American History Through the African American Lens

America through the African American lens encourages a visit to the new Smithsonian museum on the National Mall, interaction with artifacts there and in your community, and dialogue with our history and culture.

Ostensibly this guide is about a new museum occupying some of the last available space on the National Mall. The first section of it explores the founding, design and content of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. It sets in motion thinking about why such a museum exists and how we might come to know its content — and expand its impact on contemporary life.


The second section of the guide focuses on aspects of the African American experience in America. Each of the resource guides begins with an essay to establish a theme. As John Lewis tells of the museum’s beginning from an idea to an act of Congress to actuality, Ken Burns’ essay in this section explains why this museum belongs to all of us. Post reprints, links to articles and activities provide the foundation for student activities.


Museums tell stories. Museum collections preserve works of art, science, technology and the human experience. The third section of this guide entertains the importance of artifacts then and now.


“Just like we are shaped by DNA, we are shaped by historical memory,” NMAAHC Founding Director Lonnie C. Bunch said. “What artifacts do is, yes, they stimulate memory, but maybe more importantly what they do is humanize grand issues, so that you are not engaging with slavery, but an individual. And so one of the challenges of any history museum is to be able to talk at a macro level but to have you feel at a micro level. And that’s what I think artifacts allow you to do.”


October 2016

Learn More Out the Door
Resource Graphic 


Develop Vocabulary
English, Reading, Social Studies

Terms related to the building itself as well as to the African-American experience inform vocabulary development. In the Know provides 12 terms to build upon.


While students read the articles reprinted in the resource PDFs in this curriculum guide or linked to in these suggested activities, they could be asked to compile personal lists of words with which they are unfamiliar. These terms could be worked on individually through flashcards (definition and pronunciation on one side, word in a sentence on the other side) or pooled to create a class vocabulary list.

Read a Floor Plan
Reading, Social Studies, Visual Literacy
Students are given floor plans prepared by the NMAAHC and The Washington Post to compare and contrast the renderings. Give students Read a Floor Plan.


As an application of this activity, students might be asked to prepare a floor plan of your school. Back-to-School Night also offers opportunity for students to prepare the path their parents/guardians should take to their classes. Students could also prepare a floor plan and a short narrative for a redesign of your school’s use of the building’s footprint. Swimming pool, bowling alley or expanded laboratories, anyone?



What Will You See at the New Museum?
Social Studies, U.S. History
KidsPost gives younger students — and their teachers and parents — a quick overview of the objects, documents, photographs and stories to be experienced in a visit. Read “African Americans have shaped history, and history has shaped them.” Teachers show students the NMAAHC website after reading the article. The Washington Post also has covered the new museum in many articles in print and online.


What Does It Take to Build a Museum?
Architecture, Geography, Media Literacy, Social Studies, U.S. History
The Smithsonian Institution and the media used many approaches to introduce the NMAAHC to the public. Review and read the following, respond to and discuss the questions posed, compare and contrast them.


>>Timelapse of construction of National Museum of African American History and Culture

>>Read “A 100-Year Quest: John Lewis spent 15 years fighting for the museum — now the dream is realized.” Lewis presents a personal narrative of the museum’s history. Discussion questions could include:
• What credentials and experience give John Lewis authority to address this topic?
• Who first suggested a museum “to commemorate the deeds” … and celebrate the contribution to America of black Americans.
• Why does Lewis believe this museum deserves to be on the Mall?
• Summarize what Lewis says about a “post-racial society.”
• In what way does the Declaration of Independence claim that “each and every one of us has a divine legacy that nothing and no one can take away” remain a fact and a promise,” according to Lewis? What do students think about this concept?

>>Teachers may refer students to a timeline of milestones in the building of the museum. This timeline begins in 2003 with legislation rather than the 1916 date that Lewis refers to.

>>Read “The Definitive Story of How the National Museum of African American History and Culture Came to Be.”


The timelapse (visual documentation) and Lewis’s personal essay, might be compared and contrasted to the Smithsonian’s official account of the creation of the NMAAHC.


