Breaking Ground The Innovative Spirit

The Powerful Objects From the Collections of the Smithsonian’s Newest Museum

These artifacts each tell a part of the African-American story

(Wendel A. White / Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of University of Mary Washington, Fredericksburg, VA in honor of Dr. James Farmer)
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In 2003, when officials finally approved the idea of an African-American museum in Washington, they could not have foreseen how fateful the timing would be. The opening this month of the National Museum of African American History and Culture comes at the end of the first black president’s eight years in the White House (a symbol of power built, not incidentally, by slaves, the powerless). It also caps a historic summer of violence and anguish. “A racial crisis flares around us,” the Georgetown professor Michael Eric Dyson wrote in July after the nation reacted in horror to the killing of black men by white police officers in Louisiana and Minnesota and the killing of white police officers by a black man in Texas. Not in half a century have such momentous events concerning black life in America converged with such force.

The artifacts below, pulled from the collections of the new museum, delve into the history of black America from multiple angles. From tragic beginnings to achievements that changed the world, from the evil of a slave ship to the funky beauty of a Prince song, the epic story of African-Americans is embodied in the new national museum's artifacts, illuminated here by leading thinkers and artists. 

Iron Shackles, 18th or 19th century

If these shackles could speak, they would say it took the resources of an entire society to create slave ships. Every shipboard item pointed to not only the financiers but also the merchants who prepared barrels of salted beef and the workers who created tools of restraint. A medical device adapted for the trade, the speculum oris, was used to force open the mouths of slaves who refused to eat. Everyone in slave trading societies, even those who never owned a slave, was implicated. No one in a country that profited from traffic in slaves was innocent. – Charles Johnson, author of Middle Passage


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