In Honor of Struggle

Life came hard for people like historian Lonnie Bunch’s ancestors; he strives to commemorate them

History curators, by the nature of their work, spend most of their time poring over books and papers. But sometimes they venture into "the field," and sometimes the field is literally that.

Lonnie Bunch, the engaging associate director for curatorial affairs at the National Museum of American History (NMAH), wanted a slave cabin to be put up on the museum floor. And he knew just the one, in a nature preserve near Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.

"Well, I went down there, dressed like a good academic curator, tweed jacket, slacks, loafers, and the park ranger woman says, 'OK, we've got to go back in the swamp.' I said, 'Wait a minute.' This was right after Hurricane Hugo, you understand."

I nodded. I could see Bunch, age 45, a serious scholar, graduate of Howard and American universities, briefly a college teacher and then a historian at the National Air and Space Museum and one of the creators of the Afro-American Museum in Los Angeles--I could see him hesitating there in his collar and tie, muttering, "Wait a minute here, I'm a historian, I do research in the Library of Congress . . ."

But he followed the ranger into the woods ("What's that shaking in the bush?" "Oh that's just a wild boar, pay no 'tention") until, an hour later, they came to the cabin. There they met old Mr. Johnson, who had lived in the cabin with his grandmother, a former slave. Mr. Johnson led them all around the place. But he refused to set foot on the far side of the property. "I thought maybe there was some spirit or something and asked him why he wouldn't go there," Bunch recalls. "He said, oh no, it was no spirit, it was the rattlesnakes. I jumped two feet."

"At the last minute they decided to keep the cabin there. It was all right. We will build a cabin facade of our own that people can walk into. We'll put mannequins of children inside, so you can see how the little children lived while their parents were out in the fields."

Bunch searched the Library of Congress slave narratives for material that will tell their stories on tape when the cabin, part of "Communities in a Changing Nation: The Promise of 19th-Century America," opens in the fall. One of his favorite photographs has been blown up to life-size to form the signature of the exhibition's section about slavery.

"The story of the Amistad [Raleigh, North Carolina, and I found account books showing payments to my relatives who were sharecroppers, like $1.20 for picking 200 pounds of cotton, back in 1880."

Going through old files, Bunch tracked his ancestors to about 1800, when one of them, a slave, apparently took the plantation owner's name. "What I took from this was a new appreciation of slavery: people's ability to survive; the way they kept families together despite all efforts to split them up. What I want to have here is not just a macro sense of what slavery was like but a specific sense of individuals. I would give anything to make sure the old woman in that picture is not forgotten."

When Bunch came to NMAH, nine years ago, the new exhibition was already in the works. How it got from there to here is quite a story. "For one thing, I went to Japan often in the middle of it." What he means is that for three years he headed the huge "Smithsonian's America" show in Tokyo. "We tried hard to learn Japanese," he said casually.

Originally, the new exhibition was to open with a huge atrium, great sweeping photographic murals of prairies, mountains, cities, sprawling factories. A panorama of pop culture at the entrance was to get people in the mood with icons like Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone.

"It was about a notion of infinite land, of abundance, of what America was then. We really wanted to tell it that way. But it didn't work. We thought the audiences would love it, but we found it was too hard to shift from that fantasy to what the 19th century was really like. Now we start right out with the real history."

Money for the exhibition was hard to come by: for months Bunch courted a major bank, sketched designs, flew West to make presentations, only to get a final no. He tried a big candy manufacturer, too, and took home a lot of chocolate but no money. In the end, it was the whopping financial success of the show in Japan that made the difference.

The exhibition will open with three case studies. "One is about the Jewish community in Cincinnati," Bunch remarked, and I gaped. I had vaguely thought that the great concentration of Jewish immigrants had stayed in New York.

"Oh no," Bunch assured me. "In the 19th century one of the most important populations of Jews in America was in Cincinnati. Part of it was standard chain migration, part was the jobs. And some religious leaders like Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise made it a center of Reform Judaism. The 1866 Plum Street Temple is one of the prides of 19th-century America."

Dramatizing this case study is a Jewish peddler's cart packed with those odds and ends that used to be called notions. Tapes will describe the struggles of immigrants who wandered along often-hostile streets and country roads selling gewgaws for pennies, even on the Sabbath.

"Not all Jews were peddlers, of course, but this is a way of telling something about how some of the people in this country lived in this country at that time. Think of the hard choices, the compromises: To work on the Sabbath or not? To go out into a strange new land where you don't know how you'll be treated, and leave your family behind?"

Another case study is centered on a sewing machine factory in Bridgeport, Connecticut. "We tell about the layers of labor, from the women needle polishers to the skilled machinists. We follow the lives of some people, including one who moved up from skilled labor to middle management."

In those days, if you got hurt or fired, you were out of luck. There was no government safety net, and the unions--"the people who brought you the weekend"--were still coming up. "The reason those factories all had these fancy gates, beautiful wrought-iron things, was to keep the workers inside. So they wouldn't slip off early," Bunch added.

Bunch exudes energy, and it occurred to me: this was the same drive that he brought to his Japan project. Some Japanese could not imagine a black man running the whole show; Bunch had to conquer his own doubts as well as theirs. He did it with the help of his grandfather.

"My grandfather was a sharecropper who put himself through college by age 30, got a dental degree at Howard--this was before World War I--and pushed tourists around Atlantic City in little jitneys in order to get the money to open a practice. When he finally did, with my grandmother helping by doing laundry for the hotels, he was told that New Jersey didn't honor Howard degrees. "So he went to graduate school all over again at the University of Chicago. That took several more years. And then he opened his practice.

"And I was sitting in the conference room there in Tokyo, discussing the number of shipping crates we'd need, and their weight, and the G forces they could take in flight, and suddenly I thought: if my grandfather could see me now. It seemed he was there in the room, shaking his head ever so slightly in disbelief and smiling his approval."

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