If students wonder how did they get the large artifacts, such as a guard tower or railway car, into the museum, read “Rail car and prison tower are first artifacts to arrive at African American museum on the mall” and view the photographs.


Several approaches may be taken to introduce a new building, building renovation or expansion of a school’s facilities. Review the approaches used to introduce the latest Smithsonian Institution museum to the public. How might your broadcast or other students modify one or more of them to use for your school or community?


Dedicate a Museum
English, Government, Social Studies, U.S. History

The NMAAHC was dedicated on September 24, 2016: Vocal and instrumental music, speeches, quoted reminders of the African American experience and voices, and bells chiming from churches citywide — and across America — joining the Freedom Bell from the historic First Baptist church in Williamsburg, Va.

President Obama was one of several speakers at the dedication ceremony. Others included former President George W. Bush, Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, Representative John Lewis (D-GA) and Smithsonian Secretary David Skorton. Give students President Obama’s remarks to read and discuss.
• What passage did they find most interesting?
• He makes a number of allusions. To which do they relate?
• What does he mean by “the best history takes us outside the glass case.”?
• What do they understand about the MNAAHC and America’s history from his remarks?


Use Obama speech for scavenger hunt for items to which he refers. He refers to many of the images found on the “cards” in “Artifacts Narrate a Story.”


Think Like a Reporter
Journalism, Media Literacy

National and D.C. area media companies as well as the Smithsonian Institution worked to create informative articles, informational graphics and press releases to inform the public about the new museum on the National Mall. How might your students act as the scholastic media that will inform your school’s staff and student body of this new museum?


The Post’s Going Out Guide provided “Four ways to experience the new African American Museum. Since there is so much to see in both the History and the Culture floors, they provide four itineraries for your consideration.


Give students Think Like a Reporter: Share Special Events and Opportunities. Get ideas for the student media to cover the NMAAHC and other local special events.


What Happens When Google Gets Involved?
Media Literacy, Social Studies, Technology, U.S. History

The headlines read “Google brings interactive display to African American history museum.” Readers learned that that verb tense should have been future tense.


“Google employees have since been developing interactive-display technology that will allow visitors to examine artifacts from all angles using 3-D scans that they access through their smartphone’s Web browser. Their phone will also serve up relevant multimedia content, such as text or video, that better explains the artifacts and their significance to African American history.

“McPhail said that the technology aims to solve a persistent challenge for museums: only a fraction of their artifacts are on display at any one time. Historic objects must be specially handled and maintained, making it difficult for the museum to put out too many at once. There is also finite physical space.

“The technology eliminates those limitations.

Teachers are encouraged to brainstorm with students how they would display artifacts, angles to show; backstory, use and historic and/or significance of the object; ways to achieve interactivity. BUT you and they will have to wait until Spring 2017 for this feature to be ready.

Black History and Culture
Resource Graphic 


How Do We Travel Safely?
Geography, Media Literacy, U.S. History

Ask students what their family considers before taking a vacation. The price of a hotel room or what amenities are provided often concern today’s travellers. What if you had to worry about your safety and where you could find a place to stay and food to eat? Show students a map of Route 66. Discuss the states that it traverses, kinds of terrain and distance between towns.

After discussion, read “The forgotten way African Americans stayed safe in a racist America.” You may wish to go online article, if time allows, for additional maps and artifacts.

For additional reading and discussion on this topic, see

• “Guidebook that aided black traveler during segregation reveals vastly different D.C.”
• “Still finding kicks on Route 66, The Washington Post TRAVEL acticle


Whose Story Is Told in a Museum?
Archaeology, Social Studies, U.S. History

If students and others wonder why build a museum that focuses on African American history, Ken Burns, respected documentarian, provides a response. Read and discuss the ideas he presents in “Ken Burns: Why the African American history museum belongs to all of us.”


