On Thursday, April 12, a group of Westover Honors students traveled to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, in Washington, D.C. The trip was part of an honors course, “Jock Culture: Sport in Contemporary America,” taught by Dr. Tom Bowman, associate professor of athletic training.
The National Museum of African American History and Culture, which opened in 2016, is part of the Smithsonian Institution system and “the only national museum devoted exclusively to the documentation of African American life, history, and culture.” As the students described afterward in reflective essays, visiting the museum was an eye-opening experience.
“The beginning portion, where we descended down 40 feet and began the tour with the history of slavery, left the biggest impression on me,” Craig Close ’19 wrote, regarding “From Slavery to Freedom,” an exhibit on the museum’s lower level. “Reading about the process of transporting the African slaves to the Americas was disturbing. [They] would sing songs during the transit across the ocean, but they would be crying as they did so.
“A captain of one of these ships is recorded as making the women stop their singing because it was so sorrowful [that] it was making him upset. It was almost comical to think about a captain of a slave ship requesting the people below deck to be quiet because their mournful singing was making him feel sad, because he was the one responsible for their state of being and profiting off of them.”
Parker Glenn ’19 said the exhibit that affected him the most was the one about lynching. These extrajudicial murders of black Americans occurred mostly during the Jim Crow era, which extended from the late 1800s to first half of the 20th century. “The Smithsonian did such a great job at not sugarcoating what happened in this country,” Glenn wrote. “It is what every history book should do. It needs to be seen. People NEED to know (mainly white people) what has been done to African Americans and people of color.
“People act like there is not really a racial problem today and that racism pretty much stopped after the Civil Rights Movement. Let me just say, those people are ignorant. It was really not that long ago. I hope one day things change. Until then, myself and others must continue to stand up and put a stop to racism and hate as a whole in this country.”
The museum tells the story of the African American experience from literally the bottom to the top of the striking, multi-tiered building. Visitors start below ground with “From Slavery and Freedom.” From there, they travel upward, through exhibitions that deal with music, the military, the Civil Rights Movement, and other areas.
“As you go through each level, you enter a new era and the mood lightens just the slightest bit,” Lynn Walsh ’18 wrote. “By the time you reach the top of the concourse, it’s a whole different experience than when you started. It’s a celebration of the work that was put in to get to that point. Even the people viewing the exhibit were in a better mood at the top. As you leave the concourse, the video explains that there is still work to be done toward equality.”
Because the course is focused on sports culture, the students paid special attention to “Sports: Leveling the Playing Field,” an exhibit that deals exclusively with the role sports has played, and continues to play, in African American culture.
“I did not know that boxing was one of the only sports [that was] not segregated,” Maggie Payne ’18 wrote. “The idea of pitting a black boxer against a white one was a spectacle and would surely draw a large crowd. In its roots, boxing is a stark portrayal of blacks fighting their oppression. For example, slaves could box for their freedom and to challenge the discrimination of the Jim Crow era.
“Boxing, then and now, has demonstrated a sense of courage and strategic thinking. I would think boxing would be considered to be close to the top of the ‘violent’ sports, so I would be interested to know more about any African American boxers who did win against white boxers and the repercussions, such as banning African Americans or increased discrimination and targeting.”
One person featured in the sports exhibit is pioneering African American tennis player Althea Gibson. Gibson trained on Lynchburg’s Pierce Street with famed tennis coach Dr. Robert Walter “Whirlwind” Johnson. Dr. Johnson’s tennis courts are in close proximity to the Anne Spencer House and Garden Museum, an organization with which the College recently formed a new partnership.
Before the trip, Payne didn’t know much about Gibson and her role in women’s and African American sports history. “From what I read, she was an incredible athlete who made strides in integrating tennis,” Payne wrote. “That is similar to Jackie Robinson. However, because he played baseball he is therefore more famous.
“This calls into question the popularity of sports, as well as comments on race and gender, since Gibson was the first African American woman to win a Grand Slam tennis event, the French Open, and to compete on the LPGA tour. For sports such as tennis and golf that claim a high, elite status, Gibson’s success was by no means an easy feat.
“The sports exhibit of the museum was well constructed to show all that African Americans have accomplished. However, there is some part of me that still thinks the sports system has a long way to go and is not fully rid of the past.”
The following week, Dr. Bowman and his students talked about the visit. “A lot of them felt like it was a moving experience,” he said. “It’s a lot to take in in a day. It’s kind of emotionally draining, to be honest. I think a lot of them just had a different appreciation for the struggles of African Americans throughout history and in the modern day. It’s great to talk about these issues, but when you can actually see them it brings it to a different level.”