Transportation as a Thread in African American History

February 23, 2018

Walk through the entire National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) and you will get in a healthy 7.2 mile hike. While the museum keeps visitors intellectually stimulated throughout the visit, benches throughout provide physical respite (and exemplify model pedestrian design).

The museum’s history galleries start by transporting visitors two floors down (in the largest elevator in the Smithsonian), while vertically transporting you through time to the fifteenth century. The gallery walls tell the story of the journeys began by taking people from their homes to be sold on the other side of the Atlantic. The names of each slave ship engraved on the wall are each followed by two numbers: the number of people who were put on the boat, and the significantly smaller number of people alive when the vessel landed on the other side of the ocean.

The museum’s transportation thread continues through the internal slave trade, including a stone block on which enslaved people were auctioned, to a generation after emancipation when southern states began passing Jim Crow laws mandating segregation in countless aspects of everyday life, including streetcars, trains, and boats. NMAAHC visitors can walk onto a Southern Railway Company coach and observe the difference in lavish accommodations for whites and minimal comfort in the sections for blacks.

During World War II, Americans from across the country enlisted to fight, but the United States Army remained segregated. The first black US military airmen trained at the Tuskegee, AL, base (including future Transportation Secretary William Coleman), made significant contributions to the US efforts in the war and have are to this day revered as American heroes – a story still barely known to most white Americans. Before reaching the Civil Rights Movement, visitors walk under an aircraft (a PT-13D Stearman Kaydet to be exact) from the Tuskegee Institute.

Upstairs in the culture galleries, Chuck Berry’s bright red Cadillac welcomes visitors into the exhibition hall. The mid-twentieth century rock legend also donated his guitar to the museum letting those two items stand as symbols of his role in American culture.

Policies shape our transportation systems, and transportation options shape our society. The NMAAHC includes the impact of transportation policies and experiences within broader narratives of American History. Transportation is commonly understood as a vehicle for opening opportunities, for exploring new spaces. But it has also served as a vehicle for oppression and a symbol of inequality. Understanding the technological, political, and cultural role of transportation elements in history can and should help us create a future transportation system in the United States that promotes and serves all people equally and fairly.

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