Before the crack of dawn on Friday, Sept. 23, 2016, a crowded charter bus slowly rolled out of Albion and made its way to Washington D.C. The bus was packed with almost 50 community members and college students, all attempting to fall back asleep to the gentle rocking of the bus as it hurtled down highway after highway for nine hours.
Exhausted from travel, the members of the trip took to their beds early that night, others waited anxiously until morning, like a kid on Christmas Eve too excited to sleep. When morning broke the next day, all 50 travelers piled back onto the bus and took off for the National Mall, where thousands had gathered for the dedication ceremony of the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
The dedication ceremony marked a memorable moment for many travelers on the Albion bus. The ride down was an endeavor sponsored by both the college and Albion’s local NAACP chapter, led by Bob Dunklin, the current president. As the bus took off down Michigan Avenue, Dunklin stood and addressed the very sleepy crowd, claiming, “We are going off into history.”
The bus was a true clash of campus and community, split evenly down the middle. At first the students and community members seemed hesitant to mingle with each other, and much of the bus ride to DC was spent in silence, apart from the quiet murmurings of the movies that Dunklin chose to play. They were two documentaries about black music groups, one in motown and the other an acapella group called Sweet Honey in the Rock.
After the relative calmness of the first day, Saturday was a buzz of activity. The crowd at the National Mall was thrumming with excitement and anticipation for the ceremony, an event that included speeches and appearances from a plethora of celebrities and notable people. President Barack Obama, former President George W. Bush, Oprah Winfrey, Will Smith and Stevie Wonder were among the performers and speakers at the dedication ceremony.
The Albion group gathered anxiously at the very front of the crowd, where a screen was placed for the general admittance to view the event. The real stage was set on the other side of the museum, a place where only top-donors were allowed to sit and view the spectacle live. Nevertheless, the crowd on the mall was alive with excitement over the ceremony, eager for it to begin and especially to listen to the president speak, which ended the events of the day.
Even during the National Anthem, many spectators held up a Black Power fist in defiance, and almost everyone was sporting a #BlackLivesMatter T-shirt, another important example of African American culture that will no doubt be documented inside the museum one day.
To the group, the opening of this museum meant a lot of different things, but almost all agreed that it was a potential turning point in American perception of African American history. Assistant Professor Dominick Quinney from the Ethnic Studies Department, put it best.
“I think the opening of the African American museum is a new start,” said Quinney. “I think it’s also an opportunity for Americans to experience and learn and explore a part of history that has not been discussed or explored or ever talked about really.”
The idea of historical erasure was a common theme throughout the weekend. Congressman John Lewis, a major figure in the original Civil Rights movements of the 1960s, declared in his address to the crowd, “The African American story is indivisible from the American story.”
Dunklin weighed in on the erasure of African American history as well.
“Over the years black history has been suppressed, depressed, oppressed to the point where people do not understand black history; they don’t recognize black history as I recognize black history,” he said. “I’m a part of black history, so I want the people that came up on the bus to understand that this trip was history itself. The next generation will be talking about this event, so we can tell them we were part of that.”
It was a day of reflection as well, of the hard truths that are an essential part of African American history. During his own speech, former President George W. Bush said, “The price of our Union was that of our original sin.”
Katherine Maher, a Troy, Michigan, sophomore, thought it was a ceremony that people of all races needed to hear, and this Museum is not exclusive to African Americans.
“I hope that little white kids are going to walk through this building and see the past in its reality because we don’t teach history in its reality across the country,” said Maher. “This is a better way to introduce them to the horrors and the atrocities that we as a country have done to multiple groups of people but especially the black and native American communities. So to have little children to see this in reality and not be able to ignore it any longer is really important.”
The impact of the museum on even non-African Americans was very real. During the weekend I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to explore the museum on the second day it was open to the public. Inside, the building opens into a bright airy room with towering ceilings and marble floors. The walls are decorated with several pieces by African American artists, and one doorway in particular marked the entrance to the “Oprah Winfrey Theater.”
