Celebrating African American History and Culture

Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

with the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture

Nearly 400,000 square feet, with eleven galleries on five levels, the National Museum of African American History and Culture presents the full spectrum of African American history and culture from slavery and Reconstruction through the Civil Rights Era and into the 21st century.

Within the Museum there are four gallery clusters; Art, Community, Culture and History. They help visitors understand the African American experience across time and place.

The National Museum of African American History and Culture has created a comprehensive collection of fine art to include paintings, sculptures, and works on paper, art installations, photography, and digital media by and about African Americans.

The visual arts allow visitors to see how artists viewed and interpreted their world, beginning in the early years of the 19th century with Joshua Johnson, and continuing through to the present with contemporary artists such as Chakaia Booker and Jefferson Pinder.

The artists do not see themselves as historians, and most of the works do not illustrate life so much as they comment on it in a visual language of the artist’s own making. While the works may delight and stimulate our senses, each, in its own way, also contributes to our understanding of an era.

Here we illustrate only 19th century examples, but the collection includes many works from the 20th and 21st centuries, including works by Jacob Lawrence, Elizabeth Catlett, Romare Bearden, Aaron Douglas, Chakaia Booker, Sam Gilliam, Melvin Edwards, Radcliffe Bailey, Renée Stout and Whitfield Lovell.

The Community galleries examine the many ways in which African Americans created, maintained, and developed successful communities in adverse conditions of slavery, racism, and discrimination. These communities, some of which were flourishing neighborhoods or all-black towns, reflected the perseverance and resiliency necessary to not only survive, but thrive in America.

Lyles Station was founded in the mid-19th century as part of a migratory movement of thousands of African Americans from the Upper South to the Old Northwest Territory states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin, to stake their claim to land, territory, and freedom. The Lyles family used this original 19th-century plow on their farmland.

African Americans found ways to develop cultural anchors and social networks in order to endure and succeed in the United States: whether in slavery or in free communities; in segregated black urban neighborhoods or the rural South; or as part of the black elite or the working class.

This handkerchief is associated with the Double Victory campaign during World War II. It represented the call for victory against racial injustice in the United States and victory in the war abroad.

The Bayou Classic is an annual football game played between two of the most prestigious historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) football programs--Grambling State University and Southern University in Louisiana. This trophy is the most recognizable trophy in HBCU sports. It signifies the importance of HBCU football as well as HBCU sports and traditions within African American culture.

Freemasons or Masons are one of the world’s oldest fraternal groups and were initially linked to medieval craft guilds. Masons are organized as independent associations known as Lodges. They are founded on spiritual ideals of brotherhood, supporting others and the general betterment of humankind.

Shown here is Daniel Hendricks. He is wearing Masonic regalia.

Shown here are Daniel Hendricks' daughters during the 1920s. The Order of the Eastern Star is also a fraternal organization of women and men. Founded in the late 1800s by Dr. Robert Morris for the female relatives of men who were involved in Freemasonry, it strives to maintain the same types of moral and spiritual principles for its members.

African Americans have been actively involved in Masonry since the 18th century when Prince Hall, a free black living in Boston founded a branch of the North American Freemasonry. At the time blacks were restricted from joining white lodges.

A complex and dynamic interplay between the past and present as well as the concrete and intangible, culture is the primary source of human identity and cohesion. While it is a shared bond that connects people within a group, there is usually great diversity within the group. Culture includes the values, beliefs, symbolic meanings, practices and artistic creations of an individual, a group and society. It is an essential tool for the transmission of information, skills and expertise between generations.

One of the earliest objects in the NMAAHC collection, this land deed documents the sale of property from a private owner to Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME, also known as Mother Bethel) in Philadelphia, PA. The land was purchased for use as a burial ground for the church members. It was used from 1808 until 1889.

In 1787 Richard Allen, minister, educator, writer and abolitionist and the Rev. Absalom Jones founded the Free African Society, the first independent black denomination in America. In 1794, Allen founded the African Methodist Episcopal Church, which continues to thrive as a global denomination.

Throughout various epochs of American history, African Americans have used culture to fight for social justice, push for racial equality, and represent the varied lived experiences of black people.

This dress is part of the Museum's Black Fashion Museum (BFM) collection and was made by noted Civil Rights activist and seamstress, Rosa Parks.

