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March 2, 2016
America’s Story and a Museum for All Americans
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Long overdue landmark takes shape
M arian W right e delMan
The Smithsonian Institution’s
National Museum of African
American History and Culture is
in the final stages of construction
on the National Mall in Washing-
ton, D.C., next to the Washington
Monument and near the National
Museum of American History. It will be a
transformative and long-overdue landmark
in the center of the nation’s capital.
As the museum’s director, Lonnie G.
Bunch III, puts it, “This museum will tell
the American story through the lens of Af-
rican American history and culture. This is
America’s Story and this museum is for all
One of the most striking pieces visitors
to the new museum will see is a slave cabin
from Edisto Island, S. C. that was painstak-
ingly dismantled and rebuilt at the museum’s
center. It will join artifacts like a child’s slave
shackles and Harriet Tubman’s shawl and
hymn book in telling the chapter at the foun-
dation of our national story. The slave cab-
in may have come from hundreds of miles
away, but slavery itself was at the heart of our
nation’s capital from its very beginning.
Traces of this other Washington are ev-
erywhere. As the new capital was rising
from former woods and swampland, slaves
labored on many of its buildings including
the White House and the Capitol. As the
Architect of the Capitol’s office explains:
“When construction of the U.S. Capitol
Building began in 1793, Washing-
ton, D.C. was little more than a rural
landscape with dirt roads and few
accommodations beyond a small
number of boarding houses. Skilled
labor was hard to find or attract to
the fledgling city. Enslaved labor-
ers, who were rented from their
owners, were involved in almost every stage
of construction.” Records showing how
much owners were paid for their slaves’
labor tell us a few of these slaves’ names:
Slave coffles were a familiar sight in
Washington’s streets. Those lines of slaves
chained together were horrifying to visitors
from other countries and those traveling to
the capital of the new country seemingly
built on freedom. Slave markets and slave
pens existed on a number of city sites in-
cluding some not far from the spot on the
Mall where the new museum will stand and
the Tidal Basin now framed by beautiful
cherry trees. Others were within yards of
the White House.
The movie 12 Years a Slave retold the
Visitors to the U.S. Capitol
can see a marker in the building’s
Emancipation Hall honoring the
slaves and other laborers who
helped construct it.
Tom, Peter, Ben, Harry, and Daniel worked
on the White House. Nace, Harry, and Gabe
worked on the Capitol. One slave who re-
ceived special notice was Philip Reid, who
helped construct the Statue of Freedom that
sits atop the Capitol dome. He was the only
person able to solve the puzzle of how to
dissect and reassemble the original model of
the statue after the sculptor who knew the
secret refused to help without being paid
story of Solomon Northup, a free Black
man from New York who in 1841 was
tricked into traveling to Washington with a
promise of work as a musician. Instead he
was drugged and kidnapped, imprisoned in
a slave pen “within the very shadow of the
Capitol,” and from there illegally sold into
slavery in Louisiana. As a new Congress-
man from Illinois from 1847-1849, Abra-
ham Lincoln described a slave pen he saw
“in view from the windows of the capitol,
a sort of Negro livery-stable, where droves
of negroes were collected, temporarily kept,
and finally taken to southern markets, pre-
cisely like droves of horses.”
Some of this history is commemorated
in Washington today. Visitors to the U.S.
Capitol can see a marker in the building’s
Emancipation Hall honoring the slaves and
other laborers who helped construct it. Be-
neath the inscription on a marble platform
is a large chunk of sandstone from the Cap-
itol’s original East Front Portico, with chisel
marks still visible. In other places new steps
are being taken to honor the past.
For many years the Treasury Annex
building stood on the site of the Freedman’s
Bank, built in 1865 to provide an opportu-
nity for wealth-building among newly freed
slaves—an attempt to right one of the pro-
found wrongs the black community is still
struggling to overcome. In January the U.S.
Treasury Department held a ceremony of-
ficially renaming the Treasury Annex the
Freedman’s Bank Building and recognizing
the Freedman Bank’s legacy.
Even with important steps like these so
much more of this other Washington re-
mains hidden and forgotten. It’s time to
uncover and remember these parts of our
shared history—in Washington and in states
and cities and small towns across the coun-
try. An honest accounting of the past is the
best way to keep moving forward together.
Only the truth can make us free.
Marian Wright Edelman is president of
the Children’s Defense Fund.
I’ve Been Terrorized in My Own Country
A way of life it has become
I was terrorized when my mother told me that a 14 year
old black boy named Emmitt Till was lynched in Missis-
sippi for looking at a white girl.
I was terrorized when I watched the evening news and saw
Alabama police beating black boys and girls and giving
them the blues.
Spraying them with fire hoses and knocking ‘em to the
Then the dogs began biting them while they were already
I was terrorized and traumatized when Megar Evers was
murdered for trying to gain voting rights for black people
in the south.
It cost him his life so we must VOTE, not only with our
I was terrorized when Malcolm X was murdered in 1965--
All he ever wanted was for us to stand up and rise!
When the anguish of the black community reached a boil-
ing point in L.A. Watts burned like wildfire and many
lives were snuffed away. Again I was terrorized as tears
welled up in my eyes. The war on terror is at my doorstep;
land mines everywhere I dare not misstep!
As police brutality ran rampant and out of control--
Riots in 1967 put the country on hold -- I was terrorized!
I screamed in terror when Martin Luther King Jr. was
killed. He had prayed for peace and there was none to be
J iMi J ohnson
Cities burned across America as he
was laid in the ground. Once again I
cried -- I was terrorized.
I was terrorized when police in riot
gear patrolled our streets-
And demanded that black people not be around, or go to
jail after sundown!
I was terrorized when they tried to bus me to an all white
I refused to go, I’m not the fool.
When I walked into a store in a small southern town and
was told “we don’t serve your kind”-- I got a lump in my
throat and those words never left my mind!
I was terrorized when the police pulled me over --
They wanted to see my I.D.
With hands on their guns and resentment in their eyes, I
said a silent prayer -- Please don’t shoot me.
With gangs running rampant in our neighborhoods I’m
terrorized once again, but they have been terrorized too --
It is still up to us to teach them what to do.
I was terrorized when Portland police murdered a young
black woman named Kendra --
Before my tears could dry, another young black man
named Perez had to die.
Michael Brown, Sandra Bland and Treyvon Martin too --
In the 21st century we find nothing new- I’m still terror-
And now.......... ‘I can’t breathe’!
This is terrorism and it lives next door, across the street
and around the corner in the name of law and order.
I was terrorized and traumatized when the Black Panthers
took a fall --
They stood Black and Proud and tried to help us all.
I’m stunned and terrorized time and time again, I see too
many black men locked up in the pens. Second chance we
got none, barely a first --
Destiny arranged from the time of our birth.
So terrorized was I a conspiracy this must be, because one
by one they’ve tried to eliminate you and me.
I went to the doctor and was terrorized again --
The doctor said most deadly risks are found in black men.
Cancer, kidney failure and high blood pressure too --
They would do the same thing to me that an Uzi would do!
I’ve been terrorized in my own country --
A way of life it has become.
My life span has been shortened and my babies are dying
Terrorism has been with me like my next to kin --
And in the United States of America the healing must be-
--Jimi Johnson is a freelance writer and poet from Port-