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New Smithsonian museum features stories of African-American faith

The National Museum of African American History and Culture is set to open Sept. 24, 2016, in Washington. Photo by John Sonderman via Flickr Creative Commons.

WASHINGTON (RNS) Long before the grand opening neared for the Smithsonian’s new museum devoted to African-American history, Amirah Muhammad had a difficult decision to make.

Should she donate the platinum and diamond necklace that Elijah Muhammad, her grandfather and onetime leader of the Nation of Islam, gave to her grandmother after designing it with the word “Allah” above their family name?

A platinum and diamond necklace that Elijah Muhammad, onetime leader of the Nation of Islam, gifted to his wife is on display at the National Museum of African American History and Cultures in Washington. RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks

A platinum and diamond necklace that Elijah Muhammad, onetime leader of the Nation of Islam, gave his wife is on display at a gallery of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington. RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks

Museum curators hoped she would contribute an artifact related to the black nationalist movement that had grown to some 500,000 members when her grandfather died in 1975.

“It was for the greater good,” she said of her reluctant donation, which came after “much prayer and thought.”

“I actually felt my grandmother, kind of her spirit, say, ‘It’s OK, tell our story.’”

The National Museum of African American History and Culture, set to open Sept. 24, tells many stories of African-Americans of diverse faiths who have shaped U.S. history. Close to 10 percent of the 2,586 artifacts in its inaugural exhibitions are related to faith and religious history.

Rex Ellis, associate director for curatorial affairs, said the museum is essentially an intersection of uplift, spirituality and resilience.

“There is no way you can discuss, talk about or understand the African-American journey without understanding the very real role faith played in its history,” said Ellis, an ordained Baptist minister.

Some of that journey, from 15th-century slavery to the 21st-century presidential election, is shown in tangible objects — from the piano bench of Thomas Dorsey, the “father of gospel,” to a red and gold prayer rug used by a Sunni imam in Baltimore — and expressed through the intangible stories that accompany them.

In the museum’s underground history galleries, for example, one hallway is buttressed by examples of the faith of key leaders who rebelled against slavery.

“On one side is Nat Turner’s Bible and on the other side is Harriet Tubman’s hymnal, and we talk about them as a way of suggesting that the Bible and faith was not just a sort of comforting word from on high,” Ellis said. “It was a way of activating one’s desire to do more than what was ever expected of them to do.”

Personal hymnal of Harriet Tubman, included in items from donation of Harriet Tubman by Dr. Charles Blockson to the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of African American History and Culture. Photo courtesy of Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of Charles L. Blockson *Note: Editors, this photo may only be published once in web only with RNS-MUSEUM-BLACKS

Personal hymnal of Harriet Tubman, included in items from donation of Harriet Tubman by Dr. Charles Blockson to the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. Photo courtesy of Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of Charles L. Blockson *Note: Editors, this photo may not be republished without express permission from the National Museum of African American History and Culture

Turner led a failed 1831 slave rebellion that resulted in dozens of deaths and Tubman rescued scores of people from slavery.


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While the artifacts of those famous rebels will be unveiled on opening day, Clara Muhammad’s necklace is already in view.

It sits across the street at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, where a gallery space will continue to exhibit a sampling of the new museum’s collection, now totaling more than 36,000 objects.

Tucked in the back corner of that gallery is a space decorated as a brush arbor — the secret hideaway where slaves could worship freely. The necklace is featured in a display case on African-American Muslims, including a uniform and headdress of the Nation of Islam.

Another case displays a kneeling altar from First African Methodist Episcopal Church of Los Angeles and a Catholic choir chair from New Orleans. A third features artifacts about African-American Jews.

Rabbi Capers Funnye donated several items to the museum — including a tallit, or prayer shawl, a Torah scroll and a shofar — objects used by his Beth Shalom B’nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation in Chicago, which dates to 1918.

A black prayer shawl (tallit gadol) with a repeating pattern of nine, embroidered, seven-branched menorahs lined across each end from Beth Shalom B'nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation on display at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Photo courtesy of NMAAHC. *Note: Editors, this photo may only be published once in web only with RNS-MUSEUM-BLACKS

A black prayer shawl (tallit gadol) with a repeating pattern of nine embroidered, seven-branched menorahs lined across each end, from Beth Shalom B’nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation, on display at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Photo courtesy of NMAAHC. *Note: Editors, this photo may not be republished without express permission from the National Museum of African American History and Culture

“We’ve been a part of the religious landscape for a very long time,” Funnye said of Hebrew Israelites. “And to see that being acknowledged and to see that being written about and made a part of permanent exhibits of institutions like the museum of the Smithsonian is very important.”

