Opinion Columns & Blogs

Mark McCormick: National Museum of African American History and Culture has Kansas links

The CBS News program “60 Minutes” recently took viewers on a virtual tour of the National Museum of African American History and Culture being built in Washington, D.C. It’s set to open next year.

What you may not realize, however, is the debt that beautiful building – and much of the history in it – owes to Kansas.

CBS News anchor Scott Pelley took viewers inside the trove of historic items that will fill the museum – items of stunning import and resonance.

The museum will feature teenage murder victim Emmett Till’s casket, the one his mother insisted remain open during his funeral so the world could see the staggering cost of race-borne violence.

It will feature Harriet Tubman’s shawl, shards of glass from Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church bombing that killed four little girls, and slave insurrectionist Nat Turner’s Bible.

Visitors will see a literal one-in-a-million copy of the Emancipation Proclamation handed to Union soldiers who read it to slaves telling them that they were now free.

Kansas played a key role in much of that history.

The Stearman plane at the museum flown by famed Tuskegee Airmen likely has Wichita origins. Lloyd Stearman founded the company here in the 1920s.

Also, any mention of the Civil War requires recognition of “Bleeding Kansas,” where the roots of the bitter conflict exploded into a huge, inflamed redwood that nearly consumed the country. We’re also confident Wichita’s 1958 Dockum sit-in, the first successful, student-led sit-in in the country, will appear in the museum’s section on segregation.

That Kansas boasts enviable history isn’t lost on those of us at the Kansas African American Museum. Kansas’ contributions should be inscribed on the Washington museum’s cornerstone.

Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., and then-Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas co-sponsored the bill establishing the museum. Kansas had more representation on that charter board, including Wichita State University athletic director Eric Sexton, than any other state.

The museum’s theme will be reflection and reconciliation, a theme I appropriated for the Kansas African American Museum.

Like the new museum, we don’t aspire to be a museum of misery – though that dimension of the African-American experience can’t be ignored.

Rather, we aspire to share a story of resilience and triumphs over tragedy and how, along the way, African-Americans helped change the country and everyone in it, for the better.

Mark McCormick is executive director of the Kansas African American Museum in Wichita.