GUY RAZ, host: Here in Washington, there's a new museum going up. And although its doors won't open until 2015, every few months here on WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, we get an early peek at the collection that's starting to take shape.
The Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture will stand just a few hundred feet from the Washington Monument, making it the newest museum on the National Mall.
I sat down with the museum's director, Lonnie Bunch, a few days ago to see some of the latest things he's collected from around the world. And he started by showing me a painting, a 19th century watercolor of a slave ship on its way to America.
LONNIE BUNCH: This is the Portuguese ship, the Diligente. And the Diligente was a ship with over 400 enslaved people. And what is wonderful about this is that one of the officers actually did this watercolor. That gives us a real look at what it was like for many of those who were enslaved on that ship.
I mean, if you look at it carefully, it's a picture of a ship, it's full sail, but what's really powerful is that there are probably 120 Africans on deck. And if you look carefully at it, you can see the condition of the Africans. Many you can see their ribs, they're malnourished. You can also see some of the sailors actually throwing an African body overboard. Talks about death and the like. So, I mean, I think in some ways, this is really one of the images that people haven't seen that really gives us a real understand, different than the kind of traditional image we see of people just being, you know, packed spoon-fashion in a ship.
RAZ: Yeah. What an incredible piece. Next up, I think that you have - I think this is a poster that we're about to see. And...
BUNCH: What we have is a reward poster that talks about three or four slaves who ran away in Kentucky and that there's $1,000 reward for them. What is so powerful, though, is that it really tells us a lot about who these people are. If you look at it, it says: We're in search of George, who is 22 or 23 years old. He's 5'7" or 8. His color, he's a dark black. He has a long, what they call a double head, had a variety of clothing, including a green frock coat, black velvet collar. And I love this, a low-crowned, white silk hat.
So in some ways, while this speaks volumes about the desire for African-Americans to gain their freedom in the number that ran away during the entire period of enslavement, it also is a way to understand the kind of clothing, the treatment. Often - these often say things like, the runaway had a scar. So they're really a great resource for scholars as we begin to understand what it was like to be enslaved and what it was like to run away.
RAZ: A thousand dollar reward. That's a lot of money...
BUNCH: That's a lot of money.
RAZ: ...in 1840.
BUNCH: So that tells you that what - at least George and Jefferson were good farm hands because they had to be highly skilled to bring that kind of reward back.
RAZ: And, Lonnie, I should just remind folks listening at home that all of these things we're looking at, they can see right now at our website, npr.org. We posted images of all these artifacts online. And your colleagues are bringing looks like a kind of a - well, it looks old, but it's...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
RAZ: Looks like a pretty important medal.
BUNCH: This is a Croix de guerre that was given to a man named Lawrence McVey who was a member of the 369th, the Harlem's Hellfighters. And this is a group that went over to France in 1917. Initially, the U.S. government didn't want them there. They were then reassigned to the French Army, fought in French uniforms. But they were known as one of the best fighting units. They were so good at defeating the Germans that they received this honor, which is very unusual for...
RAZ: This is a group of soldiers from Harlem.
BUNCH: From Harlem.
RAZ: They fought under the French flag.
BUNCH: The United States government said that we would use black soldiers as laborers, but we don't want you to fight as equals. And so, after many complaints from the African-American community, these folks were then saying, well, we will give you to the French Army.
And what was so interesting is this caused all kinds of trouble that when the French Army treated them as equals, there was a great fear. What happens now when they come back to the American Army, are they going to expect certain rates? And so, I think what you find is that people like Mr. McVey, when they came back, they demanded a changed America.
RAZ: That is an untold story.
BUNCH: It's a great story.
RAZ: You can imagine a film being told about a group of African American soldiers from Harlem going to fight for the French under the French flag because they wanted to take part in this fight.
BUNCH: Exactly. And it's a great story because they come back in 1919, and they're part of this amazing parade of all the World War I American soldiers marching up Fifth Avenue. And so the story is that they're at the back of the line and - but they're applause, and then they cross 110th Street into Harlem and apparently Harlem went wild.
RAZ: Incredible story. And I should remind everybody listening, Lonnie, that all of us, everybody will be able to see these at the museum in 2015 when the doors open. This is incredible. Let me just describe it. It is a poster. It looks like a photograph or daguerreotype from the 19th century of maybe an African king. This is a modern photograph from the late 1960s. Who is it?
BUNCH: This is Huey P. Newton, who was one of the founders of the Black Panther Party in a kind of wicker chair, sitting on top of a zebra with sort of African shields on his side and African spear in his left hand, but in his right hand is a shotgun with shells by his feet, and then, the quintessential modern look, the black leather jacket and the black beret. This is the image that inspired young people, black and white, and terrified J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI.
RAZ: This is an organization that struck fear into the hearts of people all across America.
Absolutely. J. Edgar Hoover felt that this was the number one enemy that would destroy America. And so he...
Incredible, because it was a relatively small group.
BUNCH: It's a very small group. And - but what happened is that that image was so powerful that they began to have chapters all around the country. And those chapters would have run-ins with police. And each time the run-in occurred, they became more famous. But I think the contribution would now gone from viewing the Panthers as a black radical group to understanding more that while self-defense was part, so were educational programs, feeding young kids. And so, I think that we, in this museum, are going to be able to tell the full story of what the Black Panther Party was.
RAZ: That's amazing. That's Lonnie Bunch. He's the founding director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. It's set to open its doors here in Washington, D.C. on the National Mall right next to the Washington Monument in 2015. Lonnie, we'll be back in a couple of months and get a glimpse of some other things that you guys are...
BUNCH: Looking forward to it. It's wonderful. Thank you as always.
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