We had made a reservation weeks ago to visit a campground near Washington, D.C., and it was only coincidence that our mini-vacation came while the outer band of Hurricane Irma passed through coastal South Carolina.
We were certain our area would be OK, given the latest path of Irma, but we had already removed everything from the porch and beneath the house and shuttered the doors and windows.
Now we packed the two other family members, Bo and Wasabi, into the Xterra and made our escape, camper in tow.
We’ve been to D.C. many times and spent many hours at various Smithsonian museums.
This time our destination was the black history museum, formally known as the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
We had seen the building two years ago while it was under construction and were properly impressed; now, seeing the finished product, which opened last September, we were simply stunned – by the elegance, by the videos, by the photos, by the hundreds of quotes lining the walls, by the emotional journey of blacks in America, from the early 1700s to today’s Black Lives Matter movement and first black presidency.
As The New York Times said when it opened, “The African American story is an American story, as central to the country’s narrative as any other and understanding black history and culture is essential to understanding American history and culture.”
The museum has some 37,000 objects in its possession, ranging from Nat Turner’s bible to Harriet Tubman’s shawl to the dress Rose Parks was sewing when she refused to leave a Birmingham bus.
The 350,000 square-foot building has 10 floors – five below ground and five above. It cost more than $500 million, most of it paid with private donations.
Oprah Winfrey was the largest donor at $21 million; a theater inside the museum is named for her.
Bill and Melinda Gates gave $10 million while LeBron James provided $1.5 million to establish a Muhammad Ali exhibit.
Cameras are allowed everywhere except one place: the casket of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old who was lynched in 1955 for allegedly whistling at a white woman.
Speaking of lynching, one wall of the museum carries the names 2,200 blacks who were lynched between 1882 and 1930.
A tour of the museum begins with an elevator ride three floors down, to the beginning of it all – the capture and inhumane trans-Atlantic voyages of enslaved Africans, all of them packed into cargo ships the way sardines are packed in a can.
Charleston and South Carolina have a special alcove on the bottom floor, where it is pointed out that before the American Revolution enslaved Africans had made South Carolina one of the richest colonies.
In 1708, enslaved Africans accounted for more than 50 percent of the colony’s population and Charleston ultimately became the major port for slaves, with some 40 percent passing through Charleston’s slave market.
Because we were on our bicycles, Elaine and I could spend just four hours at the museum – including a quick lunch at the 400-seat Sweet Home Café. So we only took in little more than the history of black America.
We’ll be going back to experience the cultural achievements – in sports, music, literature and the like. And we won’t just wait around for another hurricane.
Contact Bob Bestler at firstname.lastname@example.org.