After the discussion of Burns' essay, teachers might discuss these aspects of the American experience Or give groups of students each one of these areas to explore:
• Civil Rights, 1957, Carlotta Walls LaNier, Dress  
• Entertainment, Chuck Berry, red Cadillac
• Incarceration, Angola prison guard tower
Segregation, Southern Railway Car No. 1200
• Segregation, Emmitt Till, Casket
Military and War, Tuskegee Airmen, Training Bi-plane



Complete a Crossword Puzzle

Art, English, Social Studies, U.S. History

Corona of History and Culture is a crossword puzzle that differs from many others. Students are given blanks to fill in with titles of books, plays and poems; names; and missing words from quotations. In addition, they are asked to respond to a statement of W.E.B. Du Bois.


Face Differences, Find Common Ground

Conflict Resolution, Psychology, Social Studies
In its editorial, “The African American Museum showcases the horror and the beauty of our past,”  The Post board concludes, “This new building will have served its purpose, if it becomes a place for all the people who make up this composite nation to meet and to learn — to gain a better understanding of our past and to get to know one another a little better.”


Discuss this purpose with students. Topics may include:

• Is it necessary to be confronted with “the horror and the beauty of our past?” Give examples of “the horror.” Give examples of “the beauty.”

• Why is it beneficial for people of different points of view to meet together to discuss their perspectives? What might be the downside?

• Who would they recommend to meet at the new museum to confront a problem and understand each other?

• What would they like to learn about the American past?

• When they think of people or points of view of students in their school or people in their community, would they be willing to sit together for three hours to learn why people hold these perspectives and stands?


Find History in an Artifact
Archaeology, Social Studies, U.S. History
Curators of three Smithsonian museums — National Museum of American History, National Museum of the American Indian and National Museum of African American History and Culture — look at three artifacts through the lens of their museum’s mission and their own areas of interest and expertise.


Begin this activity by asking students to share examples of  artifacts. If students are hesitant, ask them to write down two or more objects that they associate with the word “artifact.” What are the feelings or emotions that they associate with the object(s)? Remind them that words and objects may have denotations and connotations.


After ten or more items are listed for the class to view (include “quilt” in the list), ask students to define “artifact.

Give students the activity sheet, “American History and Culture Through Multiple Lenses.” Form three groups (quilt, plated-silver service, mural) and follow the steps. Students will become “experts” of these items. If you class visits the NMAAHC, students will find their artifacts and expand their expertise in three dimensions.

Read About the National Museum of African American History and Culture


Eat Up and Celebrate Culture
Home Economics, Social Studies, U.S. History

Working the land and eating of the crops is one part of rural life. NMAAHC exhibits showcase the Southern plantations and the farms of freedmen, church socials and family reunions. When you are ready to take a break, go around the corner from the Oprah Winfrey Theater. The Sweet Home Café reflects the migration of African Americans in its four regional stations.

To learn more about the menu and to find recipes read “Why the African American History museum’s café will serve son-of-a-gun stew and other unexpected dishes.”
• What are the four regions represented?
• Why is the Caribbean represented (“Smoking Hot: Caribbean-Style Pepper Pot) on the menu?
• What do the foods reflect about the land and weather, the culture and tastes?


After your meal, find the interactive lunch counter that looks like the one in Greensboro, N.C. Learn about the denial of service and its place in the Civil Rights movement.


Discover a Story in an Artifact
English, Social Studies, U.S. History

Students learn the process that results in an item being selected for addition to a museum’s collection and the planning of its exhibit space. This activity can work well in conjunction with the “American History and Culture Through Multiple Lenses” activity. Having learned what an artifact is, distinguished between what is personally valuable and what reflects history and culture, and thought about looking at items through different lenses, students can take the next step to making an artifact available to the public for viewing.


Give students “AN HEIRLOOM’S JOURNEY: A humble skirt worn by an enslaved child finds a place in history” to read and discuss.

Teachers may wish to discuss with students, especially before a visit to the NMAAHC, why they will see wrought-iron shackles, the casket of teenager Emmett Till, and other items reflecting “the dark corners of American history.” Read “Painful but crucial: Why you’ll see Emmett Till’s casket at the African American museum.” As Post reporter Krissah Thompson reports, leaders of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and the National September 11 Memorial Museum were consulted. “The African American museum will share those museums’ philosophy regarding the best way to convey the pain of difficult historical episodes — through compelling artifacts.”

