Whitewashed from cowboy movies and lore, the African-American contribution to the shaping of the American West was more significant than previously considered, down to tunes black cowboys and laborers sang, which were as familiar as “Home on the Range.”
In researching songs that would become his album Dom Flemons presents Black Cowboys for Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, the artist learned that musicologist John Lomax recorded the most familiar version of “Home on the Range” from a black cook in San Antonio.
“He transcribes the fellow’s particular way of singing the song and it became the well-known western anthem that we know today,” says Flemons. It was the same with a familiar cattle driving song about a horse, “Goodbye Old Paint.”
The fiddler who Lomax recorded singing that song was white, Flemons says. “But another musician talked about how he learned the song from an ex-slave who worked for his father on the ranch.” It has since been credited to the black cowboy and former slave Charley Willis.
Hearing about the roots of two songs so closely associated with the American West, Flemons says, “started leading me in a musical direction that showed that African-American cowboys were an essential part of the general cowboy song theme.”
From books like Philip Durham’s seminal 1965 The Negro Cowboys, a copy of which he found in his native Arizona, Flemons learned one in four cowboys who helped settle the West were African-Americans, as were some of its biggest personalities, from Nat Love, better known as Deadwood Dick, to Bass Reeves, the first black deputy U.S. marshal west of the Mississippi, who many believe was the model for The Lone Ranger.
Flemons wrote an original song about the leading black movie cowboy, Bill Pickett. And he found strong connections to other parts of the African-American experience such as the cowboys who became Pullman Porters and in turn became strong figures in the Civil Rights Movement. “I knew I had to tell a story that was a story of the past, but also point people to a direction to show that there are modern black cowboys that are still out there,” Flemons says.
Since Ruth Odom Bonner joined President Barack Obama in ringing the bell to open the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture last year, more than 2.5 million people have visited the site.”What’s been so moving is that it’s clear after a year, the museum has already become a pilgrimage site,” says Director Lonnie Bunch, who began the “great adventure” of opening the museum in 2005. What followed was more than a decade of building a collection and a building from scratch. It culminated on September 24, 2016 when the daughter of a slave and the nation’s first black president tolled the 500-pound bell that had been lent by the historically black First Baptist Church in Williamsburg, Va. and ushered people in.
Visitors to the African American History and Culture Museum tend to stay more than triple the typical amount of time they spend at most museums. Even a year later, a pass system remains in place to prevent overcrowding, and the free tickets remain difficult to come by (they are released monthly, and a limited number of same-day tickets are available online starting at 6:30 a.m.). The cafe serves up over 1,500 meals a day. Bunch attributes the success in part to a pent up demand—generations worked to get the museum built, and the long-held dream was only fulfilled after more than a century of effort. But he also believes that the way the museum presents its subject matter has a lot to do with it.”It tells the unvarnished truth,” Bunch says. “I think there are people who were stunned that a federal institution could tell the story with complexity, with truth, with tragedy, and sometimes resilience. So I think the kind of honesty of it appeals to people.”
Museum officials know that even many Washingtonians still haven’t managed to get through its doors. So as they celebrate the year anniversary, much of the programming and performances they’ve planned are taking place outdoors. Music and tours of the grounds will take place on both Saturday and Sunday, and the museum’s hours have been extended for those who have passes to go inside.Ahead of the celebration, we spoke with Bunch about what it’s been like to shepherd the museum through its first year. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Congratulations! You’ve made it to a year.
Thank you. That’s the easy part. The hard part was getting it open.
You worked on this for more than a decade before it opened. What was it like to finally see it open after all that work, gathering all those artifacts, building this up from the ground (really a giant hole in the ground) up?
In many ways, it was probably one of the most emotional moments of my life, both professional and personal. To actually not only fulfill a dream of all the staff, but a dream of generations who wanted this, it was really very humbling. But quite honestly it was also very motivating. Whenever you hit a bump or you worry about how you’re going to pull it off, recognizing that I didn’t want to let down all these other generations who had tried, that was a great motivating factor.
You had this moment celebrating the opening, you had the president and all these people who had traveled to D.C., and then it was day one on the grounds. What’s been your experience like shepherding it through this first year?
It’s been wonderful in that it’s become, within the first year already, part of the American lexicon. There’s almost no one that doesn’t know about the museum, doesn’t know about how hard it is to get in, or how much they enjoyed it. But also I think that what’s been so moving is that it’s clear after a year, the museum has already become a pilgrimage site—that there are thousands of people who come to share their story with their grandchildren or to connect over an object with people who shared maybe a comparable experience in the Civil Rights movement. I think it’s really become what we wanted, which was to be a place that was as much about today and tomorrow as it is about yesterday.
You’ve had a long museum career. How has this particular museum been different from previous places you’ve worked at?
