As Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, Lonnie G. Bunch III oversees 19 museums, 21 libraries, the National Zoo, and numerous research and education centers. And while the total number of artifacts in the Smithsonian's collections are estimated at 156 million, Bunch sat down with CBS News national correspondent Chip Reid to discuss just five artifacts from the Smithsonian's museums – objects that hold a profoundly personal meaning to him.
The Spirit of St. Louis, at the National Air and Space Museum
A modified Ryan M-2 high-wing monoplane flown by Charles Lindbergh in the first solo, nonstop Transatlantic flight, in May 1927.
Reid asked, "What makes this so historic in American history?"
"I think it's historic on several levels," said Bunch. "First of all, there's the notion of what this does for aviation; it kind of legitimizes aviation. You know, before aviation or barnstormers, old pilots of the mail, but it really wasn't something that was commercial. Lindbergh's flight proved the safety of aviation. And it also proved that you can go farther than you might have thought.
"And that really then stimulated creativity and experimentation in aviation. But even more important to me as a social historian is what this meant. When Lindbergh came back, America went wild, because they were so excited about not only his ability to fly – because remember, aviation is still something very rare, you had to be almost like a god-like figure to fly – so suddenly there are people think, 'This man is very special.'
"But on the other hand, it's the 1920s. It's a time when the Roaring '20s, there's prosperity, but there's also this sense that America's changing, that the kind of business community and industry that's there is taking away from the rugged individual, that you no longer become this great individual but rather you become part of the masses.
"Lindbergh broke through that. And that's why they always called him Lucky Lindbergh, because in some ways his action got people excited to believe that you could still persevere and still be that pioneering individual."
"In terms of sheer adventure, this was an amazing story," said Reid. "Tell me a bit about that. For people who don't know what it took for him to get from there to there, what did he go through?
"Well, think about it. First of all, there is this prize that's put out by a New York restaurateur, saying, whoever can fly across the Atlantic nonstop – didn't matter whether from the United States to France, or France to the United States – he'd win a $25,000 prize.
"So on the one hand, there was this desire by Lindbergh and many others to win that prize. But more importantly, they wanted to pioneer. They wanted to be the first to do something. So imagine this, that Lindbergh first of all has to find support. He finds a series of people in St. Louis who are going to give him the money to help him acquire the plane and adapt the plane. And that's why it's [called] The Spirit of St. Louis.
"But then, what's so amazing about it is that Lindbergh sort of takes off from Long Island and recognizes that he's gonna have to fly for more than 30 hours nonstop. So, the challenge of, 'Can a plane do this? Do you have the fuel to do it? Can you stay awake as a pilot to do that?' So, there was this amazing challenge of just doing it.
"And when you read Lindbergh's books about his flight, the talk about what it took for him to not panic, to keep himself under control as he flew for those 33-and-a-half hours, and then the wonder of it, actually making it and not sure that he was in the right place and landing, and suddenly thinking he was going to land in a quiet field when suddenly there are 100,000 people cheering, couldn't believe this is happening."
"And he thought it was some kind of complex, a factory or something because of all the lights," said Reid.
"Yeah, he was confused. He said, 'It can't be the airport.'"
"It was headlights!"
"It really was. All the cars were there. And so, the notion for me of the amazing sense of joy and relief and I mean, Lindbergh describes how, you know, the crowd rushes the plane. He's worried about, 'Will the plane be destroyed?' And suddenly he opens the door to sort of protect the plane and they carry him as this hero through the field, kind of a 1920s mash pit, you know? (LAUGHS) And so it's amazing to me that Lindbergh was able to do this. It's just one of the great technological and personal achievements of the 20th century."
The first-ever image of a black hole was captured in 2019 by the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT), a collaboration of the Harvard & Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. The black hole is at the center of Messier 87, a galaxy 55 million light-years away.
Bunch said, "What we have is an image of dust and light being draw into a black hole that's a long way from here."
Reid asked, "What was the Smithsonian's role in getting this image?"
"The Smithsonian really played an important role, both in terms of leading and collaborating, that it brought an international group of people, scientists together, to be able to coordinate the work that needed to be done to find this. And also, one of the roles of the Smithsonian is that it really can do long-term research. This didn't happen overnight. This took years of research and planning, coordination. The Smithsonian has a commitment to being in the process of scientific exploration for a long time. So therefore, they're able to actually come across things like this."
"And do you think most people know that the Smithsonian does things like this? And is it important for you to make sure people do know that?"
"I think in some ways people only know a bit of the Smithsonian," said Bunch. "And one of the bits they don't know as well is how central the research is to who the Smithsonian is, and that the Smithsonian has an amazing array of scientists, spends millions of dollars, in order to make sure that it's doing cutting-edge research in tropical issues like rainforest issues, or cutting-edge research on our own environmental issues. So for me, I hope people understand that the Smithsonian is something that taps so many aspects of our lives, and especially science."
Tin Wallet and Freedom Papers, at the National Museum of African American History and Culture
A simple homemade tin box was used by Joseph Trammell (1831-1859), a black man, to carry the papers proving his freedom.
