Lonnie Bunch III, founding director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African-American History and Culture, apparently doesn’t experience museum fatigue often.
Doing research for our phone interview last week, ahead of his private appearance Thursday at the Minneapolis Club, I ran his name by the only person I personally knew who might have met him: my mother.
When she was in charge of PR and protocol at Tuskegee University, she met an astonishing array of high-profile people: Tuskegee airmen, President Ronald Reagan, Alex Haley and Lionel Richie, before he was famous.
Had she ever met Bunch?
“No,” she said. “But I’ll bet he’s been to the George Washington Carver Museum.”
“Yes, indeed!” he confirmed. “That’s right. Absolutely!”
It’s an excellent campus museum, with some famous photographs of Carver taken by his friend and famed university colleague P.H. Polk, whom I knew because he adored my mother.
“You knew P.H. Polk?” said Bunch. “Now, that’s impressive.”
Not as impressive as the museums overseen by Bunch and Bryan Stevenson, founder of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice aka the Lynching Memorial in Montgomery, Ala. I asked Bunch if he’s been there.
“I have,” he said. “Basically there is not a museum, unless it was opened in the last year, I haven’t been to.”
This is Part 2 of my conversation with him. Part 1 was in Saturday’s column.
Q: When you see what your museum has procured, what specifically touches you and your ancestral history?
A: Interesting. Normally when I’ve created exhibitions during my career, I have a little ritual where I say goodbye. Once it’s open to the public, it’s no longer my show.
In this case, I realized it was going to always have a connection to me.
When I walk through the galleries and see the story of slavery, I suddenly learn more about my own enslaved ancestors. When I walk through the story of segregation or the migrations of African-Americans from the South to the North, I see my family in ways I didn’t expect.
So the museum has become even a more personal journey than I would have anticipated.
When I think about the collections, there is so much in there that moves me to tears. I think the slave cabin that tells not only the story of slavery but the story of freedom is very, very powerful.
I love something that very few people point out, a playbill featuring Ira Aldridge from England in the 1850s. He was a black actor who had to go to England in order to get Shakespearean roles, and it’s the playbill for the first time somebody black played “Othello.” That moves me.
[But as for having a favorite display in the museum], if you ask me which one of my kids I love, I love them all.
Q: Do you know details in the trajectory of your grandfather from sharecropper to dentist?
A: I know the whole trajectory. What you do is you start out by realizing you need to get a college education. He realized he could go to Shaw College at night and get a degree, and it took him 10 years. He started at 18; he graduated at 28 in 1910. …
He didn’t have the money [for dental school]. He married, he moved to Atlantic City, and my grandmother did laundry while he pushed what are called “rolling chairs.” Basically in Atlantic City, they hired college-educated blacks as early as 1895 to push the white elite on the boardwalk so they could at least have what they called “a coherent conversation.”
He did that and saved his money and then went to Howard [University’s] dental school and graduated in 1916.
Q: Is there an artifact you want for the museum that you have not been able to secure?
A: Willie Mays’ baseball glove.
Q: How many times do you seek it before you stop asking?
A: You never stop asking. You’ll get lucky one day.
Q: What is your favorite dish at the museum’s Sweet Home Cafe?
A: [Seven-second pause.] Shrimp and grits.
Q: Would your granddad, the first of your family’s Lonnies, be surprised by your success or say he fully expected your parents would put you on the path to great things?
A: He was called Doc, and Doc died the day before I turned 5. So I think Doc’s expectations of his own family were if he was able to go from a sharecropper to dentist, then you’d better be able to go from where you are to do something important. I don’t think he would have been surprised. He would have been pleased. Would Doc have expected me to be a historian? Probably not.
Q: In college I remember a history major who was called a “date bug” because she easily retained historical dates.
A: I was never called a “date bug” but I did love history from the beginning. … It was really about the stories of people. I wanted to understand why people were treated in certain ways. I wanted to understand as a kid whether people led happy lives or not, and that just got me interested in studying the past.
C.J. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and seen on Fox 9’s “Buzz.” E-mailers, please state a subject; “Hello” does not count.