Lonnie Bunch III: A Fool’s Errand

Creating the National Museum of African American History and Culture

A Fool's ErrandI got an email notice in mid-August. Gayle King, from CBS News, and Lonnie Bunch III were going to discuss Bunch’s new book, A Fool’s Errand: Creating the National Museum of African American History and Culture in the Age of Bush, Obama, and Trump.
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It would be at the legendary Apollo Theater in New York City, a legendary venue I had never been to. And it was free. On October 1, I took the 12:10 Amtrak train from Albany/Rensselaer down to Penn Station on 34th Street. The #2 subway to me to 96th Street, with the hotel I stayed at less than a block away.

Around 5:30, I decided I’d better leave for the 7:30 gig. I took the subway to 125th Street and walked the block and a half to the Apollo. After purchasing and eating a sausage sandwich from a street vendor, I went to the theater. There was already a line, though it was only 6 pm.

Hey, I have a ticket, so I’ve got time. I wandered around the neighborhood. The percussionists were playing in front of the Adam Clayton Powell Jr. governmental building. 45 minutes later, the line had only grown by about a dozen people.

I got a decent seat on the aisle at about 7. But the show didn’t start until about 7:45 when Gayle King came out on stage. She introduces a three-minute video about the African American museum. Then she introduces the man who, in June 2019, was named the head of ALL the Smithsonian museums, libraries, the National Zoo and more.

Lonnie Bunch III

Lonnie Bunch was born to the Smithsonian. New Jersey-born, his family traveled down to North Carolina to see family. Lonnie’s father made excuses for why they couldn’t stop at some of those Virginia museums. But they stopped in the various Smithsonian museums because they were safe and welcoming places for everyone.

Creating the new museum was a tremendous amount of work for over a decade. It was important to him and others that it be located on the national mall, not plopped in some out-of-the-way geography. He received contradictory advice, that the museum should highlight the holocaust that was slavery, and that he should not mention black bondage in America at all. He opted for inclusion.

Bunch endured a lot of work, not always fruitful. One major company asked for a meeting with him, made him wait for a couple of hours. Then the corporate representative acknowledged that they weren’t REALLY interested in contributing anything. Bunch decided to avoid the newspaper headline, “Smithsonian director punches out executive.”

Even when successful, it was a tough process. To bring in a Jim Crow railroad car was a logistical nightmare; one did not want to blow up DC.

The museum was interested in getting Chuck Berry’s guitar. He was willing to throw in his car too, which Lonnie didn’t get, but his staff did. Berry wanted to renege on the deal when he discovered Bunch worked for the federal government, which he doesn’t trust. But Bunch’s aide sealed the deal when, at Berry’s insistence, he ate 13 ice cream sandwiches.

Miles and miles

National Museum of African American History and Culture
Much of what was added to the collection came from items from people’s attics and basements. At someone’s suggestion, Bunch pitched the museum as a sort of African-American Antiques Roadshow, with the “appraised value” measured in historical, not monetary value.

One man in Philadelphia had 33 pieces, mostly previously unknown objects in the life of Harriet Tubman. The guy would punch Bunch every time he offered a piece. How much did the man want for the collection? “Shake my hand and it’s yours.”

The director learned to hate traveling. He made 497 trips in ten years, some for fundraising, others for adding to the collection. He got an eight-dollar shoe shine in Dallas once, and the proprietor said, “Give the money to the museum.” Lonnie objected, but the man said, “Don’t be a jerk.”

Bunch had wanted President Obama to do the ceremonial first shoveling. Obama’s staff insisted that the President “doesn’t do digging.” He actually would have. After that, Barack and Lonnie communicated directly. Obama supported the project, in part because of what it would mean to his two daughters. Lonnie wondered what A Fool’s Errand it would have been had the museum opened in 2017 rather than 2016.

At the dedication, musician George Clinton performed. He was, unsurprisingly, taking an illegal substance. There was a LOT of security around, Lonnie mentioned. But George can’t perform without it. The headline “Smithonian director arrested for drug possession” was somehow avoided.

Open for business

The National Museum of African American History and Culture has been very successful in its three years, with about 8000 people visiting each day, and more on weekends. Though the museum is free, it requires tickets so that people aren’t waiting in the hot sun all day.

The tickets can be hard to get. A woman claimed to be his girlfriend in the 7th grade. He remembers who he liked then – “Joanne!” But it was such a “good lie” that he got the woman tickets anyway.

People see attending as a pilgrimage. About a third of the attendees had never had been to another museum before. There are about 3500 items on display at any time, out of 40,000. Some artifacts go out on loan to other museums. The goal is to “help the country to find itself.”

A woman in the museum told her son about Medgar Evers, the slain civil rights leader. Another woman thanked the mom, who demurred that she was just telling the history. The other woman revealed that she was Medgar’s daughter.

Bunch became good friends with the mother of Emmett Till. After the museum, which holds his remains, she told Lonnie that he needed to carry on Emmett’s legacy; two days later, she died.

An American story

When the museum was completed, Lonnie Bunch III cried. He never wanted to quit, though. There’s a picture of a formerly-enslaved woman holding a hoe that he has in his office. He figures if she can persevere, so could he. As someone put it to him, the goal is to make his ancestors smile.

My goals are two: to buy and read the book A Fool’s Errand, and to visit the museum. For while I’ve been a charter member of the facility, I’ve never been there. My wife has never been there. My daughter has, and she’ll be returning next year; I’m a tad jealous.