"Joseph Trammell was one of a number of free African Americans during the years before the Civil War," said Bunch. "When the Civil War broke out, there were four million African Americans enslaved. There were another 800,000 in the North and the South who were free.
"Trammell was one of those people who gained his freedom in the 1850s, but because being free and being black was considered such an anomaly, they had to register. It was an attempt to control them. There was a fear that if the natural status for blacks were slavery, suddenly if you're free, is that gonna call the natural status into question?
"So, Trammell is set free in the 1850s, and the first thing he has to do is register to get his freedom papers."
"So, what does he keep in that little tin wallet?" asked Reid.
"Well, here's what happens: You get your freedom paper. And you realize that that's the key to your future, that without that paper, you can be enslaved again. So, the key is to protect it and to keep it. So, what he did was he realized that he had to go to work and carry it with him. So, rather than let it get damaged by perspiration, he created what the family said was a handmade tin wallet that he put it in, and therefore, it would protect it. And then whenever he came home, he would take it out. And he would then talk to the family about freedom and the importance of freedom."
"And was there anything else in the tin wallet, or just that?"
"It was just that paper. That paper was so important. Because without that paper, he could have been taken away from his family. And the notion was if you have that paper, you suddenly can be free."
"How did the Smithsonian get its hands on this tin wallet?" Reid asked.
"Well, I tend to talk a lot!" Bunch laughed. "I would tend to go around the country and tell people about the collections that we are looking for, artifacts. And I knew that we wanted to tell the story of slavery and freedom. But I wasn't sure exactly how we do it. And they heard about me, the family heard that I was interested in this. And they reached out to us.
"And we talked to the family. And I'll be honest, when somebody said, 'You want to look at a tin wallet?' I was thinking, 'What is that?' But suddenly when I learned the whole story, the tenuous nature of freedom, the importance of a handmade wallet for the family, and the fact that the family kept it for five generations, and then gave it to us.
"So, for me, getting something like the Trammell papers was unbelievably humbling. Because it convinced me that we could find the stuff of history. Because remember, when this museum began, it had nothing; no collections at all. So, the notion was, could we find the stuff of history? And when we got this document and this tin wallet, it convinced me that we could."
Reid asked, "Are you done collecting?"
"Never," he replied. "There's two things a museum always does: fundraise and collecting of objects. (LAUGHS) I think there are always things that you want to have, things that maybe would amplify a story, or would be something that was special. I've always said, 'I sure wish I had Willie Mays' mitt.' Now, I don't have that. But I think that what we have more than anything else is now a relationship with people all over the country, who recognize the importance of history, the importance of preserving that history, and importance of the Smithsonian helping the public see the story.
"Because what's so powerful to me about the Trammell tin box is that the family thought a lot about, should they donate this? And then they realized that the story of Joseph Trammell was bigger than their family. It wasn't just a family story; it was a story about America and shaping all of America.
"And so, in a way what I love is that people recognize that the things that we think are small or modest really have a way to shape all the history that we touch. And that's what the Trammells did when they shared this collection with us."
The Adams Memorial, at the Smithsonian American Art Museum
A bronze replica of a statue by Augustus Saint-Gaudens, created for the gravesite of Clover Adams, wife of Henry Adams (a descendant of Presidents John Adams and John Quincy Adams), in Rock Creek Cemetery in Washington, D.C.
Clover Adams, said Bunch, was part of the Washington elite: "Her family had a great deal of influence and some means. She was somebody who was part of an intellectual conversation that really captivated Henry Adams. She was also a photographer."
She died by suicide. "She drank a form of cyanide that was used in the chemical processing of photography," said Bunch. "So, it was something that she was familiar with, that she had used a lot in her career and her own photography. And the story is that he is leaving to go to a meeting when somebody knocks on the door who said they wanted to see Clover, a woman. And he then went upstairs to get her. And he found her lying on the floor. He brought her down to the couch, called doctors. But she was gone."
Reid asked, "There are some people who believe that [the statue] is not Clover Adams, it's a symbol of all people. In fact you can't even tell if it's a man or a woman. Can you choose to say, 'I believe it is Clover Adams'?"
"I can; I'm the secretary!" Bunch laughed. "You know, for me it really is about Clover Adams. I understand about this whole notion of, you know, that amazing moment between grief and sorrow. But for me this is about the sense of loss that one person felt and his way to try to remember, to deal with that loss, to deal with it in a way that also allowed him to put aside some of his own feelings of any, maybe, guilt. Did he have the strongest relationship with his wife? She committed suicide; how do you handle that? So, I think there were, while they try to remove the personal, I see it as intensely personal."
Augustus Saint-Gaudens was the most pre-eminent sculptor in America in the late 19th century, and was acquainted with Henry Adams, who was, Bunch said, "a part of American royalty. He's also part of an elite group of people that worked, that taught at Harvard where he first began to get to know this sculptor.
"And as this sculptor became a friend of his, to help him, you know, remember his wife, they had talks about Buddhism and a variety of things. And all of that is reflected in there."
"Generally in a museum of this quality, most of the art is original. This is a replica. Why did the Smithsonian want a replica?"
