The National Museum of African American History and Culture: “Defending Freedom, Defining Freedom”


David Adjaye, a Ghanaian designer who has visited every country in Africa, and his architectural partner, Philip Freelon, entered a competition in 2009 to earn the right to design The National Museum of African American History and Culture. This newest branch of the Smithsonian, which contains over 36,000 artifacts is the only national museum that is solely focused on African-American history, life, and culture. Symbolic of the culture, Adjaye and his partner incorporated architectural roots from African and African-American culture. One example of this is how they covered the building in bronze-colored metal lattice to relate to ironwork created by slaves in Louisiana and South Carolina. The grand opening of the museum occurred on September 24, 2016. Exhibits inside the museum itself range from how the museum was made to the influence African-Americans have had in television and drama. For the focus of this class, the exhibit that is most pertinent to that topic is “Defending Freedom, Defining Freedom.” “Defending Freedom, Defining Freedom” focuses on the era of segregation and the struggles and successes African-Americans endured during this time period (“National”). Within this exhibit, there are three stories in particular that were highly important in the post-slavery era, but have not garnered the attention they deserve. The three stories are the death of Emmett Till, the work of Ida B. Wells, and the Greensboro sit-ins. These events are relevant to the class because they revolve around different ways that African-Americans were preserve through the oppression they suffered after slavery, even though they were supposed to have the same freedoms as white men.

Historical and Cultural Context

One artifact inside this exhibit that represented violent mistreatment by Caucasians against African-Americans is the casket of Emmett Till. Emmett Till was a fourteen-year old kid from Chicago who was visiting his family in Money, Mississippi. Although he went to a segregated school in Chicago, the race relations in Mississippi were more extreme than in Illinois. Emmett’s mother warned him about the harsh climate he would face in the South, but he was just a child and wanted to live his life freely. While he was with his friends and cousins, he was bragging to them about having a white girlfriend back home. To prove that he was comfortable talking to people of the other race, he approached a white woman that was in a local grocery store. After he was done talking to her, he was heard saying “Bye, baby” to this woman. What seemed like an innocent incident turned into a travesty. The woman who Emmett was talking to told her husband that he made sexual advances on her. Her husband proceeded to kidnap Emmett from his great uncle’s house and beat him in a shed (“The Death”). Three days later, his unidentifiable corpse was found “in the river with a mammoth cotton gin fan tied around his neck” along with bullet wounds (Alexander 87). Emmett Till’s murderers were found not guilty in front of an all-white jury after discussing the case for less than an hour. When his body was shipped back to his mother, she opted to have an open casket funeral to show the cruelty that her son went through which has made the casket itself a very important memento in African-American history (“The Death”). Another person whose work was surrounded around lynchings was Ida B. Wells.

Ida B. Wells was born in 1862 in Mississippi and became a school teacher to pay for her own higher education. She later taught at Kortecht Public School and was inducted into the Memphis black society for her merits (Tucker 112). The reason why she was so influential during this time period was that she brought attention to the mass lynchings in the South, particularly in Memphis, in the late 1800s by being one of the first woman to have published articles in a time where women being a published author was unheard of. Due to her emotion-provoking editorials, she started receiving death threats, but that did not stop her from spreading her message across the world. She went on to give discourses about mass lynchings in the South all over Britain influencing English public officials to endorse fair trials for Africans-Americans accused of a crime (119). Her shedding light on these killings helped speed up the process of laws being established pertaining to the treatment of African-Americans in the South (122).


Figure 2. Ida B. Wells. Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago. 16 November 2017.

The last artifact from the museum exhibit that had a great impact on history, but in a less violent arena compared to the to the other two events, are the stools from the sit-in in Woolworth’s, located in Greensboro, North Carolina. Four students from an all-black university were denied service at this diner and peacefully protested by sitting at the counter until they were served. This led to additional sit-ins by hundreds of other students in North Carolina which helped changed government policies when it came to segregated public properties (Kowal 135-136). The stools from the original sit-ins have since became famous due to the non-violent success it had during the Civil Rights Movement. All three of these examples during the era of segregation in terms of violence and protest.

Themes and Style

An overarching theme that could be seen in all three events is that whites in America have not been very progressive and somewhat racist in their thinking when it comes to their relationships with blacks. After slavery, the way whites were supposed to treat blacks was supposed to change, but after 150 years, equality still does not stilly truly exist due to the treatment by the whites. Caucasians have waited to the last minute to create change when it comes to race relations and still to this day, some whites still find themselves superior to other races in a social environment. In the case of Emmett Till, whites did not act until they witnessed the brutal lynching of a fourteen-year old boy. Until then, lynching was just a natural act that occurred. People outside the South might not have even known that lynchings were occurring if it were not the writings of Ida B. Wells. She helped accelerate the process of law-making revolving equality and was a stepping stone for African-American women writers. In modern society, public facilities could be segregated were not for the actions of those four African-American students in Greensboro, North Carolina. These three events show that before, during, and after segregation, African-Americans have had to show perseverance and stamina in their pursuit to equality because Caucasians have made it so difficult for them to achieve it.

While all these examples may not be directly connected to each other, the impact by these exhibits all fall under the same umbrella: hidden heroes. The afterlives of slavery are commonly known for the big picture of the Civil Rights Movement and the impact of Martin Luther King Jr. had on society. However, due to the short attention span of people from the twenty-first century, the details of events are not as emphasized as they should be. These three events have had a great impact on American history, but they are not common knowledge, which is why the creation of this museum is attempting to make these events become common knowledge. Without the writings of Ida B. Wells, the death of Emmett Till, or the actions of the students in Greensboro, the lesser known civil rights activists who have had as great of an impact as the more famous activists would not be known.

