Thoughts of an NMAAHC Donor

Thoughts of an NMAAHC Donor
Dr. Gwendolyn L. Kimbrough
Special to The Christian Recorder

Metropolitan AME Church, the “Cathedral of African Methodism,” is featured in the permanent gallery on “Slavery and Freedom” in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC). This gallery attempts to tell the American story through the lens of the African-American experience. The “freedom” component of the gallery comes at the culmination of a dark winding pathway of artifacts. The shackles, leg irons, paintings of embattled black people, and official documents of white ownership are reminders of an institution of bondage minus the iniquitous, odious tang of the conquering culture’s oppressive motivations and beliefs. The explosion of artifacts and pictures, interactive presentations, and replicas of historical actualities are dizzying and celebratory. Observed through the teeming press of an excited crowd, one gets the feeling of having arrived—of a burden being lifted. Indeed, one gets the feeling that black people have been freed!

 

Undoubtedly the African-American existence has been validated by the prominent position of this Museum on the National Mall of the Capital of the United States. This Museum recognizes and uplifts the accomplishments of a people who were subjugated and beleaguered for nearly 400 years. It represents a rich reservoir of historical resources from which some aspects of our story can be gathered. It represents a place where our children and our children’s children may go and see the meaning of tenacity, faith, and hard work. It represents a beginning, for which we as black people of faith are thankful but recognize the need to advocate for completion, not only in added nuance within its walls but also for freedom and equality outside its walls.

 

The “Slavery and Freedom” exhibition begins in the 15th century and culminates in 1877, where Union Bethel and the construction of Metropolitan AME Church are featured. Museum curators have included in the Metropolitan presentation the 1838 preaching podium built by James Simms, a founding member of Union Bethel (one of two churches joined to create Metropolitan). Flanking the podium are two of the original Metropolitan pulpit chairs. This configuration is positioned against a simulated backdrop of the stained glass Episcopal window tracing the history of the Denomination from its inception to the laying of the Church’s cornerstone in 1881.

 

Upon its 1886 completion, with the nickels and dimes of determined congregants across the Denomination, Metropolitan AME Church was one of the largest public gathering spaces in the District of Columbia. During the dedication service, the structure’s impressiveness caused someone to shout out with pride, “You see! We [African-Americans] ain’t going nowhere!” This statement was not only an acclamation of the gargantuan nature of the building accomplishment but also a direct repudiation of Abraham Lincoln’s political position that this country was for whites only.

 

Lonnie G. Bunch, Founding Director of the NMAAHC, and his staff have done a herculean job. The lead designer, David Adjaye and lead architect, Philip Freelon, have captured wonderful African components in the building structure. Notably the exterior walls replicate the three-tiered corona motif worn by Yoruba dignitaries. Americans can take great pride in the step these giants have accomplished but must recognize that there are still many rungs on the ladder that must be climbed to achieve the dream of diversity and parity.

 

Black Americans are integral to the strength, beauty, and vibrancy of the woven tapestry called America. The NMAAHC is, to some extent, proof certain that our contribution to this country’s textile is permanent and “We ain’t going nowhere!” For me, this cannot be achieved without capturing the pungent realities of that experience and that module is still to be captured and displayed as built by slaves and freedmen.


Dr. Gwendolyn L. Kimbrough, a developmental psychologist, is a member and trustee of Metropolitan AME Church.

 

 

 

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