Write About an Artifact
English, Reading, Social Studies

Through the suggested activities in this guide, we have encouraged students to look at items that they love, objects that may be hidden in the attics and stuff that are part of their school experience. Which of these are potential artifacts to be saved for others to understand them, their community and time period?



Give students “Artifacts in Your Attics, in Your Homes and in Your Community” to lead them through the process and writing about one of these items.

Post NIE Guide Editor & Writer | Carol Lange
Post NIE Guide Art Editor | Carol Porter

Resource Graphic 
In The Know 

African American  


Ethnic group of Americans with total or partial ancestry from any of the black racial groups of Africa. African American is more appropriate in references to the culture of black Americans.

Artifact Object made be a human being, typically an item of cultural or historical interest
Caryatid Female-shaped supporting pillar
Community  People who live near one another, society sharing common background  
Corona Upper part or crown of the head; part of a cornice; circles of light, especially around the sun or moon

The arts and other manifestations of human intellectual achievement; the beliefs, customs, arts of a particular society, group, place or time


Curator  Individual who is a custodian or keeper of a museum’s collection; one with specialized responsibility of an exhibit, a curatorial responsibility
Diaspora Scattering of language, culture or people from an established home or where their ancestors lived
History  Chronological record of significant events, often including an explanation of their causes; Cicero said history is “the witness that testifies to the passing of time, it illuminates reality, vitalizes memory, provides guidance in daily life, and brings us tiding of antiquity.”
Migration Move from one country or place to live or work in another 
Museum Place where items, parts of a country and culture, are preserved, interpreted and showcased

Example of a particular people or object; characteristic of a group or type 

Symbol  Object representing something, sign with specific meaning 


Eat Up and Celebrate Culture. The North States, Creole Coast. Agricultural South, and Western Range. It represents the diaspora and the large number of  African Americans with islander heritage. Answers will vary. 


District of Columbia Public Schools Academic Content Standards 

The District of Columbia has adopted the Common Core State Standards in reading and mathematics. In addition, DCPS has adopted new learning standards in arts, health and physical education, science, social studies, technology and world languages.


Social Studies. 5.16. Students identify major waves of immigration and demographic changes in U.S. history and describe the diverse nature of American people and their contributions to American culture.

1.     Identify indigenous peoples in different areas of the country (e.g., Navajo, Seminoles, Sioux, Hawaiians, and Inuit). (G, S)
2.     Describe the lives of African Americans, including an explanation of their early concentration in the South because of slavery, the Great Migration to Northern cities in the 20th century, and ongoing African immigrant groups (e.g., Ethiopians, Nigerians, and Ghanaians), and where they have tended to settle in large numbers. (G, S)
3.     Distinguish between waves of immigrant Latino groups and identify the push and pull factors that stimulated their transnational movement (e.g., Cubans in the 1960s and 1980s; Central Americans in the 1980s; Caribbean peoples, especially Haitians and Dominicans, in the 1990s). (G, S)

8.13. Students analyze the transformation of the American economy and the changing social and political conditions in the United States in response to the Industrial Revolution.
1.     Explain the location and effects of urbanization, renewed immigration, and industrialization (e.g., the effects on social fabric of cities, wealth and economic opportunity, and the conservation movement). (G, S, E)
2.     Identify the new sources of large-scale immigration and the contributions of immigrants to the building of cities and the economy (e.g., Italians, Jews, Greeks, Slavs, and Asians); the ways in which new social and economic patterns encourage assimilation of newcomers into the mainstream amid growing cultural diversity; and the new wave of nativism. (G, S)
3.     Explain ecological, economic and race factors that contributed to the start of the mass migration of African Americans from the Southern regions of the United States to the Northeast and Midwest regions. (G, E, P, S).


