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Steeped in History

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National Museum of African American History and Culture

On September 24, 2016, The National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) joined the National Museum of the American Indian and National Museum of American History as the Smithsonian Institution’s “third lens” on America’s past.

“I’ve been waiting to see this day for 15 years—and in some ways, my whole life,” said John Lewis, representative of Georgia’s 5th congressional district. “This museum casts a light on some of the most inspiring—and uniquely American—heroes who were denied equal rights but often laid down their lives to defend this nation in every generation. Often they profited least from the struggle they were willing to die for because they believed that the promises of true democracy should belong to us all, equally and without question.”

The museum opened to the public as the 19th and newest museum of the Smithsonian Institution. Anyone is welcome to participate, collaborate, and learn more about African–American history and culture. In the words of Lonnie G. Bunch III, founding director of the museum, “There are few things as powerful and as important as a people; as a nation that is steeped in its history.”

Salvation Army connection

Among the many luminaries memorialized in the museum is Booker T. Washington. In 1869, he was principal of the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute in Alabama. On July 28 of that year, he wrote a letter to Major T.C. Marshall, editor of the Salvation Army’s Conqueror magazine. Washington was responding to a letter he had received from Marshall to thank Washington for “his remarkable speech,” in which he made some favorable remarks about the Army. He also wanted to let Washington know about the Army’s plans to reach African Americans in the South for God.

”My Dear Sir,” Washington wrote, “I am very glad to hear that The Salvation Army is going to undertake work among my people in the southern states. I have always had the greatest respect for the work of The Salvation Army, especially because I have noted that it draws no color line in religion.”

The Army’s own museum

In June 1998, the USA Eastern Territory opened its Heritage Museum on the first floor of Territorial Headquarters. Designer Julie Chesham Whittington placed at its heart an exhibit of manikins representing icons in Salvation Army history. Honored were WW1 doughnut girls, National Commander Evangeline Booth, and Joe “the Turk” Garabedian, the legendary street evangelist, to name a few.

history_insAlso among them stands Thomas Ferguson, a black Salvationist and prolific composer, musician, and poet who possessed an ear for both European and traditional ethnic music. The Ferguson manikin wears a gray uniform, a USA flag draped across his chest, and the bright red “wide–awake” hat similar to the one Ferguson wore as an American delegate to the 1914 International Congress.

On the wall, Whittington placed a photo of Ferguson holding his guitar. Another photo shows the “Commanders Own,” the brigade of black Salvationists invited by Commander Evangeline Booth to sing at the Congress. An actual guitar leans against the wall under the photos near the manikin.

Whittington included an audio recording of Ferguson’s most popular song, “Goodbye Pharaoh, Goodbye,” sung by Major Yvonne Alkintor, a retired Eastern Territory officer. Museum visitors can hear the music by pushing a button.

Commissioner John McMillan once said to Ferguson, “When your song was sung before an audience of over a 1,000 people in Congress Hall, the impression was so great, it touched us in spots where words of eloquence rarely reach.”

by Warren L. Maye

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