A New History Museum Tries to Get Religion
James B. LaGrand

The National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), the latest history museum to be added to the Mall in Washington, D.C., is approaching its first birthday. It has already proved a massive success. It has drawn well over a million visitors and created a buzz about how to acquire the much-coveted advance online passes. 

There’s good reason for the museum’s popularity. Museum director Lonnie G. Bunch III and his team of curators have done a marvelous job collecting artifacts. The museum has put all these objects to good use in teaching the public about many chapters of African-American history. In some sections, the range of objects is almost dizzying. The museum deftly and thoughtfully addresses both the themes of slavery and freedom, no easy task. It also teaches about a wide range of African Americans through history—not only political activists, but also musicians, writers, business leaders, and more.

The museum features both well-known and lesser-known but significant figures. Lack of agreement between the museum and the family of Martin Luther King Jr. means that there is almost no material related to King. This led some to worry that the museum’s exhibits on the civil rights movement might be compromised. Happily, this is not the case. The sections on the movement are full of compelling objects and images that effectively tell many important stories from this time.

The most painful sections are perhaps also some of the most important. The museum does an excellent job impressing on visitors the overwhelming injustice and cruelty of slavery and segregation through objects and text. Many fine books and documentary films address these topics. But for many members of the public, to see the actual manacles used by a slaver or the ax handle used to beat back civil rights protesters will make these chapters of history come alive in a way that sitting at home reading a book or watching television might not. Some of the artifacts displayed by the museum serve as civic relics of some of our nation’s lowest and highest moments.

The Emmett Till memorial is among the museum’s most moving exhibits and, when I visited, it was also the most popular. As a 14-year-old visiting Mississippi from his Chicago home in 1955, Till was seen violating the South’s racial code by flirting with a white woman. A group of white men lynched and murdered him in response. The exhibit’s design is simple. As you approach, you join a line as at a viewing or wake. While waiting to enter the room in which Emmett Till’s casket sits, you hear Mahalia Jackson soulfully sing “Trouble of the World.” When you finally reach the elevated coffin, viewers tall enough can choose to look inside the casket. It’s empty except for the infamous photo Jet magazine published of Emmet Till’s body after it was pulled from the Tallahatchie River, face beaten and eye gouged out by his killers. When I visited, some parents chose to have their children walk by the coffin without viewing the picture. Others lifted up their children in their arms to confront the image. Perhaps they had in mind the words of Emmett’s mother, Mamie Till Mobley, who insisted on an open casket at her son’s funeral in Chicago “so all the world can see what they did to my boy.” The whole time I visited the Emmett Till Memorial exhibit, I was the only white person in line. My brief minority status during this time seemed right to me somehow.

This is a museum for all Americans and all people, but for white visitors in particular there is the opportunity to observe and rub shoulders with fellow citizens. In visiting soon after the museum opened, I was moved by the crowds and their responses. It seemed like all of Black America was there—grandparents with their grandchildren, church groups, school groups, students and alumni from historically black colleges and universities, fraternities, sororities, and more. The words of Langston Hughes’ poem “I, too, sing America” came to mind. For any white Americans who feel that they seldom leave their bubble, a visit to the NMAAHC is an effective antidote.


In several places throughout its five levels of exhibits, the museum explores religion and religious experience in African-American history. Although museums typically do not include a bibliography of resources used in putting together exhibits, there is certainly a vast range of scholarly materials that curators could consult on this topic. Indeed, some of the most important figures in African-American history have written about religion and the Black church in particular. Carter G. Woodson, the “Father of Negro History,” was a virtual one-man history industry—writer, publisher, and event planner—throughout his life. Woodson founded the Journal of Negro History in 1916, and in 1926 he launched the annual celebration of Negro History Week, which later became Black History Month. In fact, without Woodson it is hard even to imagine the new museum on the Mall. Among Woodson’s books is The History of the Negro Church, published in 1921, in which he emphasizes the many roles played by the Black church—religious, political, economic, educational, and more.

