some were kept in families. Museum officials felt some items made more sense to have displayed in regional museums. Pretzer says the response was “overwhelming and very positive.”
“There are always objects that we frankly don’t believe merit inclusion in the national collection, so have to reject some things, but then there are other things that we really want to include but people say, ‘No, we’d really like to keep this in the family.’ That’s just part of our ongoing operations.”
One item that was a no-brainer, Pretzer says, is perhaps the most significant LGBT-related item included — an inscribed watch that Martin Luther King, Jr. gave to Bayard Rustin, a gay man who was chief organizer of the 1963 March on Washington in which King gave his historic “I Have a Dream” speech. The watch, owned by Rustin’s surviving partner, Walter Naegle, had been included in the Smithsonian National Museum of American History for the 50th anniversary of the march in 2013 and Pretzer worked with Naegle to have the watch included in the new museum. He agreed to loan it to the African-American museum for five years.
Naegle says he’s glad to hear that Rustin, who died in 1987, is identified as gay in the text accompanying the display. Naegle will be in Washington this weekend for the opening. He says Rustin “would be very happy the museum is happening and happy his contributions are being recognized.”
Pretzer says the significance of the watch is obvious.
“It’s a very poignant reminder of the relationship between Martin Luther King and Bayard Rustin,” Pretzer says. “Not only is it an acknowledgement of Rustin’s importance in the Civil Rights movement as perhaps the greatest organizer of events during that era, it’s also testimony to King’s support of Rustin even when others advised against keeping him as an adviser because of his sexual orientation. … Others opposed his prominent place in the movement but this watch is tangible evidence that King rejected that advice and embraced Rustin as a key and important ally.”
Other nods to LGBT African-American history include a poster from the 1989 “semi-documentary” “Tongues Untied” by Marlon Riggs; playbills from “The Colored Museum” by gay playwright/director George C. Wolfe and Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun”; photos of dancers by gay photographer, the late Jack Mitchell; paintings by LGBT artists such as Malvin Gray Johnson and Earle Richardson; gay novelist/poet James Baldwin’s passport; a photo of a man holding a sign that says, “I am a black, gay man” at the 1995 Million Man March and more.
Queer bassist and singer-songwriter Meshell Ndegeocello will perform Sunday evening at 6 p.m. with Experience Unlimited at the “Freedom Sounds” festival. Living Colour, Public Enemy and the Roots are slated to perform Saturday.