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Mares: Museum Tour

The National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, shown in a file photo from its grand opening in 2016, tells the story of black people in the U.S. through compelling artifacts and mementos.

From the raising of another Black Lives Matter flag, this time at Brattleboro High School to the opening of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, race relations in America are increasingly in discussion and on display.

And with that in mind, I recently paid a visit to a splendid new building in Washington DC that rises in black triple-tiered dignity just 200 yards from the Washington Monument.

On seven carefully designed floors, the National Museum of African American History and Culture examines the destiny of 16 million unwilling slaves and indentured servants whose descendants were too often limited to share cropping, and second class citizenship generally.

The museum tour begins in a basement that mimics conditions on a slave ship. For the visitor, there are no short cuts, no turning back from the images of abuse, assault, and being literally worked to death, where learning to read was prohibited and families cast to the winds like chaff.

For me, old knowledge merged with waves of new information, writ large and small, from child-sized shackles to a slaver's whip to Nat Turner's tiny Bible. Five thousand blacks fought for the Colonists in the Revolution, but twenty thousand fought for the British who promised them freedom. Five hundred thousand blacks were free at the beginning of Civil War, but five million were still enslaved.

An auction block for slaves had been saved for posterity only because President Andrew Jackson once spoke from it. A statue of Thomas Jefferson faced words from the Declaration of Independence while standing on a pile of bricks representing his own five hundred and thirty four never-freed slaves. I saw lynching souvenirs and Emmett Till’s coffin; texts of contrasting views from Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois; and the crusading journalism of Ida B. Wells.

In the sun-lit galleries on the top floor are some of the victories - from Topeka and Selma to the Washington March. There are Medal of Honor winners, and Nobel Peace Prize winner Ralph Bunche. There are triumphs in art, music, sports, and politics.

It was too much to see in one visit, so I went back a second day.

Clearly, while the white American revolution was over in eight years, the 400-year long black revolution for equality continues today - in New Orleans, Ferguson, Charlottesville, and even atop several school flagpoles in Vermont.

Writer Bill Mares of Burlington is also a former teacher and state legislator. His most recent book is a collection of his VPR commentaries, titled "3:14 And Out."
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