A Conversation With Lonnie G. Bunch III

Founding director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African-American History & Culture Lonnie G. Bunch III discusses his Belleville youth.

Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution.

The Newark Museum will present its John Cotton Dana Award to Belleville native Lonnie G. Bunch III on May 13. The award is named for the museum’s founder.

New Jersey Monthly: You are about to be honored at the Newark Museum. I understand that was the first museum you visited as a child.
Lonnie G. Bunch III: Correct. The Newark Museum was one of two cultural institutions in Newark that were important to me. The other was the Newark Historical Society. Both of them sort of stimulated my interest in history.

NJM: Your grandfather, a onetime sharecropper from North Carolina, came to New Jersey after becoming a dentist. He was known around Belleville as Doc Bunch. And your parents were schoolteachers in the area. Yours was the only black family in the neighborhood. That couldn’t have been easy.
LGBIII: Race would always tap you on the shoulder. There was this little girl—when I would walk to elementary school, she would always yell out, “God left you in the oven too long. Why are you so dark?” And one time, I was playing baseball and the game turned bad. The kids attacked me. I remember running into someone’s driveway and collapsing, and a little white girl came out of the house and stood between me and the angry mob and told them to get off of her property. So people treated me horribly, and they treated me wonderfully.

NJM: You were 14 at the time of the Newark riots in 1967. How were you affected?
LGBIII: They blocked off Washington Avenue, at the boundary between Newark and Belleville, because in Belleville there was great fear that the rioters would come into the community. I was walking in a neighborhood that wasn’t my own during the rebellion, and a cop pulled me over as I was walking. He said, “Where are your matches?” Then he kept patting me down, looking for my matches. I told him, “I’m an athlete, I don’t smoke.” Then he threw me on the hood of his car. I can still remember how hot the hood of that car was on my face. He finally figured out my name—our family name was pretty well known in Belleville—and then he let me go.

NJM: In what ways did Belleville shape who you are today?
LGBIII: Belleville taught me hard work, it taught me to fight, and it taught me when to run. All of those skills have served me in good stead. Belleville also shaped my museum career.

NJM: How so?
LGBIII: When I was growing up, we’d always have barbecues in the backyard. As a kid, I wanted to be back there, because that’s where grown men were talking. One person would mention Jackie Robinson and say he’s the best player of all time, and another person would say no, Willie Mays was better. What was happening was real social interaction, people talking about life. I realized that museums, at their best, were like being in our backyard. Suddenly there’s a common language, people have things in common to talk about. That’s a notion that I’ve put to use when I’ve organized exhibitions. And that’s where we’re going now, at the Smithsonian—we want people talking to each other while wrestling with unvarnished truths. We want people to see these stories of migration and work and slavery and begin to see these individuals as humans just like them. You have to break down barriers for people. That gets them talking.

NJM: You often tell people, “I’m just a kid from Jersey trying to make it in the big city.” What are you trying to say?
LGBIII: You always want to remember your roots, to remember to be humble. One of the biggest challenges of leading an institution is you become isolated from the people you knew, and what you once knew. For me, remembering that I’m from Jersey and repeating that to people keeps me grounded.

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