Funnye, a first cousin once removed of first lady Michelle Obama, is also the chief rabbi of African-American congregations in New York, including one known as the “Commandment Keepers,” and several others in Pennsylvania, Georgia, Barbados and Nigeria.

Compared with the 83 percent of African-Americans who identify as Christians, just 1 percent of U.S. blacks identify as Muslims and an even smaller number say they are Jews.

But the museum felt it was important to represent them, along with practitioners of African religions, and their beliefs.

“They viewed Christianity as the religion of the slave master,” said museum specialist Deborah Tulani Salahu-Din. “So they embraced this radical departure from Christianity in search of a new way of thinking, of being, and a new way of forging a path of progress.”

Beyond references to individual religious groups, the museum addresses the role African-Americans have played in U.S. culture — from music to the military to sports.

Musical artifacts in the museum’s exhibits range from Tubman’s “Gospel Hymns No. 2” to a Grammy and a lime green jacket from the Dixie Hummingbirds, a group that Ellis described as “the standard-bearers of gospel singing” for more than seven decades.

Sports figures highlighted include two-time Olympian Gabby Douglas, whose 2012 book, “Grace, Gold & Glory: My Leap of Faith,” has been in the American History gallery, and boxing great Muhammad Ali.

“We look at his conversion to Islam as a form of activism,” said Salahu-Din about Ali being featured in the “Making a Way Out of No Way” gallery.


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Five chaplains are featured in the military history gallery, along with the Bibles of service members, one from a soldier in the segregated military of the 1930s and another from a female West Point graduate who was killed in Iraq in 2006.

In the segregation gallery are the crucifix and chalice of Louis Beasley, a World War II chaplain who received the Bronze Star and Purple Heart after saving the lives of two soldiers.

Rex Ellis, Deborah Tulani Salahu-Din and Aaron Bryant all work on the curatorial staff of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks

Rex Ellis, Deborah Tulani Salahu-Din and Aaron Bryant all work on the curatorial staff of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks

Aaron Bryant, a curator specializing in visual culture, said the museum’s collected artwork and literature also reflect religious concepts, with both author Countee Cullen and painter David Driskell “looking at the Crucifixion as it relates to the death of African-Americans, and more particularly, black men,” especially Emmett Till.

Till, whose original casket is featured in the new museum, was a black teen who was murdered in 1955 after being accused of whistling at a white woman.

The museum will feature African tribal and folk religious objects such as a voodoo doll and a bottle tree, which is believed to capture evil spirits.

Vanderbilt Divinity School Dean Emilie Townes viewed the museum’s display of the bottle tree as “a very good sign” of its inclusiveness. She hopes the museum will help people understand religious traditions that may be unfamiliar or unclear to Americans, some of whom use bottle trees as “just ornaments” in their yards.

Black religious institutions have tended to contribute artifacts rather than cash to the museum, but it did receive $1 million from Alfred Street Baptist Church, a historic congregation in nearby Alexandria, Va.

Beyond the exhibits, the museum will house the Center for the Study of African American Religion, funded with $10 million from the Lilly Endowment.

Some universities, such as Columbia and Rice, have had centers focusing on religion and race, but also on a specific subject — such as sexuality or urban life. The museum’s center has a broader focus.

The National Museum of African American History and Culture is set to open Sept. 24, 2016, in Washington. RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks

The National Museum of African American History and Culture is set to open Sept. 24, 2016, in Washington. RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks

“We see ourselves as, at least initially, focusing on the diversity of African-American faith,” Ellis said of the center. “I think that as a culture and as a community, we don’t know enough about each other.”

That’s exactly what excites Funnye, the Chicago rabbi, about the museum’s pending opening day. He said his grandchildren were thrilled to see a contribution of artifacts from their “Abba” in the museum’s collection.

“That my grandchildren saw that and that they will be able to show their children in the future, 30 years from now, 40 years from now,” he said. “That’s what’s most important to me.”

About the author

Adelle M. Banks

Adelle M. Banks, production editor and a national reporter, joined RNS in 1995. An award-winning journalist, she previously was the religion reporter at the Orlando Sentinel and a reporter at The Providence Journal and newspapers in the upstate New York communities of Syracuse and Binghamton.

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  • It sounds like an extremely rich and valuable contribution to the effort by the Smithsonian to create a extensive synopsis of the American experience. Bravo.

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