Woodson wrote as a Baptist, but W. E. B. Du Bois serves as a reminder that even those critical or agnostic about Black popular religion can be knowledgeable about it. While not a church member, Du Bois remained curious about the Black church. In The Souls of Black Folk (1903), Du Bois criticized much of African-American Christianity for its emotional style and other-worldly focus. But he clearly understood it, describing at length the central role played by Black churches and preachers, and writing that “the study of Negro religion is not only a vital part of the history of the Negro in America, but no uninteresting part of American history” (Du Bois, 193).

Beyond these iconic figures, historians such as Eugene Genovese, Donald Mathews, and Albert Raboteau have produced important, award-winning work on African-American religion and religious life during the nineteenth century. They have shown us that Africans brought to the Americas in chains as slaves remarkably ended up transforming Christianity in the New World. Some scholars have argued that American evangelicalism would be unrecognizable without the contributions of African Americans in the nineteenth century. The central emphasis they took from Christianity had to do with their status and dignity before God. Many slaves came to recognize that Christianity “proclaimed the freedom and inviolability of the human soul,” in the words of Eugene Genovese (Genovese, 167). This idea was revolutionary both for slaves and their masters who often tried unsuccessfully to control how slaves received Christian teaching.

Religious movements among African Americans especially took off with the Second Great Awakening of the early nineteenth century. The religious style it promoted—direct, non-hierarchical, and democratic—especially affected Baptists and Methodists, both white and Black. The number of Black Methodists in the United States grew from 3,800 in 1786 to nearly 32,000 by 1809, and Black Baptists from 18,000 in 1793 to 40,000 in 1813 (Galli). In considering the Christian faith, slaves had always had to reconcile its teachings about hierarchy and obedience with its message about social leveling. The Second Great Awakening seemed to tilt this balance. Sermons, prayers, and songs of Black Christians during this time repeatedly referenced Peter’s words from the book of Acts that “God is no respecter of persons” as far as station or rank in society. All are equal before God.

Black Christians emphasized that God is active in the world. Like so much else in Black American popular religion, this emphasis emerged from a mixture of old and new. Supernatural protection was a part of many traditional African religions. In the New World, Blacks drawn to Christianity focused on passages in the Bible that described God delivering his people collectively from oppression. This led to the popularity of millennial movements that anticipated God’s working in history.

In thinking about God’s actions in history, Black Christians tended to draw on biblical types and to interpret their own lives and times in light of them (much like the early Christians.) Many spirituals focused on Moses, Jonah, Daniel, and the Exodus. “Go Down Moses” and “Didn’t my Lord Deliver Daniel” are still sometimes part of worship services for believers today and more broadly remain a part of American popular culture.

The egalitarianism that African Americans emphasized in the Christian faith led slave owners to try to control and restrict slaves’ religious activities. But at secret services and prayer meetings during the week away from watchful eyes, Black Christians further made their faith their own. They preached, prayed, and sang—in a quiet whisper if they thought spies might be near, but in Spirit-fueled shouts if given the freedom.


Clearly, then, those putting together exhibits on African-American religious history have a lot of material to draw on. Especially given this, the NMAAHC’s various exhibits on the Black church end up disappointing. The picture is not uniformly bad. The museum displays some remarkable artifacts and quotations that capture the power and influence of religious beliefs for African Americans over the past 200 years or so. But artifacts and quotes do not stand by themselves in museums. Curators use text panels of 100 words or less to contextualize artifacts and to provide a narrative line allowing visitors to navigate big, sprawling exhibits.

And herein lies the problem. In the sections at the NMAAHC on Christianity and the Black church, there is a striking contrast between the quotes and text panels. The museum’s problem getting or understanding religion lies not in its choice of subjects, nor in the quotes or artifacts chosen, but in the content of its text panels. A few examples of the contrast between quotes (both those used in the museum and other well-known, representative quotes) and text panels will demonstrate the pattern.