Academic Content Standards may be found at

Maryland Academic Content Standards 

Political Science. The student will analyze the impact of landmark Supreme Court decisions on governmental powers, rights, and responsibilities of citizens in our changing society (1.2.1).

c. Analyze how the Supreme Court decisions in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) and Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954) impacted the rights of individuals


United States History. Analyze the economic, political and social consequences of Reconstruction
a. Analyze the political and social impact of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments, such as the election of African-Americans to local, state, and federal offices (PS, PNW)

c. Evaluate the social and economic effects of sharecropping, tenant farming and the Freedman’s Bureau in the post Civil War South (PNW, G, E)

d. Analyze the practices, policies and legislation used to deny African-Americans’ civil rights, including black codes, lynching, the Ku Klux Klan, voting restrictions, Jim Crow Laws and Plessy v. Ferguson(1896) (PS, PNW, e. Examine African-American responses to the denial of civil rights such as the rise of African-American churches, African-American newspapers, historically black colleges and the responses of individuals, such as Ida B. Wells, W.E.B. DuBois, and Booker T. Washington (PS, PNW)

f. Analyze the economic, political and social factors that influenced the end of Reconstruction, such as northern reluctance to advocate for African-American equality, corruption in government, the Panic of 1873, and the election of 1876 (PS, E)


The Maryland Voluntary State Curriculum Content Standards can be found online at 

Virginia Academic Content Standards 

United States History. Exploration to Revolution: Pre-Columbian Times to the 1770s

USI.5      The student will demonstrate knowledge of the factors that shaped colonial America by

c)   describing colonial life in America from the perspectives of large landowners, farmers, artisans, women, free African Americans, indentured servants, and enslaved African Americans;

United States History. Civil War: 1861 to 1865

USI.9      The student will demonstrate knowledge of the causes, major events, and effects of the Civil War by

a)   describing the cultural, economic, and constitutional issues that divided the nation;

b)   explaining how the issues of states’ rights and slavery increased sectional tensions;

c)   identifying on a map the states that seceded from the Union and those that remained in the Union;

d)   describing the roles of Abraham Lincoln, Jefferson Davis, Ulysses S. Grant, Robert E. Lee, Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, and Frederick Douglass in events leading to and during the war;

f)   describing the effects of war from the perspectives of Union and Confederate soldiers (including African American soldiers), women, and enslaved African Americans.

United States History. Reconstruction: 1865 to 1877

USII.3    The student will demonstrate knowledge of the effects of Reconstruction on American life by

a)   analyzing the impact of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution of the United States;

b)   describing the impact of Reconstruction policies on the South and North;

c)   describing the legacies of Abraham Lincoln, Robert E. Lee, and Frederick Douglass.


United States History. Reshaping the Nation and the Emergence of Modern America: 1877 to the Early 1900s

USII.4    The student will demonstrate knowledge of how life changed after the Civil War by

b)   explaining the reasons for the increase in immigration, growth of cities, new inventions, and challenges arising from this expansion;

c)   describing racial segregation, the rise of “Jim Crow,” and other constraints faced by African Americans and other groups in the post-Reconstruction South;

United States History: Turmoil and Change: 1890s to 1945

USII.6    The student will demonstrate knowledge of the social, economic, and technological changes of the early twentieth century by

a)   explaining how developments in factory and labor productivity, transportation (including the use of the automobile), communication, and rural electrification changed American life and standard of living;

b)   describing the social and economic changes that took place, including prohibition and the Great Migration north and west;

c)   examining art, literature, and music from the 1920s and 1930s, with emphasis on Langston Hughes, Duke Ellington, Georgia O’Keeffe, and the Harlem Renaissance;

Virginia, U.S. History. The student will demonstrate economic, social, cultural and political developments in recent decades and today (VUS.15)


Academic Content Standards may be found at

Common Core Standards 

English Language Arts/Informational Text. Analyze the interactions between individuals, events, and ideas in a text (e.g., how ideas influence individuals or events, or how individuals influence ideas or events. (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.7.3)


English Language Arts/Reading Informational Text. Determine an author’s point of view or purpose in a text and analyze how an author uses rhetoric to advance that point of view or purpose. (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.9-10.6)


English Language Arts/Anchor Standards, Integration of Knowledge and Ideas. Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media and formats, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words. (CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.7)


Common Core standards may be found at