More than 50 years after Rep. John Lewis, then a young college student, organized student sit-ins at segregated lunch counters in Tennessee, a program at the National Museum of American History is continuing to bring that experience to life for its visitors.
Dubbed “Join the Student Sit-Ins,” the program invites museumgoers to take part in a nonviolent training session and practice those skills by participating in a mock sit-in. The backdrop is an actual section of a once “whites-only” lunch counter from Greensboro, N.C., where four African-American college freshmen sat down on Feb. 1, 1960, and remained in their seats after they were denied service. That action inspired similar protests across the country.
After seeing the program twice, including once at the House page school, Lewis said he encourages Members of Congress and Congressional staffers to stop by the museum and participate. The Georgia Democrat said the experience is particularly valuable for younger individuals, who see everything in the experience as alien, from the
15-cent apple pie on the Woolworth’s menu to the concept of not being able to sit with friends of a different skin color.
“They were not even born — they were not even a dream,” said Lewis, who served as a speaker at the historic March on Washington in August 1963. “It’s one of the most effective ways to educate, inform, sensitize. ... You make it real.”
The performance is part of the National Museum of American History’s “Historic Theatre” program, where characters directly interact with audience members and encourage their participation. The 20-minute sit-in program, for example, is led by a person portraying an African-American student from 1960 who coaches the audience on nonviolent tactics and teaches a freedom song while weaving in a discussion about segregation.
“We want to use the history and use the drama of the stories to get visitors talking,” said Christopher Wilson, director of the theater program. “Whereas our exhibits do a great job of telling stories and using objects to draw people into the history and so forth, they may not be as good at dealing with conflict and different points of view.”
Wilson said the programs are also a way to make history personal. For William Holliday of Williamston, N.C., that connection came after he was one of four people instructed to sit on a bar stool and withstand the menacing looks of the rest of the audience during a mock sit-in. A member of the U.S. Army, Holliday said he couldn’t imagine not being able to walk into a restaurant and sit next to those who fought alongside him because of their skin color.
“I’m glad that things have progressed now,” Holliday said.
Offered since the museum reopened in November 2008, the program’s engaging acting and singing, as well as its location near the main entrance, typically draw a large audience.
But there’s another program for those who want to take part in history, performed in a small theater tucked away from the crowds.
The “Time Trials of Benedict Arnold,” which premiered in December, invites the audience to speak directly with the Revolutionary War general and decide whether he should be remembered for his courage in the Continental Army or his eventual traitorous attempt to hand West Point over to the British. The performance is more discussion-oriented than the sit-in program and is part of a new series where visitors will meet controversial historical figures and compare their actions with their legacies.
According to Wilson, the idea for the series came from a debate that started on the museum’s Facebook page over whether Stonewall Jackson is a role model for today’s youth. The discussion began after the museum made a routine “today in history” post noting the day that the Confederate general was killed in battle.
“We thought looking at people like that and saying, let’s start a discussion about how we feel these individuals should be remembered ... is ultimately debating and discussing what our history means and says about us today,” Wilson said. The museum is planning to next present John Brown, the abolitionist who famously led an attack on the arsenal in Harpers Ferry, to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the Civil War.
Since reopening in late 2008, the National Museum of American History has had more than 378,000 people attend its theater programs, put on nearly 4,000 performances and produced 11 shows. Past programs included a theatrical presentation of letters from American soldiers at war to their loved ones and another that introduced visitors to Mary Pickersgill, the seamstress who sewed the Star-Spangled Banner, and invited them to help assemble her flag.
Although only two shows are currently being offered, the museum will increase its programming in the spring when large school groups typically visit. Wilson said staff is also working to secure new funding to create a character of Joseph Henry, the first secretary of the Smithsonian, to “be for us like Thomas Jefferson is for Colonial Williamsburg or George Washington is for Mount Vernon.”
“As the nation’s museum, we have the power to bring groups of people together and talk about our shared history,” Wilson said. “Right now we’ve got a good base to build upon, and I hope, in the next few years, to grow.”
Theater performances are typically offered on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. There is no charge to attend the programs, and no tickets are required. For additional information, visit americanhistory.si.edu/events.