"Well, I think that one, it's because the original they would never get. Nobody's gonna take it out of the cemetery," Bunch said. "But two, this artist is so important, has done such great work, so for me, it may be a replica, but I think it's one of most powerful replicas I've ever seen."
"I'm told that you can tell on the original that people touch it. What kind of reaction have you seen people have?"
"Occasionally when people ask me what's my tour of Washington, I take them there. And so I've taken a lot of people. And first of all, there's a sense of both reverence that comes from being in a cemetery, but also because this is such a large figure, you really feel, I feel, her presence."
"This is made of bronze, and when people touch bronze – "
"Where people touch, they leave their prints behind. In some ways what it means to me is that when I see that, it means this is a living statue. That it's not just about something that happened over 100-and-some years ago. But that people find relevance and importance. And they wanna touch it."
The Greensboro Lunch Counter, at the National Museum of American History
Following the closing of the Greensboro Woolworth's in 1993, a small section of the lunch counter was donated to the Smithsonian.
"That lunch counter has been called the most famous lunch counter in American history," said Chip Reid. "Is that fair?"
"Oh, I think it's absolutely fair," said Bunch. "There's no doubt in my mind that this is one of the most important moments in 20th century America. It is the lunch counter that really sparked a revolution. The Greensboro lunch counter is a wonderful example of something that on the surface seems innocuous, and yet by the way people reacted to it, by the way people used it as a tool to change America, it's one of the most important moments in the 20th century."
The story of that lunch counter began in 1960. "We're only five years, six years away from the Brown v. Board of Education, five years from the Montgomery bus boycotts, so the Civil Rights Movement is on everybody's mind," said Bunch. "But they're still struggling to figure out what are the strategies to confront Jim Crow segregation.
"In February 1960, four students from North Carolina A&T said, 'You know, one of the ways to do it is to demand desegregation by sitting in at the Greensboro lunch counter.' And these lunch counters, like hotels and buses, were segregated. And so, the notion was that if these students could sit down, they weren't sure it was gonna happen, but they thought they would at least strike a blow for social justice."
"So, tell me the progression here: That day, the four of them, what happened the next day, and the next day, and the next day?"
"What happens is that the four sit in, and in essence, they're ignored initially," said Bunch. "And they come back with different iterations, and it suddenly becomes a movement, that people from other parts of the college begin to say, "All right, we will now sit in." And what happens is that gets picked up by the media, and it's seen as one of the strategies.
"Remember, this is 1960, so you're just now on the cusp of the Freedom Riders, people riding buses to fight for desegregation. And suddenly people saw attacking lunch counters, Woolworth's and others, as really an effective tool. And so, what this does, it launches hundreds, hundreds of sit-ins around the country, especially throughout the South, using this as a tool to get media attention to demand that change occurs. And so, this lunch counter, this simple lunch counter really was the spark that launched the revolution."
Reid said, "Woolworths were different in different parts of the country, so in much or even most of the country, Woolworth's lunch counters were desegregated."
"What Woolworth's said is that they would follow the local custom," Bunch said. "So that if you were in places like Newark, New Jersey, that the custom was people could sit at the counter. If you were in Alabama, Mississippi, North Carolina, the custom was Jim Crow segregation. So, what Woolworth's said is that 'We're not gonna have a policy. We're gonna follow the local custom.'"
"And it wasn't long after their sit-in that this lunch counter actually was desegregated?"
"This lunch counter in Woolworth's was desegregated in July of that year. So, it was also a victory. So, people could see this as something really important.
"But can I tell you why this is important to me in a personal way? When I was a kid growing up in New Jersey, I thought the key thing in life, being a five-year-old, six-year-old, was running to Woolworth's with my mom, right, and going to sit at the lunch counter, [and] having a hamburger. I thought that was the greatest thing ever!
"So, it's gotta be 1957, 1958: I'm taken to North Carolina to visit relatives. Now, not Greensboro, but Raleigh. And I'm in Raleigh, and my aunt and another relative are walking behind me, and I see Woolworth's. So I run in, and sit at the lunch counter. And I'm sitting at this lunch counter, and suddenly these white hands pick me up and take me over to the standing part where only colored people could stand. And I remember being dumbfounded. My aunt was terrified. And I remember being dumbfounded. And they served me a hamburger. And the taste was never the same.
"I never went back to Woolworth's after that. But I'll never forget how much that hurt, just as a little kid from New Jersey. So then, when years later I have an opportunity to think about collecting, collecting this lunch counter, it became both a professional issue and a very personal issue."
Story produced by Jay Kernis. Thanks to editor Carol Ross.
For more info:
- Smithsonian Institution
- "A Fool's Errand: Creating the National Museum of African American History and Culture in the Age of Bush, Obama, and Trump" by Lonnie G. Bunch III (Smithsonian Books), in Hardcover and eBook formats, available via Amazon
- Book tour info – New York City (Oct. 1); Philadelphia (Oct. 15); Cambridge, Mass. (Oct. 23); New Haven, Conn. (Oct. 24); and Los Angeles (Nov. 16)