My grandfather died the day before I turned five and he used to read to me a lot of books. One day he came across a book with a picture taken in the 1870s of kids and the caption read, “Unidentified children.” I was pondering that and he said to me, “Isn’t it a shame people could live their lives, die and just be listed as anonymous?” From that moment on, when I look at an old photograph I always want to know what was their life like. Were they happy? Were they treated fairly? The desire to not just preserve but to remember people's lives has been with me as long as I can remember.
Throughout my professional life and now as founding director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, what I realized is that while there is so much inspiration from Frederick Douglass or Martin Luther King or Harriet Tubman, it's truly about the people who refused to let the field strip them of their humanity or hope. It’s the people who basically said “I will believe in a better day,” even though everything told them not to believe. It was the mother who sat on the porch and made sure that all the kids did right not just her kids. It was the farmer who got up every day and said, “I don’t like this but I swear by doing this my kids are going to have a better life.” It was that average person who served in the army who said, “I won’t let anything defeat me.”
A year ago my dad died and I realized then that he was the person who made me a man. I realized that after his death, I took such inspiration to say that I wanted to make sure that average people like him were remembered, that their lives were valued. So whenever I find myself overwhelmed, which happens a lot, I look back at my father or my grandfather because I’m Lonnie Bunch III. When I look at my grandfather starting life as a sharecropper [and] ending life as a professional dentist, you realize that one person can change a family's trajectory. What I realized is that I can give people a sense of the power of history and show how much our people have been able to accomplish despite the odds.
The best thing that my father ever taught me was that it is OK to be afraid but you cannot let that fear hold you captive. The best example of this is when I was growing up in an Italian town and I wanted to fit in. I remember being in 9th grade and we were supposed to do a verbal report on a magazine article and I hated standing in front of people. To this day I’m really shy, so I was dreading it. I thought I’d do the report on Mickey Mantle or the Yankees and one day my father said, “I’ve got an article for you.” I’ll never forget it. It was in Reader's Digest and it was called “What the Negro Has and Has Not Gained.” I did not want to say the word Negro. I did not want to stand up in front of people, but he chided me. I gave the report and I got an A. He was right that the key to success was putting one foot in front of the other and acknowledging your fear and then confronting that fear. To me that's what being a man is, to be able to pass on to other generations that it's OK to be afraid but it's even more important to take that step forward.
Lessons like that one shaped me; it has been woven into my history. In many ways, history is not about yesterday. History is something we carry in us. We’re shaped by decisions that were made in the past. Similarly, our challenge of the Smithsonian is twofold. On the one hand, to preserve that history so people aren’t forgotten, like the role of Sojourner Truth or the role of the Pullman Porter. On the other hand, the challenge is to show that this is not a Black story for Black people. This is the quintessential American story. Our history has really helped America live up to its stated ideals. For me, preserving African-American history means that finally we as Americans will understand more of who we are. Not who we are as Black people but who we are as Americans.
Lonnie Bunch III is one of the nation’s preeminent museum directors, curators, and historians who has brought African-American history to the public and engaged people from all walks of life. He currently serves as the founding director of Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.
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(Photo: Earl Gibson III)