But just a quick journey to the basement and into the history exhibition, one of the largest in the museum, a plaque titled “The Journey Toward Freedom” welcomed guests into a darkened room, and a glass partition divided visitors from the true exhibit several floors below. A quick descent down the elevator also took guests down through time, starting with the slave trade’s beginnings in the U.S.
After making my way through a winding passage explaining the very start of the slave trade and the forced migration of African people to the U.S., the exhibit suddenly opened up once again in front of us. After emerging from the slave trade, visitors were faced with a towering statue of former President Thomas Jefferson. Behind him is a massive brick wall, and upon close inspection, you can clearly see the names of each of Jefferson’s slaves carved into the individual bricks. Above this wall, on the far end of the exhibit and extending up into what feels like the sky, are Jefferson’s most famous words: “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal.” This, was the most impactful moment for me.
As the museum winds you upwards through time, museum goers can witness African American history pass before their very eyes. From a real slave-hut to the casket of Emmett Till – a lynching victim – and even Oprah Winfrey’s couch used on her TV show, the museum does a stunning job of presenting the frank, sometimes bleak, but hopeful history and present of African Americans. In fact, the last exhibit visitors see before leaving the history exhibit is a display case filled with campaign memorabilia from President Barack Obama’s 2008 run for president. The joy in those campaign posters, the idea that Americans can really make a change, is spectators’ last impression of African American history.
The museum wasn’t the only historical part of the trip though. During its three days the students and NAACP members began to bond, and slowly the ice that had been there on Friday started to melt away. By bringing the campus and a local organization like the NAACP together, President Mauri Ditzler made a very public and serious step forward in strengthening the college’s ties to the town of Albion.
It was Dunklin’s original idea to organize the trip, and he was thrilled when the college decided to join the NAACP on this pilgrimage to the museum.
“I think it’s very important because the community and the college is one community, and I’m so happy that [Ditzler] decided to step in and say ‘yay’ to the fact that it’s important to have students on this trip,” said Dunklin. “This college can’t strive unless the community strives. If we walk together in this journey, we’re going to achieve the goal that we both are looking for.”
By the time the bus left on Sunday afternoon, the students and community members began, what were at first, timid conversations that soon became lively discussions about the things we saw that weekend as a group. At the back of the bus several people began yelling about a surprise performance by Patti LaBelle, who did a rousing rendition of “A Change is Gonna Come.” The volume began to rise as they each described their excitement of seeing the vocal icon perform live.
Then others on the bus began to speak up as well, and soon it turned into a discussion of “passing the baton,” so to speak. The older generation on the bus addressed the students directly, telling them that this moment in history would mark a turning point in their Civil Rights battle. The younger generation didn’t take these words lightly, and seemed to be completely absorbed in the speeches made by Quinney, Dunklin and History Professor Wesley Dick that spoke mainly on the impact this trip might have on their futures and how it compared to events in the past – the same events documented in the museum itself.
Albion College President Mauri Ditzler also weighed in on what he hoped students would take away from this unique experience.
“I think that they won’t know for 20 or 30 or 40 years what they learned on the trip,” said Ditzler. “For me, at 60 plus years old, I think back on events on my life that at that time didn’t seem to be particularly meaningful, but 40 years later I realize they had a big impact on my life. When we’re going to college, we think that the most important thing we do is a class or an exam. And while those are important, when I look back and see what was pivotal in my life, they were outside speakers or a trip that I took with the college or a trip that I took with professors.”
Even if ten years from now, ethnic studies classes begin to learn about the National Museum of African American History in class, it won’t even begin to compare to the experience of actually being there. Wandering through the crowds and crowds of people from all generations eagerly awaiting the opportunity to enter the museum, I felt maybe for the first time in my life that I was a part of history as it was being made. The students and NAACP members teared up during some of the opening ceremonies, a moment of pure joy for a Museum and a recognition the African American community has fought long and hard for.
And so, even as that small bus rocked back across the Appalachian Mountains and made its way back to Albion, the community inside that bus, and the community growing between the NAACP and the College, had never felt closer to home.
Photos by Emily Miller