It’s different in that you had to start from scratch—you didn’t have a collection, you didn’t have a building. What it allowed us to do is say “what should a 21st century museum that explores race, what should it do?” So it helped us put the way that museums interpret race on its end. Instead of saying “this is a story about the African American community,” we’re saying “this is a story about America through the lens of the African American community.” And so that’s very different.Being able to start from scratch allowed us to think innovatively about how do you actually collect by working with communities and going into peoples homes, in their trunks and attics. In essence, because we had nothing, it forced us to be different than most museums. We have to be more creative, more nimble.
I’ve heard you say this a number of times, that this is an “American story told through an African American experience.” That story is obviously still happening; what is the museum’s role in responding to that story as it occurs, as we’re seeing things like Charlottesville happen in real time.
First of all, part of the museum’s job is to collect today for tomorrow, so that there are things—like we’ve collected Black Lives Matter artifacts, we’ve collected things in Ferguson, things in Baltimore—and some of those are on display in the museum. Some maybe won’t be in display until a curator 30, 40, or 50 years from now wants to use it. Our goal is to make sure that it never happens, like it used to happen early in my career—there were exhibits I wanted to do, stories I wanted to tell, and museums didn’t have those collections. I wanted to make sure that future curators wouldn’t have that problem. Continue reading “As the National Museum of African American History and Culture Turns One, Director Lonnie Bunch Looks Back”→
J Dilla was only 32 years old when he died in 2006, but in his too-short life, the prolific producer worked with hip-hop icons including Busta Rhymes, Erykah Badu, The Roots, De la Soul, Common, and A Tribe Called Quest, even earning a Grammy nomination for his work with Tribe. And now, another honor for the late Detroit beatmaker: His recording equipment will be featured in the Smithsonian.
At the ninth DC Loves Dilla tribute concert on Thursday night, Dilla’s mom, Maureen Yancey, announced onstage that she would donate her son’s custom Minamoog Voyager — one of the last synthesizers Bob Moog built for someone before he died in 2005 — and his MPC to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.
“I feel it’s necessary to raise the level of art appreciation in the hip-hop sector and honor my son James Dewitt Yancey, one of the most influential individuals in the history of hip-hop,” Dilla’s mom said in a Smithsonian press release announcing the donation.
Below, watch Yancey announce the donation at the benefit concert, which raises money to battle lupus, a disease that might have played a part in Dilla’s early death.
The collection is haunting: black-and-white stills of another place from another time, a documentation of the Gullah, or Geechee, people—a population of African descendants living on the Sea Islands off the Eastern coastline. The images of a place and a people that time forgot were captured by celebrated photographer Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe—the wife of renowned tennis player Arthur Ashe—between 1977 and 1981.
Bank of America donated the collection of more than 60 photos to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. The photographs center on the people and life of Daufuskie Island, a cultural and national treasure tucked away off the coast of South Carolina.
A “time capsule” is how the island was aptly described by Lonnie Bunch, the museum’s founding director, who is thrilled at the addition to the yet-to-be-finished museum. In addition to the stunning collection, which Bank of America originally obtained through its acquisition of Merrill Lynch in 2007, the financial institution also donated $1 million toward the building of the museum, a $500 million project.
“We’ve had a great history with the [museum]. We were one of the first donors [and have a] long-standing partnership,” Bank of America spokeswoman Diane Wagner told The Root. “[The collection] seemed like a very natural fit to be donated to the museum as one of their key exhibitions once they open in 2015.
The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African-American History wants the hooded sweatshirt Trayvon Martin was wearing when he was shot and killed. The 17-year-old was shot and killed on his way home by neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman. Zimmerman was charged with second-degree murder and pleaded not guilty, arguing self defense.
On July 13th, Zimmerman was acquitted of all charges by a Florida jury. The hoodie Martin was wearing on the night of his death became a symbol for protesters and Martin family supporters. Lonnie Bunch, the museum’s director, confirmed to The Washington Times that they are seeking the hoodie for display following the Department of Justice’s investigation.
“It became the symbolic way to talk the Trayvon Martin case. It’s rare that you get one artifact that really becomes the symbol,” Bunch told The Washington Times. “Because it’s such a symbol, it would allow you to talk about race in the age of Obama.”
The National Museum of African American History and Culture is set to open in 2015.
In recognition, the museum’s 350-seat theater, intended to be a showcase for demonstrating how African-American culture has shaped the country and the world, will be named after her. The museum, the Smithsonian’s 19th, is due to open in late 2015. It will tell the story of African-American history from slavery to the post-Civil War period, the civil rights era, the Harlem Renaissance and into the 21st century.
Oprah has been involved with the museum since planning began a decade ago and joined its advisory council in 2004. She’s also a world-class philanthropist with her own grant-making foundation and the resources to make a difference. She says her gift demonstrates her pride in African-American history and culture.