Our Day At The New Smithsonian Museum

Visit the New Smithsonian Museum

The National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) was a treat my family couldn’t get enough of. I highly recommend visiting when you get a chance.

Even better, make it a two-day affair. There is SO MUCH to take in and that’s hard to do in a few hours.

I won’t call the museum perfect but it is an awesome start and a welcome addition as a new national treasure.

Exciting Surprise?!?Free Tickets To The Museum!

I have heard about the NMAAHC since it was authorized in 2002 to be built and the tremendous feat to raise $540 million to build it. It seemed like a set-up but per usual, a way was made out of no way and the museum has finally opened its doors almost 15 years later. The best part is hometown architect Phil Freelon is the architect on record and a co-designer of the museum… a fact I shared repeatedly with my future architect son. I had to get him and his brother to D.C. to see what he could accomplish one day.

I did not make plans to go too close to the opening but when a friend offered her tickets for early October since she was unable to make it, I gladly obliged! My Dad was able to join us making it a three generation adventure!

Tip #1: Tickets go fast so please spread the love. If you can’t make it to your appointed time, please send your tickets to a friend or cancel them so someone else can grab them. There was an endless line of people without tickets standing in the rain with hopes of getting inside. That wasn’t happening without available space (aka tickets). Free yours up so others can have the opportunity to take it all in. 

Exploring African American History

Though we got into the building immediately, we still had to wait over an hour in line before we could see the main exhibit — three underground floors containing the history of my ancestors through my generation… from pre-slavery to present day.

It broke my heart to see some Africans who sold people into slavery, did so to keep from being enslaved.

And seeing the tiny shackles for children who were enslaved 😥 .

The middle passage display was not as emotional or jarring as the display I cried tears over at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit but it made a point.

I was excited to see the stories about the lives of my ancestors who lived in Georgia, South Carolina and Louisiana. My Dad and sons left me as I read about the lifestyles, work and issues met by my people in these parts of the country.

I was horrified to see the number of enslaved people dramatically rose AFTER the Revolutionary War! Especially when many African Americans joined the war including the first casualty Crispus Attucks.

Fortunately this museum shared diverse stories and artifacts of the enslaved and the free including self-emancipated Harriet Tubman.

The stories of slaves, slave masters, freemen, and the fight to make things right encompassed the whole first floor. We saw those stories no one likes to talk about or seems to be in denial about like…

Yes, slaves built the White House and here’s a picture portraying what it looked like!

or sharing how many of our nation’s powerful historical figures had slaves on their balance sheets and in their homes (looking at you Jefferson AND Washington).

Common themes of spirituality and entrepreneurship were scattered throughout the entire exhibit.

There was SO much to read. So much couldn’t be read since it was in very small, sometimes handwritten print. And we were trying to get through the museum so there really wasn’t time to read very much.

Tip #2: Be ready to expend a lot of energy. After a good breakfast, all that waiting, and exploration of HALF of the FIRST floor, my Dad and I started to hear the chorus of the day

“I’m hungry.”

Warning: Once you are on the first floor, it’s very difficult to leave and come back for anything. There is a bathroom and water fountain down there but none on the next two floors. Once you leave this exhibit space, you have to wait in line to return again. If you have children, I strongly suggest quietly bringing small, “clean” snacks to help the experience remain as pleasant as possible (shhh… it’s our secret).

Fight For Freedom

The second floor brought emancipation, reconstruction, Jim Crow and the Civil Rights Movement. There was a chronological view of what freedom from slavery really meant after the end of the Civil War. The struggle was illustrated much more than I’ve ever seen before. Not only were the enslaved released with little to no resources for survival, there were actual groups and laws formed to hold them back from growing too much economically. Lynching became common to terrorize African Americans for any reason and no reason at all.

For a while, there were race riots occurring in cities across the country for anything from a white woman accusing a black man of whistling at her to accusations of job stealing. A big hole I saw when discussing race riots was the missing 1898 Wilmington Race Riot. I think this was one of the most significant riots to share because it is the only documented coup d’etat on U.S. soil. I’m sure it’s coming eventually, but still… THE ONLY COUP D’ETAT IN THE U.S. WAS AGAINST AN ELECTED CITY GOVERNMENT OF AFRICAN AMERICANS and this event did not make it into a museum all about African American History in the nation’s capital??

I was so amazed when I learned about this story just a few years ago because I didn’t realize African Americans had that kind of political power immediately post-slavery. Excuse me if I think more people should know about it. 

However, I was glad to see East St Louis, IL and its controversial past represented. I think the city remains in a state of blight because of how this went down nearly 100 years ago. To imagine this fight was about JOBS in EAST ST LOUIS.

