At Last, a Black History Museum

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, which opened on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., in September 2016
Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture
The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, which opened on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., in September 2016

When I was sixteen and growing up in New Orleans, I stole a bottle of liquor from a supermarket and was caught. The judge sentenced me to the mild punishment for white teens, a tour of the Louisiana State Penitentiary. “Go up to Angola, son,” he said, “then after that your record’s wapped clean.”

With twenty other boys I took a bus three hours upriver from New Orleans to Angola, the 140-year-old prison farm on the Mississippi. We did not know that the prison was once a cotton plantation owned by Isaac Franklin, a slave trader. We did not know that three quarters of the five thousand inmates were black, and that they worked as forced labor on the jailhouse farm.

I remember the black gangs bent low in the fields, hoes rising, the guards on horseback with shotguns. I remember the wordless inmates in “Camp H,” at the edge of the farm, where we ate fly-covered chicken with black lifers. And I remember the guard towers. Out in the soybeans, they looked like two-story insects, with concrete legs, pillboxes for heads, and guns in the windows.

Last month, I again saw a guard tower from Angola’s Camp H, improbably, on the Mall in Washington, D.C. (see illustration on page 16). The glowering, repellent thing stands inside the new “black Smithsonian,” the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which opened in September, after a hundred-year delay. Attempts to make a museum of black life first stirred in 1915, to honor black Civil War veterans. On a daylong visit I heard a journalist muttering, “How long, watchman, how long?,” a spiritual from the sea islands off South Carolina.

As a panoramic view of black history and of living culture, the new museum is a conspicuous shift in collective memory and national self-knowing. The name may be awkward—NMAAHC is the abbreviation—but it tells you that the place is about both history and the present, what black people have done and do.

Paul Gardullo is the museum curator and the man who acquired the Angola guard tower. “We wanted to tell a story of the legacy of slavery as seen in the plantation prison system,” he says, naming one of the countless plots that run through the vast, 400,000-square-foot museum. Gardullo explains that Burl Cain, then warden at Angola, was receptive to sharing his jail’s tale, so the Louisiana Department of Corrections volunteered a guard tower. The jailers apparently accept that Angola is a prominent name in the history of black mass incarceration. “The tower speaks to…


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