The influential abolitionist and African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church member David Walker (1796-1830) is one of the museum’s subjects. Walker’s Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World, published in 1829, held nothing back in documenting the barbarism of American chattel slavery. Throughout, Walker contrasted slavery to the principles of both republicanism and Christianity. About the defenders of slavery, Walker wrote:

They forget that God rules in the armies of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth, having his ears continually open to the cries, tears, and groans of his oppressed people; and being a just and holy Being will at one day appear fully in behalf of the oppressed, and arrest the progress of the avaricious oppressors.

The museum includes another well-known quote from elsewhere in Walker’s Appeal: “America is more our country…we have enriched it with our blood and tears” (Walker).

Compare Walker’s words with the text panel in the exhibit entitled “To Seek:”

Enslaved African Americans made a way out of no way by holding fast to their faith. Slave owners promoted Christianity as a means of control, but African Americans found ways to make it their own. Diverse faith practices helped enslaved Africans Americans survive the shared experience of slavery. Through word and song, dance and prayer, enslaved communities were strengthened by faith.

Next consider Nat Turner (1800-1831), leader of the violent and bloody slave rebellion in Southampton County, Virginia, in 1831 and another of the museum’s subjects. Turner was a deeply religious young man who spent countless hours secretly praying, fasting, and reading his Bible (on display at the museum) while waiting on visions from God. Turner recounts in his Confessions his third vision that launched his rebellion:

I heard a loud noise in the heavens, and the Spirit instantly appeared to me and said the Serpent was loosened, and Christ had laid down the yoke he had borne for the sins of men, and that I should take it on and fight against the Serpent, for the time was fast approaching when the first should be last and the last should be first.

Turner’s last line above, referencing the words of Jesus as recounted in Matthew 20:16, is included prominently at the museum.

Now compare Turner’s words with the text panel in the “Religion” exhibit:

Enslaved and free, African Americans found themselves in a world that was hostile at best. Harnessing the transformative power of religion, they worked to restore justice. Many became active in Christian churches, moved by evangelical messages emphasizing God’s love. Others pulled from western African traditions including Christianity, Islam, and indigenous faiths. Each religion helped build an identity beyond slavery and discrimination.

One more of the museum’s historical subjects to be noted here is Harriet Tubman (c. 1820-1913), the AME church member who after escaping slavery devoted herself to helping other slaves escape. The museum contains an exhibit with a picture of Tubman, her hymnal, and a quote by her on the wall: “God’s time is always near…. He set the North Star in the heavens: he meant I should be free.”

Nearby, the text panel for “Anti-Slavery—To Effect Change” reads:

Between 1820 and 1861 abolitionists changed America. They were few in number, had little access to political power, and did not always share common beliefs about the future of African Americans. Their tactics also varied. The American Anti-Slavery Society publicized the horrors of slavery. The radical abolitionists reached for political power and endorsed antislavery candidates Black and white. Others, such as Harriet Tubman and John Brown, took direct action.

So what is the difference between the language of the individuals quoted by the museum and the language on the text panels? The words about religion and religious experience from Walker, Turner, and Tubman bristle with energy. In contrast, the words on many of the text panels are vague, abstract, and sterile. Written in the language of “social-science-speak,” these text panels end up flattening and taming religion.

This is wrong, bizarrely wrong even, given the subject matter. In their time, David Walker, Nat Turner, and Harriet Tubman were compelling and notorious. They all divided opinion. More than this, Turner led one of the most ambitious and deadly slave revolts in American history. After receiving the last of his visions in the summer of 1831, Turner and a group of followers killed fifty-five whites in southern Virginia before being caught and executed and initiating a time of white mob violence against local blacks. The various degrees of controversy that Turner and many other museum subjects engendered centered on how they responded to their religious beliefs. Unfortunately, this point is lost in many of the museum’s text panels on the subject. Too many of these panels are tone deaf and biblically illiterate and, as a result, do not help us to better know and understand their subjects.

