GUY RAZ, host:
Five years from now, the Smithsonian will open its newest museum on the National Mall, right in the shadow of the Washington Monument. It's called the National Museum of African American History and Culture. And for the past several months on this program, we've been given a regular pre-opening preview.
Every few weeks, Lonnie Bunch, the museum's founding director, shows us some new artifacts, things that he's gathered for the permanent collection, things like Michael Jackson's fedora or Harriet Tubman's personal hymnal. He brought original shackles worn by slaves during the Middle Passage. And now these.
Dr. LONNIE BUNCH: (Founding Director, National Museum of African American History and Culture): Let's start with the smallest object, the buttons.
RAZ: Buttons, all right. So there are - I see four buttons, metal buttons in, obviously in plastic bags. And they're all - they all look like they have a T and a P on them. And...
Dr. BUNCH: Yes. What I love about these are these are pewter and copper alloy buttons, and we've all seen buttons like this. But from these little buttons, what a story you tell.
The initials are for Thomas Porter. Thomas Porter was a person who sold slaves. And whenever he would sell slaves, he would either dress them in a particular uniform or put this button on their clothes so people would know it's a Thomas Porter slave.
What's so powerful about it is that this tells us the story of the domestic slave trade. We talked for days about the international slave trade in the Middle Passage...
Dr. BUNCH: ...but we forget that really almost from the inception of enslavement in the United States, through the Civil War, the largest number of people were moved via the domestic slave trade.
RAZ: In other words from state to state, obviously mostly in the South.
Dr. BUNCH: Well, sometimes from the north in the colonial period. But what I think is so powerful about it is that the domestic slave trade is one of the reasons why the South was so dependent on slavery is that they invested so much money buying these slaves that it almost was impossible for them to move away from the system of slavery.
But also, I think in some ways, it's a domestic slave trade that, for African-Americans, was the most powerful, was the most frightening.
RAZ: Incredible. And incredible to imagine where we're talking 150, 160 years ago, not that long.
Dr. BUNCH: It's not that long ago at all.
RAZ: So I see there is something obscured by a piece of paper. And I've been curious about this because I just see the bottom of it, and it looks like the head of a mannequin or something, and I'm really curious to know what that is.
Dr. BUNCH: One of the things that's so important to us is to realize that we want to tell the full story of the African-American experience. And we want to talk a lot about culture. This is the costume of a Tin Man from "The Wiz" in Broadway...
RAZ: From "The Wiz," right.
Dr. BUNCH: ...which was on Broadway from 1975 to 1979.
RAZ: Right. We obviously think of Diana Ross and Michael Jackson when we think of "The Wiz," or at least I do. And looking at this, the Tin Man, you just see the tight coils of metal for his hair and the sense of mesh, sort of refuse used for his ears. It's amazing. What kind of impact did "The Wiz" have on black theater?
Dr. BUNCH: Well, I think it had a huge impact on Broadway generally. On the one hand, it opened the ways for a new generation of African-American actors to perform. You begin to see a whole array of other shows, "Bubbling Brown Sugar" about Duke Ellington. So you see Broadway recognizing that there were shows about African-American culture that were critically successful and could be popular as well. So "The Wiz" opened the doors to do just that.
RAZ: I suspect this will be a popular exhibit at the museum.
Dr. BUNCH: I would hope so because I want to make sure that when people come in, they have those moments to see the great creativity that comes out of this community.
RAZ: And, Lonnie, I should remind folks listening to this conversation that all of these artifacts we're talking about can be seen at our website, npr.org.
So finally, Lonnie, there is a hat that I'm looking at, and I know that in the past, we've had some pretty amazing headgear. We've had Michael Jackson's fedora. We've had Cassius Clay, Muhammad Ali's boxing helmet. And now we have?
Dr. BUNCH: And now we have Bo Diddley's classic trademark hat. And, you know, while I don't want to be the museum of hats, it is important to be able to sort of capture things that identify somebody. And Bo Diddley, that amazing musician who really is in all the halls of fame, but who really was that transitional figure from blues to rock 'n' roll, and, you know, his classic hat, and his square guitar.
RAZ: And that hat is so iconic. I mean, you can imagine him there with his guitar, in that hat, and it's just it's such a presence. It's just - it's who he is.
Dr. BUNCH: One of the things we'd like to be able to do is to help the public sort of understand both the music, the joy of the music, but also what it tells us about somebody raised in the South, coming into Chicago, basically trying to find a way to make a living.
You know, he was a carpenter and a plumber, but he found that sound, that sound which really was a kind of Southern sound brought to the cities that eventually shaped almost all the major guitars in rock 'n' roll.
RAZ: That's Lonnie Bunch. He's a founding director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. That museum is scheduled to open on the National Mall here in Washington, D.C. in 2015.
Lonnie, until next time. Thanks so much.
Dr. BUNCH: My great pleasure. Thank you.
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