Smithsonian Prepares Civil Rights-Era Artifacts

Ku Klux Klan rally in North Carolina in the early 60s. i i

Ku Klux Klan rally in North Carolina in the early 60s. Jim Wallace/Courtesy Lonnie Bunch hide caption

itoggle caption Jim Wallace/Courtesy Lonnie Bunch
Ku Klux Klan rally in North Carolina in the early 60s.

Ku Klux Klan rally in North Carolina in the early 60s.

Jim Wallace/Courtesy Lonnie Bunch

We've been given exclusive access to the collection being built for the new National Museum of African American History and Culture. The museum is scheduled to open its doors on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., in 2015.

Until then, we're dropping in every few weeks to visit the museum's founding director, Lonnie Bunch, to see what he's acquired for the permanent collection.

This week, he takes us back to the 1960s — the heart of the American civil rights era.

  • Hide caption
    Watercolor Of The Portuguese Slaver Diligente, 1838
  • Hide caption
    Wanted Poster For Runaway Slaves, 1840
  • Hide caption
    Croix De Guerre, 1914-1918The Croix de Guerre was sometimes awarded to American individuals or military units.
  • Hide caption
    Poster Of Huey Newton, Black Panther Minister Of Defense, 1968
  • Hide caption
    Cross Burning In North Carolina; Photo By Jim WallaceIn the early 1960s, University of North Carolina student Jim Wallace, who was not black, photographed a Ku Klux Klan rally and cross burning to document what he thought was a great evil, museum director Lonnie Bunch says.
  • Hide caption
    Ku Klux Klan Rally In North Carolina; Photo By Jim WallaceAs civil rights activists became more organized from 1963-64, opposition activity also increased. "What I think is fascinating is how we've gone, in 50 years, from people being proud of that to recognizing that was one of the darker moments of the American experience," Bunch says.
  • Hide caption
    Lester Maddox's Pickrick Drumstick, c. 1973Lester Maddox was the owner of the Pickrick Cafeteria, which kept a dozen axe handles — "Pickrick Drumsticks," he called them — by the front door. Despite the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed segregation in public accommodations, Maddox refused to serve African-Americans, running a group of protesters off with a pistol while his son, customers and employees brandished the axe handles. Maddox took to selling axe handles and other "state's rights" souvenirs.
  • Hide caption
    SNCC PromotionAs the civil rights movement gained momentum in 1960, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee Formed in North Carolina, SNCC (often pronounced "snick") helped organize the Freedom Rides, voter registration campaigns and the March on Washington. Former member Joan Trumpauer Mulholland participated in several SNCC activities and donated several objects to the museum.
  • Hide caption
    Denim Vest With SNCC ButtonsMulholland joined SNCC in 1960 and served as an office assistant in Mississippi for several years. A button that reads "Never" on the collar of her vest is Bunch's favorite. "That was what segregationists would wear to counter that, to say that you never integrate," Bunch explains. "But what the SNCC people did is they took that button and turned it upside down as a way to protest."
  • Hide caption
    Glass Shards And Shotgun Shell From The 16th Street Baptist Church In Birmingham, Ala.Mulholland gathered these artifacts from the gutter outside the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., during the funeral of three of the girls killed in the 1963 bombing.
  • Hide caption
    J.C. Deagan Chicago Vintage Railroad Dinner Bell ChimesEmployment as a railroad porter was considered one of the most stable and prestigious occupations open to African-Americans during the early- and mid-20th century. This engraved dinner chime was presented as a retirement gift to Leo LaRue, a porter who served executives for the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad in the 1960s and '70s. "These folks had their own sense of pride," Bunch says, "and basically captured a sense of what was possible in an environment where they were considered inferior."
  • Hide caption
    John Brown And Frederick Douglas LettersLetters written to his wife while he was visiting Frederick Douglas express John Brown's commitment to abolition, but also his longing to see her and his family. Douglas adds a greeting and reassuring words..
  • Hide caption
    Knights Of The Ku Klux Klan Banner, Early 20th Century The Ku Klux Klan, originally founded in 1865 by veterans of the Confederate Army, was an insurgent group that undertook violent and vigilante activities during Reconstruction. The group faded away in the 1870s, but fueled by glorified images of the Klan in the film Birth of the Nation, was founded again in 1915 as a fraternal organization that developed orders nationwide with local chapters.
