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Amber Samuels Photo Oct 12, 2020

Visions of Social Justice at the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC)

As a counselor, an orientation toward social justice is something that I am called to on both personal and professional levels. I first visited the National Museum of African American History and Culture this past summer. While I found it enjoyable and appreciated being exposed to various layers of African American history that were formerly unknown to me, I was able to attend the museum only briefly, and therefore left with the feeling that I had not had sufficient time to explore enough of what the museum had to offer.

I spent the majority of my time in the history galleries, so I started on floor C3 and then moved on to visit levels C2 and C1. Overall, I appreciated the museum’s emphasis on African American history as being complex and multidimensional, as opposed to being defined only by slavery, which is so often the case in contemporary history.

In addition to the museum’s infusion of social justice movements throughout history, I also appreciated that the museum’s exhibits represented African Americans as a group of people who continually built new efforts toward freedom that have benefited all Americans to this date.

Social Justice Movements

As I traveled through floor C3, I noticed a number of social justice movements that I did not know of previously. It was exciting to learn about these at first, but upon further reflection, I felt saddened that I had not learned of these in any of my history classes.

The exhibits in C3 focused on Slavery and Freedom from 1400-1877. An aspect of the exhibit that particularly resonated with me was its emphasis on both free and enslaved African Americans’ contributions in making America what it is today. Overall, I found that the exhibit addressed multiple components of African American history, as it included items that focused on aspects of African American slavery and freedom.

I ultimately found that this exhibition highlighted the importance of and need for social justice movements, as it called attention to what the actions of ordinary men and women committed to having freedom can produce. In addition to providing detailed and seemingly accurate depictions of slavery, I appreciated the museum’s emphasis on the significance of social justice movements throughout both slavery and freedom. Specifically, the exhibition placed emphasis on abolitionist movements, emancipation, and reconstruction and outlined the ways in which these early social justice movements improved the lives of not only African Americans, but also marginalized groups of people that would follow in the future.

Emergence of Female Leaders

I was surprised to learn of the numerous leaders that emerged during various time periods from slavery to segregation. I was mainly exposed to these exhibits on floor C2, which focused on Defending Freedom, Defining Freedom: The Era of Segregation from 1876-1968, and on floor C3.

Before visiting the NMAAHC, I was familiar with Rosa Park’s efforts during the time of segregation. I was not, however, familiar with some of the female leaders that I was exposed to during this visit, namely Recy Taylor and Jo Ann Robinson.

Robinson became involved in the Women’s Political Council (WPC) in Montgomery, AL. The WPC was a civic organization designed to foster African American women’s involvement in civic activities. As the WPC's president, she made desegregating the city's buses a top priority. In addition, some of her efforts that were particularly impactful included facilitating women’s involvement in civic affairs, increasing voter registration in the Black community, and advocating for women who were victims of rape and sexual assaults. She is known today as a heroine of the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

After surviving a gang rape, Recy Taylor became an advocate and leader for women of color who are survivors of rape. Although Recy Taylor’s case did not win in the short term, she served as a model for other survivors by displaying the power of telling her story at a time of stigma and racial violence. Overall, the work of both women proved to be foundational to the civil rights movement.

Comparison Between Past and Recent Movements

The exhibition on C1 featured A Changing America from 1968 and beyond. Given that this exhibition begins at the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. and ends at the second election of Barack Obama, this exhibit represented a large scope of movements. Some of the past African American movements include: The Black Arts Movement, Black Power Movement, and The Black Museum Movement. Some of the more recent, contemporary movements include: “Yes We Can,” Black is Beautiful, and #BlackLivesMatter.

Overall, I found it disheartening that, to me, I did not observe drastic differences between past and present movements, as it seems that movements throughout the years have all centered around the pursuit of fairness and equality, yet it has not been achieved. A distinct difference, however, is that past movements did not have social media as a tool to disseminate their platform, whereas contemporary movements, such as #BlackLivesMatter, have centered around the use of social media platforms to convey their message.

While movements from both past and present have their defining differences, they both reflect the continued fight for racial equality and social justice that has persisted since slavery and segregation.

African Americans and Mental Health Issues

I felt that the exhibit that connected most directly to mental health issues in the African American community was one that highlighted the history of the disproportionate incarceration of African American men in US prisons. In addition, I felt that the exhibit that talked about the Tuskegee Study on African Americans connected most directly to medical issues in the African American community. My impression of this information is that it is an indication that there is more work to be done in removing barriers toward accessing these types of services and advocating for African American communities.

Overall, I appreciated the inclusion of this information because I think it is important that people know about the unfortunate history that has contributed to the current underutilization of medical and mental health services by minority groups, in this case, African Americans, in the United States.


Amber M. Samuels is a doctoral candidate at The George Washington University working toward a PhD in Counseling and a Licensed Graduate Professional Counselor (LGPC) in the District of Columbia. She is board-certified as a National Certified Counselor (NCC) and is an MBTI® Certified Practitioner. Amber takes an intersectional approach to counseling and utilizes an integrative theoretical orientation to guide her in helping the individuals she works with move toward optimum mental health. Her research centers around using research as a tool for advocacy and as a way to inform culturally sensitive clinical practice. You can learn more about Amber at https://www.linkedin.com/in/itsambersamuels/

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