Yes, African-American Christians (like all Christians) were moved by messages “emphasizing God’s love.” More important, though, was the social levelling in Christianity—that God is no respecter of persons, that he drowns Pharaoh and his army, but rescues his children. The biblical types and patterns that filled the messages, prayers, and songs of Black Christians during the nineteenth century (and since then) are missing from text panels at the museum.

Too often, these panels miss the main point, especially this: even while enslaved, African-American Christians came to know and celebrate their full and equal humanity, and they connected this to being children of God. There is remarkably little mention about this at the museum, nor about the democratic influence of the Second Great Awakening. Instead, visitors read anodyne statements about the “transformative power of religion,” and truly head-scratching lines about how the Bible and gospel songs helped Black Christians “find grace in their communities.”

The language on the text panels on religious topics never seems sure-footed. This leads to some confusion about the role of the church during the civil rights movement. In the exhibit “Upon this Rock—The Role of Black Churches,” a text panel states: “All civil rights organizations recognized the vital importance of Black churches and sought to work with them whenever possible.” The suggestion here is that the movement developed first, by itself, and that then it discovered there were churches and church people to make use of. This gets the role of the church and Christianity in the movement backwards, as many historians have demonstrated.

In general, the museum takes a functional approach to religion and especially to Christianity. Many of the summative statements on text panels suggest that the primary purpose of religion through history was to play a part in making the world a better place and to serve as a vehicle for social movements. This view might be popular in many circles today. But it does not do justice to the experiences of countless religious believers now and in the past. It especially compromises the telling of African-American history.

Granted, it is difficult to communicate fully within the confines of a 100-word text panel. But this challenge does not prevent curators at the museum from writing effective text panels on many topics that address politics, social structure, economics, the arts, and yes, even religion in African-American history. For example, the text panel for the exhibit on Father Divine, leader of a religious sect popular during the 1930s, is very well done. So too the panel on the Nation of Islam, which reads:

W. Fard Muhammad founded the Nation of Islam in Detroit in 1930. Four years later Elijah Muhammad succeeded him as the group’s leader. He oversaw the operation of schools, religious centers, businesses, and a newspaper, The Final Call to Islam. African Americans, the group believed, should return to Islam and ‘teach the downtrodden and defenseless Black people a thorough Knowledge of God and of themselves, and to put them on the road to Self-Independence.’ This message appealed strongly to many African Americans.

The statement is lively, accurate, and informed by the writings of Black Muslims themselves. A contemporary member of the Nation of Islam would likely recognize himself in this panel. Unfortunately, that’s often not the case with the museum’s panels on the Black church. Something more than a word limit, then, is to blame for the unsatisfactory panels on the Black church and African-American Christianity.

The claims made here about the NMAAHC’s exhibits on the Black church are in keeping with other recent findings about the place of religion in American life. Evidence suggests that there is a growing gap in understanding, perception, and identity between religious and non-religious Americans (Beinart). The NMAAHC is yet another example of this trend.

No longer do we expect today that American adults will necessarily be conversant with the main themes of Christianity and the Bible. Indeed, it is common today for influential figures in the media, higher education, entertainment, and the arts to broadcast both their lack of knowledge and lack of interest in Christianity—even as a cultural phenomenon.