  • Hide caption
    Pen Used By Lyndon B. Johnson To Sign The Voting Rights Act Of 1965 The act outlawed educational requirements for voting. Johnson symbolically chose to sign the Voting Rights Bill in the President's Room, just off the Senate chamber, where Abraham Lincoln had signed legislation freeing slaves employed by the Confederacy on Aug. 6, 1861.
  • Hide caption
    Thomas H. Porter Slave Buttons, c. 1820Thomas H. Porter, a slave trader based in Barbados, sold slaves along the coasts of Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, Georgia and the Carolinas, circa 1815-1830. He attached these buttons to the enslaved person's clothing during auctions.
  • Hide caption
    Maj. Peter L. Robinson, 1917Peter L. Robinson, Sr. (1892-1979) was born in Spotslyvania, Va., one of eight children born to slaves. He got a degree from Miner Normal School and a law degree from Howard University in 1924. He was commissioned as a first lieutenant in 1917, assigned to Camp Meade and later was a major in the Reserves. Robinson taught in Washington, D.C., schools for 40 years.
  • Hide caption
    WWI Binoculars Of Peter L. Robinson Sr.Robinson saw action in France from 1918-1919.
  • Hide caption
    Peter L. Robinson Sr.'s Steel Helmet From WWIRobinson was promoted to major during his tenure with the U.S. Army Reserves.
  • Hide caption
    Tin Man Headdress From The Broadway Production Of 'The Wiz,' 1975As part of the Black Fashion Museum Collection, the museum acquired costumes that were designed by Geoffrey Holder for the Broadway musical The Wiz. Featuring an all-black cast, it put a modern twist on The Wizard of Oz.
  • Hide caption
    Bo Diddley's HatBo Diddley was born in McComb, Miss., in 1928 and became one of rock music's principal architects in the 1950s.
  • Hide caption
    Harriet Tubman's Signed Hymnal"This is one of the great treasures of the museum," Bunch says. One of the ways Tubman signaled slaves was by singing hymns. "So she'd sing 'Steal Away to Jesus' or 'Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,' and you would know it's time to go. And so to be able to have a hymnal that has those songs in it that was hers is just pretty amazing."
  • Hide caption
    A Sign From Lallie Kemp Charity Hospital In Independence, La.Another museum piece once belonged to the Lallie Kemp Charity Hospital in Independence, La. It's a carefully hand-lettered sign that tells the days colored residents could come in for medical services and when whites could receive service.
  • Hide caption
    A Bill Of Sale For A Slave Named PollyThis is the original receipt for a 16-year-old Negro girl named Polly, who was sold for $600 as a slave. "What really hits me about this document is it starkly reminds us that these people were considered property," Bunch says. "Suddenly you realize that this paper really is a way into the story of this woman's life."
  • Hide caption
    Child's PortraitMost images of African-Americans in the early 20th century are portraits of poverty. Bunch came across a remarkable collection of "cabinet cards" — portraits of middle-class blacks who were otherwise "invisible to most people."
  • Hide caption
    Cassius Clay's (Muhammad Ali's) Head ProtectorThis is an Everlast head protector from the 5th Street Gym in Miami, where Clay trained for his first fight with Sonny Liston. "As soon as he defeated Sonny Liston, he announced that he became a member of the Nation of Islam, became Muhammad Ali," Bunch says.
  • Hide caption
    Michael Jackson's Victory Tour Black FedoraInside the hat is a black leather band stamped "By Maddest Hatter ... Made expressly for Michael Jackson ... 100 percent genuine fur." The hat was caught by an audience member attending the July 31, 1984, Jackson concert at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J.
  • Hide caption
    Leg ShacklesThese slave shackles were likely crafted in Africa rather than Europe because they are relatively cumbersome to close and open. Europeans would have instead closed shackles with a padlock. The size of the shackle loops indicates they were used on legs rather than arms.

1 of 27

View slideshow i

Copyright © 2011 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.


Now, from time to time, Guy Raz visits with Lonnie Bunch, the founding director of the National Museum of African-American History, which is opening in D.C. in 2015. Mr. Bunch is giving us a sneak preview of the collection and takes us back to the 1960 this week and the heart of the American civil rights era and starts with a story about his colleague, Smithsonian photographer Jim Wallace, who offered him photographs that he took in North Carolina half a century ago.

