Alumnus Paul Gardullo, a curator at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, helps tell the story of a people’s journey.
Tucked into a corner of Power of Place, an exhibit curated by alumnus Paul Gardullo, one of 15 curators at the Smithsonian’s new National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., is the story of a race riot that took place in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Your eye is immediately drawn to a panoramic photograph spanning three walls: block after block, buildings have been decimated, as if hit by a bomb.
“It’s the remnants of one of the wealthiest black neighborhoods in America in the 1910s,” says Gardullo RC’90. “In 1921, over the course of two days, it was reduced to rubble—hundreds of businesses destroyed, an untold number of people killed.”
Power of Place is part of a gallery that conveys nine other regionally focused stories, which are enhanced by a “place table,” a digitally interactive collection of dozens of other stories. It’s located on one of six floors that display roughly 3,000 artifacts—just a sampling of more than 36,000 collected, Antiques Roadshow-style, nationwide by the museum’s curators. The Tulsa story, Gardullo says, was “one of the most difficult to tell” because the forms of racial violence it covers have nearly been forgotten.
“In the early 20th century,” he says, “white mobs going into black neighborhoods, burning them down, lynching, and destroying life and property was the order of the day. And, often, they were tied to a perceived injustice perpetrated by a black man against a white woman. That’s what happened here.”
What is happening throughout the building is something of a revolution. Although construction was authorized by the federal government in 2003, a museum looking at U.S. history through an “African-American lens,” as Gardullo puts it, was 100-plus years in the making.
“It goes back to reconciliation between the Union and Confederacy, just after the Civil War,” he says, adding that a movement launched by that war’s black veterans failed to garner legislative support. “The movement waxed and waned during the 20th century until we arrived at this moment,” he says. “That’s why you see so many people lining up. There’s a desire and a real need.”
The museum, which opened in September, is so popular that reserved tickets are booked months in advance. Each day, thousands of visitors flood the museum’s galleries, which begin 70 feet below ground and start with the history of slavery—and all its horrors. Then, as you wind your way up the ramps to higher floors, the exhibits feature African-American experiences during the Revolutionary and Civil wars and the Jim Crow and civil rights eras, culminating in the election of president Barack Obama. Resting on this hard-won foundation are galleries on the upper floors celebrating the cultural, athletic, and entrepreneurial achievements of African Americans over the last 150 years.
“It’s a museum for all of us,” Gardullo says. But he’s never seen a museum patronized primarily by black people who “feel comfortable and included. Our desire is to make history human, not a caricature, and to see African-American lives whole, in all their complexity.”
The suggested starting point for museum visitors is the three underground floors that provide an exploration of the history of slavery in the United States, presented through many video displays and objects, such as the former prison guard tower used at Louisiana State Penitentiary. Also known as Angola, the prison is set on a former 8,000-acre plantation that took its name from the African nation from which the slaves had come.
An Italian-American native of Bergen County, New Jersey, Gardullo majored in English and American studies in the late 1980s, “when Rutgers, a very diverse campus, was a powerful place,” he says. “My college career overlapped with [the late writer and activist] Amiri Baraka. I took classes with him and the playwright and novelist Wesley Brown. Those two men, along with a handful of others, profoundly shaped the way I thought about my connection to African-American history.”
After graduation, he lived in Seattle for six years and briefly in Brazil before enrolling in graduate school. “I wanted to study the intersection between history and culture and African Americans,” he says. He earned both his master’s and Ph.D. degrees in African-American history at George Washington University in D.C., with a dissertation that addressed “cultural memories of slavery in the first half of the 20th century.” His postdoctoral work with the Smithsonian led to his being hired in 2007 to help develop the new museum.
What ties Gardullo’s museum work together—including exhibits on Muhammad Ali and an 18th-century slave ship—are the stories behind the artifacts. Another “place story” in the Power of Place exhibition, for example, features Angola, the prison set on a former Louisiana plantation that is dramatized by the presence of an actual cell from a camp where slave quarters once stood. And just across the aisle is a collection of finely festooned hats from Mae’s Millinery, a Philadelphia institution opened by Mae Reeves in 1942. “She’s still living,” Gardullo says. “She’s 104.”
But it’s back in the Tulsa corner where one artifact truly speaks to Gardullo. Four fire-damaged pennies sit behind glass. “I know,” he says; “they’re just pennies. But George Monroe was 5 years old when the rioters destroyed his home. And, like many young boys, he collected pennies. His act of collecting and passing things down through his life is connected to my work.
“The more we understand it’s in these simple acts—saving things and sharing with others—the more maybe change can be made.” •
Watch the video below as Paul Gardullo explains his personal connection to the museum.