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AU Alumni Preserving Black History at the Smithsonian

American alumni work to highlight Black history through the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

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The National Museum of African American History and Culture. Photo by Alan Karchmer.

Lonnie Bunch once told a gathering that Black History Month reminds people that history is “not dead or distant from our lives.” 

Bunch, CAS/BA ’74, MA ’76, added there is “no more powerful force than a people steeped in their history and there is no higher cause than honoring our struggle and ancestors by remembering” during a speech honoring historian Carter G. Woodson, the Washingtonian and former Howard University professor credited with creating a Black history commemoration that eventually became Black History Month. 

Bunch has himself contributed a great deal to preserving Black history as the founding director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. Now the secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, the Double Eagle oversees the telling of America’s story through its 19 museums—the Smithsonian is working on two more new museums, the National Museum of the American Latino and the American Women’s History Museum. 

“History is a reservoir that will teach us who we once were, contextualize who we are, and point us towards a better shared future,” Bunch told CBS Mornings recently. 

Bunch worked for a decade traveling the world to secure artifacts and raise money for the NMAAHC, which opened just southeast of the White House across from the Washington Monument on the National Mall in 2016. 

AU alumnus Lonnie Bunch, left, and Civil Rights icon and Georgia congressman John Lewis at the NMAAHC dedication ceremony. Photo by Leah L. Jones.AU alumnus Lonnie Bunch, left, and Civil Rights icon and Georgia congressman John Lewis at the NMAAHC dedication ceremony. Photo by Leah L. Jones.

“I'm surprised that [the museum] exceeded my expectations,” Bunch told American University magazine in 2016. “You hope that the museum is important, that the museum is visited, and that the museum matters to people. All of that has been proven true.” 

But Bunch isn’t the only AU alum who has highlighted Black history through the NMAAHC. Two fellow Eagles also preserve Black history at the museum. 

When Loren E. Miller, CAS/MA ’10, PhD ’15, first visited the museum, she had to carry a hard hat.  

Miller, who previously worked on exhibitions for the US Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces, the SEC Historical Society, and the National Library of Medicine, joined the NMAAHC on a curatorial fellowship a year before it opened to the public.

Loren E. Miller at the NMAAHC.

She worked with curators and gained experience acquiring collections and constructing exhibits. Miller helped with a review of an Ella Fitzgerald dress and a collection of pieces from the Ebony Fashion Fair. For the Fitzgerald dress, curators and conservators had to decide if the dress needed conservation, if it was stable enough to be displayed, and how much light exposure it could take.   

“Seeing her dress right there and having a moment with one of Louis Armstrong’s trumpets, you think, ‘This is the coolest thing ever,’” Miller said.   

Miller helped design the initial photography exhibit, Everyday Beauty: Photographs and Films from the Permanent Collection, on the second floor of the museum in the Earl W. and Amanda Stafford Center for African American Media Arts. Most of her work deals with photography, so she acquired images and collections for the museums from recent protests and marches during the Black Lives Matter movement. She also worked on a recent exhibition: Now Showing: Posters from African American Movies.   

“One of the things I came away with from the public history program at AU is that, at its best, history creates empathy,” said Miller, who wrote her dissertation on the government recruitment of American women into the military during World War II. “If you can get a sense of what someone else is feeling as they had this experience, that can open people’s hearts and minds and help them become better citizens who are more inclusive and understanding.”  

Miller said that, besides the Stafford Center, she is drawn to the history and slavery exhibition as a student of history.   

“It’s a very powerful exhibition,” said Miller, who worked as a contractor until recently becoming a full-time government employee. “One of the great things about the museum is how it strikes a balance between telling an honest history, which has these really dark and difficult moments, but also still telling the story of uplift and positive contributions.” 

Anjali Lalani, CAS/MA ’13, studied arts management and spent two years as a staff member at AU. She now ensures Black history is not only preserved at the Smithsonian, but also in communities across the country. 

Lalani designed and leads the Robert F. Smith Internship Program at the NMAAHC, which includes 14 interns this summer. Through the gift’s funding, Lalani recruits and places interns dedicated to preserving Black history in various museums, universities, and libraries. The program helps preserve and provide access to Black history and culture collections. Recruitment comes from all over, but Lalani builds relationships and recruits from HBCUS, and the program offers a fellowship specific to an HBCU graduate. Around 90 percent of the interns in the program are Black.

Anjali Lalani

“Equity and equal access for all people is probably our primary goal,” she said. “The secondary goal would be inviting people to consider the profession or to help them have marketable skills if they are already considering the profession.” 

This upcoming summer, the Smith Center is working with Tuskegee University, Fisk University, and the Atlanta University Consortium, which includes Morehouse and Spelman. But the program will also work with the Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh. All partners must either be dedicated to Black history or culture or have African American collections. Students will also be placed at the Apollo Theater, the Musuem of the Grand Prairie near Champaign, Illinois, and the Amistad Research Center in New Orleans. And there’s a spot for three interns at the NMAAHC itself.

Lalani said the Smithsonian has a certain gravitas, and sometimes students may be turned off and think the institution is too big and will not consider them. So prior to the pandemic, Lalani traveled to reach students who may not think they fit at the Smithsonian.

“One intern said the internship gave her confidence that she had what it takes and that if you know other people of color are welcome, they can really do great things,” Lalani said.