Family heirlooms "fill vast silences" at new African American museum

At the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, thousands of great Americans are represented by priceless family heirlooms, donated to help them museum to share their experiences. 

Among them is the freedom paper donated by 83-year-old Elaine Thompson. It belonged to her great, great, great grandfather, Joseph Trammell of Loudon County, Virginia, reports CBS News correspondent Jericka Duncan.

“You can pick up this and touch it and know that it was in his hands. Now doesn’t that send a chill down your back?” Thompson asked, holding up the folder.

Trammell protected his freedom using a tin box, knowing the paper held his only proof that he was no longer someone’s property.

“As long as he had this, they could not enslave him,” Thompson said. “Not easily, anyway.”

His freedom paper, Thompson said, offers an image of who Joseph Trammel was during a time when photos were rare. He was five-feet-seven-inches tall in height, with several marks on his body.

“The one thing I was curious about is about the scars that they mention. Probably he was beaten at some point,” Thompson said. 

The tin box is the only one like it at the National African American Museum of History and Culture. During our interview, founding director Lonnie Bunch came by to personally show his appreciation.

“It means a lot to me, it really does,” Bunch told Thompson.

Nearly 40,000 items were donated – more than any other Smithsonian museum – including pictures, clothing furniture, jewelry and more.

“They fill vast silences in the record,” said Paul Gardullo, a curator at the museum.

To Gardullo, each of the personal heirlooms are treasures.

“These are things that are irreplaceable and priceless,” Gardullo said.

But many of these cherished keepsakes have a way of churning up old wounds. Rosemary Crockett donated her father’s jacket. 

“My dad flew 149 missions during World War II. Fifty missions were the norm,” Crockett said. “Now, white guys were going home after 50 missions.”

Her father, the late Lt. Col. Woodrow Wilson Crockett, was a member of the Tuskegee Airmen, the first group of black military personnel to fight in World War II.

“When they came back from overseas, they came off the Liberty ship. And there was a sign saying ‘White this way, colored that way,’” Rosemary recalled. “And they get back to the same… situation, that they left.”

And sharing that important history to future generations keeps people like Rosemary Crockett and Elaine Thomspon giving what’s left of a story that should never be forgotten. 

“For people who look at some of these artifacts or even these very painful times and say, ‘slavery is over, we should move forward, why do we have to keep talking about it,’ what do you say to that?” Duncan asked.

“The past is never over because it influences what people do later on,” Thompson said.

People continue to donate personal items. Curators here said they’re already making plans for this museum to evolve, just like history.

The National Museum of African American History and Culture will open to the public on Saturday, Sept. 24.