Professor brings African American history to life at museum

Rosa Parks’ dress. A hat belonging to Marcus Garvey. The casket of Emmitt Till. All of these objects, each symbolic and important in its own way, were located, examined and meticulously verified before being added to the collection of the new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Spencer Crew, a Robinson Professor of History at George Mason University, worked behind the scenes as a guest curator for six years to bring the exhibit featuring these items and others to life.

Crew created one of the three history exhibitions for the museum, which chronologically tell the story of blacks in the United States—from the Middle Passage to the election of U.S. President Barack Obama.

Crew became a guest curator for the museum largely because of his past experience as a curator, historian and director at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. He created an exhibit about African American migration called “Field to Factory,” which was a part of the Museum of American History for more than 20 years.

His part of the exhibit at the African American museum, “Defending Freedom, Defining Freedom: Era of Segregation 1876 to 1968” covers the post-Reconstruction period to the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

“Slavery disappears, but segregation emerges to take its place,” Crew said of this time period.

Crew explained how the creation of the Jim Crow laws and the 1895 “separate but equal” doctrine led to the formation of black churches and historically black colleges.

“So in the middle of the growth of segregation,” he said, “what African Americans do to protect themselves, to protect their community and to protect their children, is create their own … institutions where they can get away from these hostilities.”

The exhibit also addresses the role African Americans played in World War I and the Harlem (Negro) Renaissance, Crew said. These events and others caused changes that set the tone and platform for the civil rights movement.

“One of the seminal moments we talk about with that transition is the murder of Emmett Till,” Crew said, referring to the African American teenager who was lynched at age 14. “That is one of the key catalysts that helps spur people to say ‘You know what? We’re not going to accept this anymore. We’re not just going to let this go quietly.’”

Till’s casket is one of the special objects in the exhibit that help tell and propel the story, he said. It had been in a Chicago cemetery for years and was obtained with the help of the museum’s director, Lonnie Bunch III.

The exhibit also includes the dress Rosa Parks was working on when she refused to give up her seat on the bus in Montgomery, as well as a Ku Klux Klan robe, Crew said.

"I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to work on this project,” he said. “It was a long time in the planning and addresses an important part of American history.”

The Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture opens Saturday, Sept. 24 in Washington, D.C.