The National Museum of African American History & Culture Cheat Sheet

Brenda Alexander (far right) & fam 
By Brenda Alexander

After almost two years of trying to get passes for the National Museum of African American History & Culture in DC, I finally registered and recently had the pleasure of experiencing the magic of the new Smithsonian addition. I was outdone by what I bore witness to. When everyone told me, “It’s impossible to get through the museum in a day,” I thought they were exaggerating, because our people love the dramatics. But my was I wrong.



The museum is split into two sections: history (slavery through post civil rights movement) and culture (music, film, sports, theater and everything in between). Both have four levels and if I’m honest, it’s overwhelming by just how much there is to see and read. Not one time period, struggle, accomplishment or person was missed.

I started on the history side from the ground up (which I advise all to do). My timed entry pass was for 10AM and by 3PM, I wasn’t even halfway through the history portion. After a while, I found myself skipping the reading portions and just admiring the artifacts to try and get everything in before the museum closed.

To save all of my future museum goers some trouble, I wanted to highlight some of the most profound exhibits to look forward to and a few tips on how to maximize your time there.

Emmett Till Memorial

Note* no photos or videos are allowed to be taken in this exhibit at the request of his family

I heard from almost every person that visited the museum that they could not bare the memorial out of fear that it would be too heavy a burden. But, if you can find the strength to walk through, I’d strongly advise you too. I will admit that it’s heavy. Walking towards the casket as negro spirituals ring out from the speakers, photos of a handsome and smiling Emmett hang from the walls with quotes from his mother and others makes it reminiscent of an actual funeral. You know his body isn’t there but you know the story and can feel the presence and somber of the time as if you were there. It’s powerful and an experience that’ll forever stick with you. You leave feeling a range of emotions: sadness for what occurred, pride for how his mother led a new movement and anger knowing that the woman responsible is alive and thriving today having never been prosecuted, along with the lives she protected.


Celebration of Oprah Winfrey’s Life and Career


Oprah’s exhibit is the size of the White House. Just kidding, but it’s huge, and she deserves it. Her exhibit stands alone in the lobby, adjacent to a theater in her honor. It starts by unraveling how the year she was born shaped the progression of the way media tells stories, which I found fascinating. Fans can look forward to learning about her life through photos, videos, personal journal entries, some of her famous wardrobe on display and even the set from her talk show. One of my favorite discoveries was reading her first contract from her first television show in Baltimore - she made a $75k salary that increased by $100k over three years. That was in 1985! Auntie O been a boss! It was also revealed just how generous Lady O is: donated $22 million to the museum and over $400 million to various charitable causes throughout her career.

Black Cities



One of my favorite parts of the museum was learning in extensive detail the plight of African American homeownership in this country. For those unaware, there were many black and prosperous communities besides Tulsa, Oklahoma - also known as the Black Wall Street. I won’t give them away (that’s why you must visit yourselves), but the exhibit features an actual home that was built in one of these communities. Within these communities, blacks could put down a deposit for as little as $5 or purchase land for as little as $50 and build by hand, multi-leveled homes to be passed down through generations.

Culture (All of it)

1968 Olympics 
If you think you were amazed with the history section, you’ve got more coming. There’s music and video at almost every turn, an actual old school record store where you can select the music you want to hear from a digital player while you walk through, costumes and instruments from some of the greatest artists and a bronze replica of the famous fist pump at the 1968 Olympics. Not too mention the celebration of our food, style, dialect and anything else you could think of. The phrase “for the culture” has new meaning after seeing this portion of the museum. 

Museum History
After touring the museum, I had dozens of questions on who was responsible for giving this prize to the world. You’re naturally curious and anxious to know how this gem came to be. Luckily, the museum has its own exhibit that details its long journey. It was a century in the making that had many setbacks, but thanks to one final push from OUR President Barack Obama, the museum made its debut in September of 2016 with the first African American President and Family in attendance. Now isn’t that a full-circle moment.

Register for your timed entry passes online and get your walking shoes ready. And if you can, take two days to really absorb all the museum has to offer. You’ll leave the museum feeling proud, appreciative and motivated- and even slightly ashamed for slacking in certain areas of your life after realizing just how much our ancestors endured.

Have you been to the museum? Do you plan to attend?
Brenda is a Philadelphia native with a love for Marketing, Creative writing, wine and Jesus. Her work has been featured on Mayvenn’s Real Beautiful blog and she is the co-author of the book Christmas 364: Be Merry and Bright Beyond Christmas Night (available for purchase on amazon). Follow her on IG @trulybrenda_ and trulybrenda.wordpress.com

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