I want people to realize, this is who we are as Americans. Im not creating… (Linda Davidson/THE WASHINGTON…)
Lonnie G. Bunch III is running fast through his childhood neighborhood in Belleville, N.J., running from a crowd of teenagers. “Catch the n-----” they shout, chasing 10-year-old Lonnie, who is the only black kid in his neighborhood.
Lonnie runs through back yards and playgrounds, finally collapsing on the lawn of a house he does not know. The teenagers turn the corner. Lonnie shuts his eyes. He hates that he lives in an all-white town. He hates the beating that may come. He hates, as he tells it now, “feeling so scared, so helpless and so alone.”
Just then, the door of the house opens, and a little white girl comes out. She positions herself between Lonnie and the crowd, and tells them to leave him alone.
It is in that moment that Lonnie realizes that race issues are complicated, never all white or all black. There is bad, yet there is good. And there are people in moments of history who have gathered enough courage to step across color lines.
That chase by angry white teenagers, Bunch says, became a “crucial episode” in his life, raising within him difficult questions about race and its ambiguities. “I needed to understand why race mattered so much,” Bunch says. Why some parents might let him play with their children but make him drink out of a garden hose rather than from a glass filled in the kitchen sink. “I thought history would help me.”
Almost 50 years later, Bunch, who was raised by two teachers and is a leading scholar in American and African American history, is the founding director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. He is charged with a task so huge it is nearly paralyzing. Bunch must build a museum from scratch — but not just any museum. He must build the last museum slated to be constructed on the Mall. Beyond that, he must build a museum that will house, navigate and explain the atrocities and complexities of race in the Americas.
It is a task so daunting it wakes him at 2 in the morning. In those wee hours, he writes furiously — compiling lists, trying to solve issues, raising questions: How do you build a national museum that will not step on the territory of the regional museums that house African American history? How do you keep the staff motivated while waiting 10 years to see the fruition of its work? What are the most important themes for the exhibits? What artifacts are still out there?
“I realize the magnitude,” Bunch says, sitting in his office on a winter day. He is wearing a pale blue shirt and blue tie. He has just finished a lunch that consisted solely of a jar of Dole peaches. Around him, his staff plans Wednesday’s groundbreaking ceremony, which President Obama and other dignitaries are expected to attend.
“When I decided to take this job, I went through Smithsonian history to see who got to create national museums,” Bunch says. “Very few people get to be the leader of a national museum, and even fewer start from scratch.”
From 1983 to 1989, Bunch was the curator of history and program manager for the California Afro-American Museum in Los Angeles. From there, Bunch went to the Smithsonian and worked as a curator and administrator at the National Museum of American History. In 2000, he became president of the Chicago Historical Society. Four years later, Bunch returned to Washington to become the founding director of this museum.
“As much as I loved Chicago, this was too important for my ancestors to pass up,” says the 59-year-old Bunch, who is married and has two adult daughters.
Behind him, two large sheets of yellow paper, pinned to a bulletin board, serve as a challenging timeline. In green marker, Bunch has divided tasks into columns labeled by years. Under 2008, the first thing he wrote was: “Today. Raise $40 Million.” The goal in 2009 was the architectural design competition. By 2010, the design was to be initiated. By 2011, Bunch predicted he would break ground. “I missed that by a couple of months,” he says, “but I’m on target.” In the final column, Bunch has written: “Fall 2015; Museum opens to great excitement; Month-long celebration; Thanks and rest.”
He knows anything can happen between now and 2015. So he has pinned a sign to the timeline: “Keep Calm & Carry On.”
Bunch has had to raise $250 million in private funds, which was the goal set by Congress. The $250 million would be matched by congressional appropriations. And he has had to amass the collections to fill the nearly 380,000-square-foot museum, which will be built on five acres adjacent to the Washington Monument.
So far, he and his 11 curators have collected 25,000 artifacts from private collectors and people who call him offering items in their basements and attics. Bunch has made trips in person to collect — never knowing whether what he might find will be an inauthentic copy or something as rare as Harriet Tubman’s shawl and hymnal.