Mrs. Parks was making the dress for her mother when she was arrested on December 1, 1955 in Montgomery, Alabama, for refusing to relinquish her seat on a bus to a white person. The arrest led to the beginning of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and one of the first major acts of civil disobedience by people who were challenging segregation and discrimination in America at the time.

The J Dilla collection includes the custom-made Minimoog Voyager synthesizer and Akai MIDI Production Center 3000 Limited Edition used by producer and MC James Dewitt Yancey, aka J Dilla (1974-2006). These items were donated in J Dilla’s memory by his mother, Maureen Yancey. J Dilla used these pieces of equipment to create his famous and distinctive beats for hip-hop, soul, and rhythm & blues artists. These items are part of the museum’s growing Music & Performing Arts Collection.

For her 1939 concert at the Lincoln Memorial Marian Anderson wore this black skirt and a silk jacket made with the jeweled collar, cuffs, buttons and other accents. The jacket was redesigned in 1992.

By 1939 Marian Anderson had performed for audiences worldwide. But in Washington, D.C., the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) refused to let her sing at their concert house, Constitution Hall. Walter White, executive secretary of the NAACP, and Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes arranged for a concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday, April 9, 1939. It was a watershed moment in civil rights history. Marian Anderson gave voice to the principles of freedom, justice, and equality.

This seat is the first object that was acquired by the Museum. The donor, Juan García, researches and records storytelling traditions of Afro-Ecuadoran communities.

The spider image on the boat seat possibly references the character of Anansi, the clever spider, who is prominently featured in storytelling traditions of West Africa, the West Indies and the southern United States. Enslaved Africans were taken to the West Indies and to the southern United States, and they carried the Anansi stories with them. The names of the spider tales were transposed and became Nancy stories in the West Indies and Aunt Nancy in the southern states in America.

This blazer was given to Althea Gibson (1927-2003) when she won the prestigious Wightman Cup women’s tennis competition. Althea Gibson is considered one of America’s best athletes. She was the first African American to participate in international tennis competitions. Beginning in 1956 she won her first Grand Slam event. She would eventually win 11 Grand Slam titles. And in 1957 and 1958 she won both Wimbledon and the U.S. Nationals. Gibson excelled in other sports and was the first African American woman to join the Ladies Professional Golf Association tour.

Essayist, playwright, novelist, and civil rights activist, James Baldwin (1924-1987) is known for his exceptional talent as a writer. He was forthright and poignant in his exploration of issues of race, sexuality and unflinching appreciation of the black experience in America. This inkwell was in James Baldwin’s writing studio in his home in St.-Paul-de-Vence in the south of France, where he began residing in 1968.

History galleries explore America’s promise of freedom which were sometimes filled with contradictions.  Perhaps no people understood this more than the roughly four million enslaved African Americans living in the United States at the end of the Civil War in 1865. Through their actions, large and small, enslaved people worked toward the moment of freedom for more than 200 years, and their descendants continued the struggle into the 21st century. 

The museum’s history collections represents the home life, occupational and work experiences, political activities, religious convictions, social experiences, and African American freedom movements across four centuries.

This cabin housed enslaved families on the Point of Pines Plantation on Edisto Island, South Carolina. Families used this dwelling from 1820 through emancipation and well into the twentieth century.

On September 15, 1963, Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley and Denise McNair, were killed when members of the Ku Klux Klan placed sticks of dynamite under the front steps of the church. The broken glass from the stained glass windows of the church document the devastating event that took the lives of these four little girls.

This hymnal is directly linked to the Harriet Tubman family and is believed to have been used by Harriet Tubman.

Recruiting poster for Civil War Soldiers, written by Frederick Douglass.

This boombox was carried by Radio Raheem in Spike Lee’s 1989 film, Do the Right Thing. The hip-hop music blaring from the boombox inflamed racial tensions in a gentrifying Brooklyn neighborhood, culminating with Raheem’s death at the hands of white police officers.

National Museum of African American History and Culture
Credits: Story

Thanks to the staff members from the Office of Curatorial Affairs and the Information Technology Department at the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture who assisted in the creation of this online exhibition.

Thanks also to staff members in the Smithsonian's Office of the Chief Information Officer for their support of this project.

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