This wasn’t the only story from close to home (by the way, I’m from St. Louis).

One of my favorite entrepreneurs, Ms. Annie Turnbo Malone, had a presence in the building. Although the display directly next to her about CJ Walker claims otherwise, evidence shows Annie Malone as the first black female millionaire. She did so much for St. Louis and her direct legacy continues working today.

I know the question of who the first black female millionaire can be a controversial topic. I hope the curators at NMAAHC or someone takes the time to clear this up once and for all.  

Of course there were regulars like MLK, Emmitt Till (in a powerful, special display in its own room), March on Washington, relics of the KKK (side note: I wondered why they were there, but this group DID have a profound effect on African Americans as an early modern terrorist organization) …

The information and artifacts in these displays were more comprehensive than other museums I’ve been to that were not specifically dedicated to one person or period of time — on that note, PLEASE go visit the International Civil Rights Center & Museum in Greensboro, NC for an awesome, emotional experience on the civil rights movement in the United States and others from around the world.

The biggest takeaway here was the fight my grandparents’ generation had to endure just to have some control over their own lives whether money to work or the ability to vote. They were terrorized in so many ways, even to the point of losing lives, because others didn’t want them to participate or use their voices. 

Tip #4: Take breaks. As you move to higher floors, you will see spaces to sit and watch video, or participate in other interactive media. I strongly suggest doing so as a way to get off your feet for a bit. My kids especially LOVED the interactive lunch counter. It gave them something to do and an opportunity to experience the kind of decision-making that took place during different resistance movements. There weren’t many seats there but I sat one child on my lap. 

Picking Up The Pace Of History

By the post-1968 floor, we were pushing it to get off our feet and fed. I was carrying my 7-year-old on my back, assuring him that we were almost finished, a rallying cry I heard from many fellow parents by this time. I still tried my best to soak as much information as I could. That said, the number of artifacts and displays seemed less than before anyway.

I was excited to see artifacts and images from the Million Women March I attended as a college student in 1997. I shared the story with my children of getting on a bus and riding across the country in one day, spending the day in Philadelphia, and then getting right back on the bus to ride home to Columbia, MO. That was such a LONG ride but I remember the ride home being the best part about the entire trip just from the bonding that took place among us Mizzou sisters.

Anyway, Oprah Winfrey had an expansive display and there was an NWA flag that took up a major piece of space compared to the rest of the artifacts in the museum.

Though there was mention of how “the projects” were formed as well as African American vacations at The Inkwell on Martha’s Vineyard, MA, the greatest focus was on the middle class experience. That’s all good but there was more happening in our world than that — gangs, drugs, and other real pieces of African American society during this time were not present or discussed (unless I missed it). This is an opportunity to break down the stereotypes and tell the real story about why these vices came to exist in our communities as well as how they have evolved.

And where was Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas? He’s not my favorite person either but, really??? He’s a rare, high-ranking, African-American presence in this age at one of the highest levels of U.S. government.

Anita Hill was in there, why not him? I don’t dispute her rightful place in any museum, especially this one, but he should have a place too.

This IS an opportunity to tell the unvarnished truth about his contributions to society at this level.

To tell the FACTS of what he did with the platform he was chosen to have. Just the facts will be enough (so they won’t get twisted later).

This void reminds me of the many museums that are missing African American stories except for slavery and Martin Luther King, Jr with the Civil Rights Movement. There is so much that could be done with telling all of our story and telling it right.

Since we have a NATIONAL African American Museum, it should tell the whole experience, not just the ones that look good. I admit, I couldn’t take it all in so I may have missed the stories I thought was missing. If that’s the case, my bad.

This exhibit ends with the Obama presidency including First Lady Michelle Obama’s dress from the March on Washington’s 50th anniversary celebration. That said, sprinkled throughout this floor were #BlackLivesMatter and people/stories that inspired the movement.

Side Note: Where Is The History Space For Kids?

Throughout the history exhibit, there were signs letting us know where children shouldn’t view or go without parental guidance. I SO wish there was at least one space for children to go and experience our history in their special way. There was no space for them to touch, hear, and see stories relatable to them and in their language.

There’s More Museum?!?

When we finally exited the history exhibit some HOURS later, we briefly considered the much discussed Sweet Home Cafe’. Since that meant another line to get into and a displayed menu of food that didn’t seem kid-friendly (although days later I looked at the #NMAAHC app and saw there actually was kid-friendly fare), we decided to go upstairs and out of the museum. Eventually we made it to the food truck line outside. But first I remembered the kids insistence on going upstairs when we first entered the museum, before we went downstairs. They were excited to go up the escalator again to the upper floors to quickly check out this space.

