WASHINGTON — The new Smithsonian Institution National Museum of African American History and Culture is filled with artifacts that illustrate the African-American journey in the United States. There are so many important things inside the museum that seeing them all in a single visit would be a challenge.
Several exhibits that museum visitors may want to see in their first visit:
ANGOLA PRISON TOWER
The 21-foot guard tower and a cell from the Louisiana State Penitentiary prison called “Angola” is one of two items that were installed before the museum was built around them. The prison is known by the name of the plantation that once stood on the land it occupies. Angola prison officially opened in 1901 and is currently one of the largest maximum security prisons in the country. The cell in the exhibit was built on top of the old slave quarters at the prison.
SEGREGATION-ERA RAILROAD CAR
The second item installed before the museum was fully built is a 44-seat Southern Railway passenger coach car. It had separate seating for whites and blacks as it traveled through Florida, Georgia, Kentucky and Tennessee, and has been preserved to help explain the Jim Crow laws in the South that were used to oppress African-Americans.
SOUTH CAROLINA SLAVE CABIN
This two-room cabin was used to house slaves on the Point of Pines Plantation on Edisto Island, South Carolina. While such cabins are not rare — especially in the South, where the majority of slaves were kept in the United States — this cabin was on an abandoned cotton plantation, where the slaves declared themselves free after the Union army invaded and occupied it. Curators disassembled the 160-year-old cabin and reassembled it board by board in the museum.
TUSKEGEE AIRMEN TRAINING PLANE
Suspended from the museum’s ceiling is one of the World War II-era planes used to train Tuskegee Airmen, African-Americans who participated in the Army Air Corps program on learning to fly and maintain combat aircraft. The PT-13 Stearman open-cockpit biplane was decommissioned in 1946, bought at a public auction, restored and flown to Washington to be placed in the museum. More than 900 black pilots trained at Tuskegee Institute, an all-black segregated facility in Alabama, during World War II. They were lauded for their stellar record flying escort for bombing missions in Europe and Africa.
EMMITT TILL’S CASKET
The glass-topped casket in which lynching victim Emmitt Till was first buried is one of the museum’s most powerful artifacts. The 14-year-old African-American boy from Chicago was killed during a summer visit to Money, Mississippi, for allegedly whistling at a white woman. Till’s body was so mutilated that his family was only able to identify him by the initials on a ring he wore. His mother, Mamie Till Mobley, requested an open-casket funeral for her son, so the world could see what his Southern white attackers had done. His death became a rallying cry for the civil rights movement. After an exhumation, his body was placed in a new casket.
ARTIFACTS FROM THE SLAVE SHIP SAO JOSE
The São José Paquete de Africa was one of thousands of ships that brought slaves out of Africa, bound for North and South America. It sank off the coast of South Africa in 1794 while carrying more than 400 enslaved people from Mozambique. More than 200 slaves are thought to have died in the tragedy. The museum will display a wooden pulley from the ship, and iron ballast blocks that were used to counterbalance the weight of the African cargo on board. The artifacts are among only a few items ever recovered from a ship that sank with enslaved people aboard.
Jesse J. Holland covers race and ethnicity for The Associated Press. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org, on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/jessejholland or on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/jessejholland.