American Historical Sites and Monuments

by Sam Kargbo
National Museum of African American History and Culture

The tour was scheduled for Sunday, August 13, 2017, between 1:00 and 4:00 p.m., directed by Ms. Jeanne Fogle, a fourth-generation Washington and Certified Master Tour Guide, local historian, adjunct professor of Washington history and author of the Encyclopedia Britannica Washington City Article and three books about the city’s history. Although the listing of the tour in the programme of the International Visitor Leadership Program stated that it would underline the concept of federalism in America, while highlighting key historic and cultural sites of Washington, DC, and would include the Washington Monument, the White House and the U.S. Capitol, I was skeptical, considering it to be one of the bells and whistles of the programme. I was wrong.

The tour and many of its kind in Nevada, Louisiana and Minnesota were key to my understanding of how America teaches its history and preserves its culture in and through monuments and memorials, rightly called messengers from the past, objects transmitting social recollection across time and space, negotiators of collective memory and historical narrative. Martin Luther King Jr’s inspiring quotes and his Stone of Hope gave me awesome memories of the visit to the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial located at the West Potomac Park. The impressive Lincoln Memorial also left me with fond memories of the visit to the National Mall. It took the visit to the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site for me to discover Frederic Douglass, a man who, despite experiencing “the horrors of bondage”, freed himself physically, mentally and spiritually to become one of the greatest champions of freedom, demonstrating an extraordinary power of the written word. Not many of us have the mental and spiritual balance and strength to utter: “I have never placed my opposition to slavery so narrow as my own enslavement, but rather upon the indestructible and unchangeable laws of nature, every one of which is perpetually and flagrantly violated by the slave system.” To catch up on him, I bought from the bookshop at the site two books on him and one of his autobiographies.

I wasn’t really enchanted by the visit to the White House but was totally freaked out by the visits to the Capitol and the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

It is estimated that nearly three million people visit the Capitol, the building that houses the US Congress, annually. Since the underground visitor center serving as a holding ground for visitors who want to take tours of the Capitol was officially opened on December 2, 2008, visits to the Capitol are now more leisurely.

The Capitol Visitor Center, comprising an exhibition hall, two gift shops and a 530-seat food court, is “open to the public from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday. It is closed on Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, New Year’s Day and Inauguration Day.” Visitors with official business appointments may enter the Visitor Center as early as 7:15 a.m., and “to tour the historical areas of the Capitol beyond the Capitol Visitor Center, you must participate in a guided tour” that begins “at one of the Capitol Visitor Center’s orientation theaters with a 13-minute film, ‘Out of Many, One,’ which will take you on a journey through our country’s struggle to establish the world’s first truly representative democracy and introduce you to the magnificent building that houses our Congress. Once inside the historic Capitol, visitors will see the Crypt, the Rotunda, and National Statuary Hall. All tours begin and end at the Capitol Visitor Center.” One of the most amazing sites of the Capitol is its dome constructed from 1855-1866 with 8,909,200 pounds of ironwork at a total cost of $1,04,291. Both from the inside and the outside, the dome makes the Capitol one of the most attractive buildings in the world. If the Statue of Freedom on the roof of the exterior of the dome gives the Capitol distinctiveness, Constantino Brumidi’s “The Apotheosis of Washington” etched on the inside of dome gives it a celestial look.

National Museum of African American History and Culture

Image: Alan Karchmer (Smithsonian)

Although anxious to visit the National Museum of African American History and Culture, I wasn’t mentally prepared for the eventual experience. Before the tour of the Museum, designed by David Adjaye, a Ghanaian, Ms. Eurica Huggins of the Institute of International Education had arranged for us to be lectured on the Arab, European and American trade in slaves. With the use of the African Diaspora Maps based on the research by Joseph E. Harris,  Mr. John Franklin, the Director of International Programs of the Museum, took us through graphic accounts of the sources, routes and destinations of African slaves from 1501 to 1873. Virtually all African countries experienced the infernal slave trade, and there was hardly any other continent that did not benefit from it. A 1792 map of Washington shows that today’s capital of the USA was a land of slave plantations, giving a background as to why the city and many of its earliest monuments were built on African American slave labour.

Although the overview of the Slave Trade was spiritually dampening, it did not disprize the visit to the museum — a tribute to building designers, architects, curators and museologists — built at a total design and construction cost of over $500 million. Besides the breathtaking effect of the convergence of art, history, science and technology, the museum had some profound psychological effect on me. It connected me to the horrendousness and facinorousness of the slave and segregation eras without igniting anger and revulsion in me.

Before the tour, to my uninformed mind, the politics, tensions, agitations, violent confrontations, debates, racial spins and slants concerning which statues or monuments across America that should be pulled down because they do not comport with post-slavery, post-segregation America were at best farcical. Indeed, Americans worship their heroes, getting a connection to their past heroes through their sculptured effigies. I now know why the monuments and memorials are an issue in America’s national conversation and historical meaning-making. Some of the monuments do not attract shared national feelings or common respectability. Some tend to be re-inflaming the injuries inflicted on African Americans during the slave and segregation eras. It seems insensitive to keep statues that are atavistically taking the country to its odious retroactive past of racial intolerance.

When contextualized within the current racial tensions in America, the conflicting emotions surrounding monuments and memorials are more than a metaphorical expression of the psychological, social and spiritual contradictions of the country that prides itself as the world’s symbol of freedom and liberty. The conflicts — besides showing America to be at the crossroads, in a bondage of history — stress why the country must pay more attention to its psychological, sociological, emotional and spiritual needs. America needs to identify and chose the part of its past that should serve as the foundation of its social religion and a source of inspiration to confront racial and religious tensions, and reconcile social imbalances.

George Washington, Martin Luther King, Frederick Douglass, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, Abraham Lincoln and many other great Americans whose statues and histories we encountered there have certain common ethereal qualities expressed by the belief in a desegregated, inclusive and just America where people are “not judged by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

You may also like

Leave a Comment