The Rest of The Museum

So there are another THREE floors of museum that could really be their own spaces. Definitely more ways to personally interact with history including a family genealogy space, a stepshow simulation, and a further exploration of various artifacts in the history exhibit via touchscreen.

Apparently my oldest son’s favorite part of the museum was video footage of the shipwrecked Sao Jose, a Portuguese slave ship that got caught in tumultuous waves off the East African coast in the 1800s. Various artifacts from the shipwreck are in the museum and this underwater video footage of them getting those artifacts was interesting.

This was one of my favorite areas and I had to capture a picture of it:

The Sports and Military galleries were AMAZING. By the time we sped through this floor, it was really time to go and we missed what I heard was the BEST part of the museum… the next floor up… the exhibit all about the arts. We just had to go eat and rest our feet.

I really could go on and on about more of what we saw but I’m sure you’re ready to go too!

Tip #5: Navigation strategy – bottom up to main, top back to bottom. When you finish the history exhibit, go to the top floor and work your way down to the main floor. I received this tip after our visit and I think it is a good strategy to lighten up after taking all of that history in. From what I hear, there are wonderful views of outside and great music to take in. As you make your way down, there will be more seating to rest your laurels and really reflect on everything you have taken in.

Overall, this visit was awesome. I can’t wait to take the kids back next year. I know over 35,000 artifacts are held by this museum of which we only saw a fraction of.

Maybe I’ll see the items I missed before the next time we go.

Regardless, I’m glad this museum FINALLY exists and look forward to visiting and interacting with it much more in the future.

Feel free to share this review with others:

Check out this family's visit to the #NMAAHC so you can plan yours. Click To Tweet

If you’ve been to visit the NMAAHC, comment below to let me know your family’s favorite area of the museum and share tips for other families to have a great first-time experience.

School Choice in Durham – My Research & Application Process

Back to School - School Choice

By the time I finished with EJ’s elementary school search, my mom was very surprised it was so complicated. She reminisced on the days when kids simply went to their assigned school. Because of MY experience with that, I had to check out the choices available to my son for his school experience. This post was originally written in 2012 on my old single parenting blog. I’m sharing here as since it was one of my most popular posts and extremely helpful to others.

Several people have asked about my experience leading up to my son starting kindergarten. If you saw Waiting for Superman, my experience was similar except I don’t think my alternative prospects were so dire. Fortunately, I watched the movie after my process but it was still nail-biting and waiting for superman movieconvinced me not to attend the lottery draws. This process was so similar to finding the right college… but it’s kindergarten! I couldn’t believe it, but I also couldn’t just go with our assigned school because:

  1. I was planning to move and did not want to have to pull him out during the middle of school or even after the first year. (my air force brat/divorce kid baggage)
  2. It’s a traditional school, from what I understood, and that’s not the setting I thought he would thrive in.
  3. I wasn’t hearing great things about the school anyway (until after the process of course – they soon launched a school farming project – how cool is that!).

I didn’t even visit the school though. I can’t call whether that was a good decision or not.

This process was so similar to finding the right college... but it's kindergarten! Click To Tweet

Other deciding factors

I knew my son was very friendly, a leader, and had analytical leanings but I wanted to make sure he was heavily exposed to the arts. My first choice for him really was Montessori but we were not accepted into the public Pre-K lottery for either magnet elementary Montessori school, and neither his father nor I could afford private (I researched independent schools before he started preschool) so that became out of the question. Eventually, I prioritized the following characteristics:

  • Arts-Integrated. I was most attracted to arts-integrated because arts was becoming very minimized in traditional schools. I also knew I wanted teachers who taught to various ways of learning.
  • Project-Based. Project-based reminded me of how I did work in graduate school and how people work day-to-day anyway so it seemed like great preparation for the goal of him becoming a productive, working adult.
  • Year-Round Calendar. I preferred the year-round calendar over traditional but was willing to sacrifice that preference for more positive factors that were good for my son. Good levels of community and parent support were important but not crucial.
  • Extracurricular/Leadership. Because of my son’s personality, I looked for clubs, interaction between multiple grades and leadership opportunities in his later years.
  • EOG Scores. I considered end-of-grade (EOG) test scores as a part of the equation but not the strongest factor although seeing academic achievement gaps set off alarms. I considered opinions from multiple parents and friends as well but they didn’t drive my decisions much.
  • Sibling Preference. I thought about my younger son because more likely than not, he would attend the same elementary school as his brother. With sibling preference prevalent in elementary schools, it seemed safe to assume we’ll automatically have that option.

