Personal History: The African American Museum's Lonnie Bunch looks forward by looking back





Lonnie G. Bunch III is settled in an office at L'Enfant Plaza lined with first-edition history books, various hats that he doesn't wear, and special photographs of family, the famous and the unknown. On the job for just 10 weeks, the founding director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture loves looking into history through photographs. Among his personal keepsakes are a couple of tintypes and daguerreotypes from the 1840s and 1850s.

"Photographs allow me to look into people's faces. I can say, 'Who is that person?' They remind me this is a person's history. While we remember slavery, we can't forget the enslaved," he says.

Bunch knows there are plenty of voices to tell the stories of the Kings, the Robinsons and the Powells, and plenty of stories to tell.

But history is made up of bits and pieces of everyday lives, not just those of the extraordinary achievers.

Bunch tells of his father's enjoyment of John Hope Franklin's "From Slavery to Freedom," and his explanation about black men and their mustaches. It "was a sign of freedom that you could choose to grow a mustache," the husky, bespectacled historian says. Now, the eminent Franklin sits on the scholarly committee for the museum.

"I want to talk to the elders within the African American community. I want to get their sense, and their blessing, and an artifact or two," Bunch says. He wants to pin down the stories about the beginnings of desegregation. "I've begun to think about the transformative generation, the link between the bad times and good times," he says.

But that's not all. His job over the long haul is to promote a history that has been a stepchild among academics and museums, and to establish the Smithsonian's credibility as the nation's custodian of that history.


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