This is part of what several writers and cultural critics recently have described as our emerging “post-Christian culture.” The term is multi-faceted and debated, but among other things, it refers to a widespread lack of familiarity with Christianity and the Bible, as well as the weakening of Christianity as a cultural force. Both trends are on display at the NMAAHC. The museum professionals there by all accounts are well educated and well trained and have done fine work on many exhibits. When it comes to writing about Christianity and religious belief more generally, though, they act as if this is their third or fourth language. They are not alone in this tendency. In recent years, media figures have regularly displayed their biblical illiteracy, even about things as central as the passion, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Demographic data about religion may provide another clue to explaining the uncertain and awkward way in which some exhibits at the NMAAHC talk about this subject. The Pew Research Center’s recent study on America’s religious landscape shows growing numbers of “nones,” those who report having no religious affiliations. Although this secular trend has affected whites more than Blacks, even the number of young, Black “nones” is increasing. As Emma Green reported in the Atlantic, only about 10 percent of Black Americans fifty and older state that their religion is “none” compared with about 33 percent of Blacks between the ages of eighteen and twenty-nine.

For various reasons, then, religious belief has become a foreign country to many Americans today. This is not only a problem for clergy and religious believers. Anyone interested in accurately understanding other people will be handicapped if they reflexively dismiss religion. New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet recently recognized this, acknowledging in an interview: “I think that the New York-based and Washington-based… media powerhouses don’t quite get religion…. We don’t get the role of religion in people’s lives.”


There may be some good news on the horizon, though, at least as far as history museums are concerned. Recently, the National Museum of American History (next-door to the NMAAHC) announced it was hiring Peter Manseau as its first curator of American religious history. This may bode well for how history museums in general treat religion. Manseau outlined his goals in an interview last October with S. Brent Plate, explaining that he wants to “engage with religion as a subject of vital significance” and “tell stories about religion that feel inclusive and welcoming.” Clearly, Manseau believes these two goals—communicating the vitality of religion in the past and attending to inclusivity and diversity—are mutually reinforcing. An examination of NMAAHC’s treatment of African-American Christianity, though, shows this is not necessarily the case.

For the last thirty years or so, we have become accustomed to seeing diversity regularly invoked at schools, museums, and other centers of culture. For some, the word communicates a set of political bona fides, but “diversity” as the word is often used today does not necessarily help us with the goals of history—describing and understanding the past. Instead, it can function as an empty shibboleth.

What’s more, an irony has developed as the word has become more ubiquitous. If everything becomes part of the diversity project, history ends up being homogenized and flattened. Everything becomes diverse. This word—increasingly common in our lexicon today—does not do much to help us actually try to understand the past, the goal of history museums. Several times while visiting the NMAAHC, I wondered about how some of the museum’s subjects might respond to this contemporary trend. How would Marcus Garvey or James Brown, for example, respond if they found out that their life’s work could be put within the framework of “diversity?” My guess is that they would have words with us.

Unfortunately, the NMAAHC’s reliance on diversity and other abstract categories ends up muddying our understanding of the role of religion in African-American history. This is indeed a problem, but this is not to say that the museum is a failure. Far from it. It is a remarkable success story that has justly earned its popularity. If anything, the museum’s many strengths and virtues make its problem in treating religious people and religious themes in African-American history stand out in contrast.

Moreover, the museum’s difficulty in getting religion is not unique. It’s of a piece with the challenge always facing historians trying to accurately understand people in the past who differed from contemporaries in significant ways. One of the most important differences between many Americans today and people like David Walker and Nat Turner and Harriet Tubman centers on religious faith and identity. If we continue following the trend that dismisses or minimizes or abstracts religion, we will end up dodging some of the all-important “why” questions of history. Why, in fact, did Walker and Turner and Tubman act as they did? To address these types of questions fully, the NMAAHC and other history museums will need to work hard to get the role of religion in the lives of people who came before us.



James B. LaGrand is a professor of American history and director of the First-Year Core course at Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania.


Works Cited

Beinart, Peter. “Breaking Faith.” The Atlantic, Vol. 219, Issue 3 (April 2017): 15-17.

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Plate, S. Brent. “State of the Art: A Q&A with the Smithsonian’s New Religion Curator.” Religion News Serice, last modified October 17, 2016, http://religionnews.com/2016/10/17/state-of-the-art-a-qa-with-the-smithsonians-new-religion-curator/

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