I created a worksheet to help you work through your own school choice options. Feel free to access it below and copy to your Google Drive or download it for use on your favorite spreadsheet software.


1. Narrow Down List of Schools

Once I had an idea of what would philosophically work for our family, my first step was to look at the list of elementary public and charter schools in Durham and choose those within reasonable distance from where I currently live and where I planned to live (central or south Durham). I looked at school review sites including overwhelmingly positive ones, solicited opinions from current parents online and offline, reviewed NC report cards, solicited thoughts about specific schools from staff I knew in the school system, and even engaged in/listened to general talk from everywhere including internet message boards and neighborhood parks. Magnet and charter schools turned out as better options simply because of their flexibility in curriculum and geographic eligibility (i.e. we could move to another part of Durham county and he would be able to stay in the same school).

ONCE I had an idea of what would philosophically work for our family, my first step was to narrow the list of local elementary schools by reasonable commute considering moving plans. Click To Tweet

2. Tour and Interact with Schools

In the winter, I began touring schools. Central Park School for Children was my first tour and ended up being top of the list for my son. I loved the school vibe, many of his preschool classmates already attended there, their approach to curriculum and conflict resolution was great, and the environment was just warm. I had a very friendly interaction with a student in the hallway during my tour and that left a great impression. I knew that my son would thrive there, and I would be able to relate to the parents (some of whom I already knew) and be involved. (2015 Update: both of my sons are in this school and doing well! I’ll do an update before the year is out).

Soon after that tour, Durham Public Schools had their magnet school fair where all the system’s magnet schools displayed their students’ work, had teachers and staff available to discuss their approaches and a few schools even had students share their experiences. Ironically, I visited most schools except the one I ended up choosing! FYI – they had a magnet school fair in November 2015. But you can now contact schools to tour.

After visiting Central Park, I chose to also tour Club Boulevard Humanities Magnet Elementary, Sandy Ridge Visual and Performing Arts Elementary, Voyager Academy (charter), Global Scholars Academy (charter) and R.N. Harris Integrated Arts/Core Knowledge Elementary. When I toured, I paid special attention to:

  • What was going on in classrooms and in the hallways with students, teachers and staff?
  • How students interacted with me and each other? I watched students I saw in the hallways and in classrooms. If I saw warmth and friendliness in some of the students, it made me more comfortable with the school (it was the only thing that impressed me at one charter). When I didn’t see that in students, I didn’t feel connected.
  • Information provided during the tour and who was providing it. Each tour was different with some led by students, teachers, principals, parents or a combination. My favorite tour was student-led.
  • What was the feel of the environment? What was on the walls (like student work and other posters)? What was on some floors? A few schools had boxes of used Capri-suns on the floor. It took a while for me to realize what they were for (fundraising). I also looked at the cafeteria food, the library, etc. I was impressed with one charter school’s full commercial kitchen and their intent behind having it – most charter schools do not have kitchens and offer catered lunch from outside (if anything).

A parent friend convinced me to tour RN Harris with her. It really wasn’t on my radar but it sounded okay so I went to check it out. We took all of our kids too just by happenstance (normally we did not have kids on the tours just so we could fully pay attention). The tour really blew me away! I enjoyed the student interaction, the principal impressed me with her commitment to the school and the classes we visited actually caught EJ’s attention. It had my desired curriculum and teaching style preferences. It was just on the traditional calendar which was not what I desired for my son or our family.

Academic Achievement Gap

Mid-way during the process, the academic achievement gap really got on my radar. My son is African-American and I started noticing wide disparities for African-American boys on EOG scores for schools that had high overall EOG scores on their report cards. I began asking questions

Why does this gap exist in your school?  I started getting so frustrated with the answers to this question, I stopped asking. In one school, I received about five totally different responses from the five members of staff and volunteers that I asked. Many blamed socioeconomic status but didn’t go deeper into what it was about family financial status to make kids not do as well in school as others.

What are you doing to address the gap? I was much more impressed with how some schools addressed this. One school told me a very comprehensive approach they had recently implemented. Then again, I don’t know if they were just throwing everything at it to see what would stick? Regardless, it showed commitment to the issue. There were some school administrators I decided to email since I had already visited their schools and didn’t think to ask while there. Again, stark contrast in responses which really showed me who I was dealing with. I was most impressed when one head of school offered a phone conversation to discuss and did so over the weekend. He presented the most comprehensive attack of the issue including diversity training and ensuring proper credentialing for teachers.

