Yesterday my son, Marin, and I visited the National Museum of African American History and Culture. I had wanted to visit the last time we were here, in 2016, but it had recently opened and tickets were not available. Once entering, we looked at the map and agreed the first place we wanted to go was the special exhibit on Reconstruction. Marin has been studying Reconstruction in his AP U.S. History class, and I had recently finished Eric Foner’s “Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution.”
The whole exhibit was impressive and informative. Some parts of it were set up to illustrate the brokenness or incompleteness of reconstruction – doors of their hinges or windows half-boarded up. There we several life-sized videos of an actor as Frederick Douglass speaking words such as, “When you turned us loose, you gave us no acres: you turned us loose to the sky, to the storm, to the whirlwind, and, worst of all, you turned us loose of the wrath of our infuriated masters… The question now is, do you mean to make good to us the promises of your constitution?”
Interactive timelines made it possible to conceptualize the years of Reconstruction. Marin reminded me of the fateful Compromise of 1877 when northern Republicans agreed to remove federal troops from the south in return for southern Democrats not contesting the election of Rutherford B. Hayes and a promise not to ignite a second Civil War. This essentially ended Reconstruction because it allowed the Southern states to revert to their own laws rather than respect the federal laws. In other words, the country sold out its formerly enslaved people and thus began the Jim Crow era.
Most of the exhibit featured items I expected to see, but there was one item that caught me off guard. The last section of the exhibit featured legacies of Reconstruction, both constructive and destructive. There was the helmet that Bree Newsome wore when she scaled the flagpole at the South Carolina capital to remove the confederate flag. Fierce! But the item that affected me most deeply was Trayvon Martin’s hoodie sweatshirt. It was just a basic grey sweatshirt. His shoes were also there – red and white Nike’s – and his cell phone along with a bag of Skittles and an Arizona Iced Tea. But the sweatshirt. Something any teen might wear. But this one had holes in it. Bullet holes with pen-ink circles around them. The rage and sadness I have felt for Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice and others came back to me. It must have been because I was standing there with my 16 year-old son on a trip to visit colleges. Those boys would never go to college or pursue their dreams because they were murdered for being black.
In the last room before leaving the exhibit is a quote by Angela Davis: “You have to act as if it were possible to radically transform the world. And you have to do it all the time.” To make good on promises. To let love flow. To act as if…