Critical Conversation

Other researchers and intellectuals are all in agreement that all three events had a great impact in the history and progress of African-Americans although some have different opinions on different messages that were sent through these events.

Elizabeth Alexander approaches the story of Emmett Till’s as a harsh reality that young blacks had to face during the 1950s, but she also argues that women were as affected as children due to the fact that Till’s story shows what it is like to be black in America. She explains how his death has inspired many prominent African-American female authors, such as Toni Morrison and Charlayne Hunter-Gault, and Shelby Steele. Steele went on to describe his story in her autobiography as “the quintessential embodiment of black innocence, brought down by a white evil so portentous and apocalyptical, so gnarled and hideous” (Alexander 88). Alexander uses these excerpts in her essay to show the extreme anger that black woman had when it came to the lynching of Emmett Till. With him being so young and with a woman being the root cause of his death, his death tugged at the heartstrings of these women which made them feel more pain than some children because the naivety of children would have masked the reality that they were living in. David Tucker also examines how women and lynching are connected in a different way.

He explains how if it were not for Ida B. Wells, whites in the city of Memphis would have never been shamed into forcing the laws of equality that were established after the Civil War, and the progress of the African-American lady in America would have regressed. Even though African-American men were guaranteed the rights given to them by the Constitution after the Civil War, the new generation of Memphians wanted to implement the white supremacist tactics that helped them succeed before the Civil War (Tucker 114). One way they were going to strike fear in African-Americans was through lynching. However, Ida B. Wells, or Iola’s, publications across the country and lecture trips across the world helped shed light on the atrocities of the citizens of Memphis and shamed them into changing their immoral ways (Tucker 122).

Rebekah Kowal dives into the details of the Greensboro sit-ins and has an interesting take; she shows how the sit-ins can be compared to a very elaborate play and how the set-up of the sit-in involved choreography and other elements of a drama to make the sit-ins more effective. She compares the layout of the sit-in, such as the location, attire, speech and bystanders, to the theatrical concepts of scene, costumes, script, and audience (Kowal 135-136). For example, the attire of the students seems to be meticulously planned not only to garner attention from the other people at Woolworth’s, but also to the millions of people who would be watching the sit-ins on television. One man is dressed in an Army ROTC uniform, while the others are dressed like they are going to church. During the sit-in itself, the students either look directly in front of them or at the camera to show that they mean business (Kowal 138). These small calculations in the planning of this sit-in helped attack the pathos of the audience which helped increase the effectiveness of their boycott. This setup helped influence other boycotts that were key in American during the Civil Rights movement, such as Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and aided in additional protests during the Vietnam War (Kowal 150). The influence of these students from North Carolina on the course of history was unprecedented and was enacted by using the simplicities of drama and theatre. While these three artifacts have been researched thoroughly, the museum itself has also been analyzed.

Vinson Cunningham from the New Yorker, writes about the challenges and vision for this newest branch of the Smithsonian. He begins by discussing the difficulties for the origination of this building, starting all the way back in 1915 when African-American veterans wanted a museum to commemorate their efforts during the Civil War. The museum was only officially signed off on eighty-seven years later by George W. Bush. With the permission to build now, hard work and research had to be put in to hold up to the high standard of other D.C. museums. Extensive work was put into collect artifacts, such as Nat Turner’s Bible, and the advice of many scholars were given, but it was not possible to satisfy everyone’s opinions. However, the final analysis for the success of this museum could be also be said for the potential success of race relations in America: “a long and steady gaze, a bravery uncommon in bureaucracy, and a conception of experience not as a lens but as something that we must continue, indefinitely, to excavate—interpreting as we dig.”

Works Cited

Alexander, Elizabeth. ““Can You Be BLACK and Look at This?”: Reading the Rodney King  Video(s).” Public Culture (1994): 77-94. Print.

Cunningham, Vinson. “Making a Home for Black History.” The New Yorker, The New Yorker, 19 June 2017,

“The Death of Emmett Till.”, A&E Networks, 2010,                               

Kowal, Rebekah J. “Staging the Greensboro Sit-Ins.” TDR (1988-), vol. 48, no. 4, 2004, pp. 135– 154. JSTOR, JSTOR,

“National Museum of African American History and Culture.” National Museum of African American History and Culture. N.p., 01 Jan. 1970. Web.

Tucker, David M. “Miss Ida B. Wells and Memphis Lynching.” Phylon (1960-), vol. 32, no. 2,  1971, pp. 112–122. JSTOR, JSTOR,

Further Readings

Cohen, Sasha. “Civil Rights Sit-In at the Woolworth’s Lunch Counter: Why It Worked.” Time, Time, 2 Feb. 2015,

Davis, John A. “The Influence of Africans on American Culture.” The Annals of the American  Academy of Political and Social Science, vol. 354, 1964, pp. 75–83. JSTOR, JSTOR,

Dimock, Michael. “How America Changed During Barack Obama’s Presidency.” Pew Research Center. Pew Research Center, 10 Jan. 2017. Web.

Loeb, Jeff. “MIA: African American Autobiography of the Vietnam War.” African American Review, vol. 31, no. 1, 1997, pp. 105–123. JSTOR, JSTOR

Willie, Charles V., and Chester M. Hedgepeth. “The Educational Goals of Black Colleges.” The Journal of Higher Education, vol. 50, no. 1, 1979, pp. 89–96. JSTOR, JSTOR,


National Museum of African American History and Culture, Ida B Wells, Emmett Till, Greensboro sit-ins, Segregation, Perseverance, Hidden Heroes