I also reached out to schools outside of my search that had nearly no academic achievement gap and essentially asked what was their secret sauce. They all responded and mainly credited their commitment to ensuring kids understand the material. Practice, practice, practice as well as deep exposure to a variety of topics and subjects. Fortunately, one school I applied to matched this criteria and philosophy too 🙂

3. Apply for top choice schools

There was nothing lost by applying to charter schools so I applied to the ones I most desired, and included Kestrel Heights since they were adding an elementary school and we had ties to the program (but it was really far away from where we lived at the time). Since Global Scholars Academy had a late application deadline and a very small amount of chairs, I decided to wait before applying there and ultimately did not apply since EJ was accepted into a great school.

The tricky thing about applying to Durham choice schools was you could only list two choices. Word on the street was the first choice is the only one seriously considered – it’s rare to get into the second choice school (though it has happened), especially when it was a highly desired program (such as one of the Montessori schools). I didn’t want to waste my choices so I had to be sure about which school to put in the top spot.

I chose RN Harris as number one and Sandy Ridge as my second choice. Though Sandy Ridge had a lot of the elements I wanted, including being year-round, it was brand new and right down the street from where we lived at the time – a place I knew we would move from. The maturity and geographic centrality of the RN Harris program were more appealing and drove it to the #1 spot.

I also applied to Holt Elementary, the year-round school closest to our home. 2015 Update: This process has changed. Parents can no longer apply to magnet and year-round schools separately.


4. The Wait

It took several weeks for the lotteries to happen. There’s almost always a guarantee that a lottery will take place for all the schools I applied to. I celebrated the end of the process, then occupied myself with other projects while we waited. As I mentioned before, I did not attend the actual lottery and just waited for notification. Some schools notified me nearly immediately over email, for others I received a letter, and one, my favorite, didn’t bother with notification at all (BOOOO!).

5. Make a Decision

So first I have to say, we’re fortunate that we were accepted anywhere. We have friends that were not accepted to any schools they applied to. EJ was initially accepted into my top magnet school choice  R.N. Harris and the closest year-round school Holt. I chose Harris!

The day before he was to start at Harris, he received an invitation to join one of the charter schools (which was already in its second week of class). I was excited, shocked and then went into full research mode again. I reached out to parents I knew with children at the school and received some great advice. My decision came down to Harris having a more mature program. At that point in my life, a mature program worked better for our family life than one where the school was trying to work out its kinks and me trying to find my place within that… too much chaos for that time – our first time in elementary school. It may work for others, though. One mom was excited about the chance to help form the culture of a new school. At another point in my life, I would have been excited about that too, but not at that time.

Final Tips

1.Write down your desires and needs for your child’s education and your family’s role in it. This is the key to the whole process if you are going to do it. There’s no point in pursuing an arts magnet if your child has absolutely no love for the arts. Or, if your family has relationships with families in your base traditional school and it seems like a pretty good program, going through this process may be a moot point.

2. Attend tours with other parents and discuss your thoughts with each other. There may be some things you don’t catch that other parents will and vice versa. You may get a certain feeling about a school and think “maybe it was just me/my imagination” but then hear a parent say the exact same thing and realize you were right – confirmation! (TRUE STORY)

3. Ask questions. Many people I toured with did not ask questions even though they had concerns written all over their faces. Take the time to speak up, even if you just wait until after the tour. Even if you only have time to do it over email or with a phone call – be sure to contact the principal or director and get your concerns answered. No one will speak up for your child like you will.

4. Visit your top school(s) multiple times. We visited three or four times before EJ started at RN Harris. It would have been more if we attended the spring fair. Take your paperwork up there instead of sending it in the mail. Go to the upcoming school performance, carnival, fair or other event that shows more of the school’s personality. These are events open to the community so you would be welcomed. Recently I heard a suggestion to volunteer and/or get involved in PTA before joining a school. If it’s a definite that your family will be joining the school, by all means – go for it.

5. Take advantage of community resources. One of the things I love about Durham is the sheer amount of community support for families. I participated in Parent & Family Advocacy and Support Training (PFAST) provided by the NC Cooperative Extension at the beginning of the school year. It quickly helped with navigating and communicating within our elementary school.

By the time EJ was in kindergarten for nearly two months, he was in love with it! He was making new friends, learned so much new material including some of the French language and violin, and became a stronger reader and writer. His class was very diverse and he really was learning so much socially including more about limits (great lessons to have at his age). I was excited about what we would do together with this school (you know I’m getting involved). I really wanted him in a public school so I was happy we were part of a great one.

2015 Update: This excitement didn’t last long :-(. I’ll do an update soon with what happened and how we ended up at Central Park for first grade.


Feel free to leave questions or comments about your process in the section below or contact me directly.