Dr. LONNIE BUNCH (Founding Director, National Museum of African-American History): And I thought as a courtesy, of course, I'll see what my old friend put together. And suddenly, I saw these images, and I was moved in a way I hadn't been. What we're looking at are three images of the Ku Klux Klan marching around a burned cross outside of Raleigh, North Carolina in 1963. Jim Wallace, as not an African-American, was able to get close and take these pictures.

GUY RAZ, host:

Did Jim Wallace describe what it was like to actually be there, to be at this cross-burning?

Mr. BUNCH: He said what he hoped is that as he was taking the pictures that somehow they didn't look and see liberal on his forehead. And he also realized...

RAZ: He was a civil rights activist and...

Mr. BUNCH: That's right. A student at North Carolina, really sort of thought this was the wrong way to do things and was really documenting what he thought was a great evil.

You look at this image of the men and women of the Klan in their uniform, you know, you get a sense of who they are and their sense that this was acceptable.

RAZ: Nobody in these photos are hiding their identities. They're out in the open and perfectly proud of being part of this ritual.

Mr. BUNCH: Well, what I think is fascinating is how, in 50 years, we've gone from people being proud of that to recognizing that was one of the darker moments of the American experience.

RAZ: And now on the table, we have a long - looks like a wooden baseball bat, but it's not, clearly not.

Mr. BUNCH: It's an axe handle that has on it Lester Maddox Pickrick. Lester Maddox was really somebody who we've forgotten about. But in the 19560s, he was one of the symbols of segregation. And Lester Maddox owned a restaurant called the Pickrick, and he had these axe handles by the door.

RAZ: This is a restaurant in Atlanta.

Mr. BUNCH: This is a restaurant in Atlanta. And after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, he made it clear that he didn't want African-Americans going into his restaurant.

RAZ: But by that point, it was illegal to deny them service.

Mr. BUNCH: That's right. The law said you had right to go anywhere you wanted in a public accommodation for food, and so the story is that there are African-Americans who are challenging Lester Maddox's right not to serve African-Americans, and Lester Maddox, when they came to the door, pulled out a pistol.

Many of the patrons pick up these axe handles that he had, sort of on the wall in his restaurant, and they chase the African-Americans away. And so these axe handles became a souvenir that people would buy.

On the one hand, it's just a piece of wood but on the other hand speaks volumes about defiance, about how many Americans needed something, as America was changing in front of them, to hold onto, to fight the new way.

RAZ: Whatever happened to Lester Maddox and his restaurant? I mean, by law, he was required to serve everybody. What did he do?

Mr. BUNCH: Lester Maddox, for years, would not let African-Americans in. And he was so popular that he leveraged this and was elected governor of the state of Georgia in 1967 and served until 1971. So breaking the law made Lester Maddox a hero.

RAZ: Amazing. Okay, let's see the next piece.

Mr. BUNCH: Well, what we're going to do is this is a collection from a woman named Joan Mulholland, who was an early member of SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, created in 1960 as a way to coordinate the sit-ins and the freedom rides. And this was really a group of young African-Americans and white Americans who basically came together to right a wrong. And so she gave us these buttons.

RAZ: We're looking at a sleeveless jean jacket with all of these buttons all over the jacket. And this belonged to her?

Mr. BUNCH: This belonged to her. And these were buttons she collected. So you see buttons that talk about support the sit-in movement. And then it even has one of my favorite buttons in the collar is one that was a white button, and it had never on it.

And that was what segregationists would wear to counter that, to say that you never integrate. Well, what the SNCC people did is they took that button and turned it upside-down as a way to protest.

And so I look at this, and I realize that here's an example of how you can be 17, 18, 21 and transform the country.

RAZ: Amazing. It's one of the hundreds, thousands of artifacts and relics that will be on display at the National Museum of African-American History and Culture. That's set to open in Washington, D.C. in 2015. Lonnie Bunch is the founding director of that museum. And we pop in from time to time here at the temporary offices.

Lonnie, thank you so much.

Mr. BUNCH: My pleasure, as always.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.



Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.