Tsione Wolde-Michael ’08 is making a difference at the Smithsonian’s newest museum.

It’s just a pillowcase—until you know its story. An enslaved woman named Rose gave the pillowcase to her 9-year-old daughter Ashley. Rose dropped three handfuls of pecans into the pillowcase, added a tattered dress and a braid of her hair, and gave it to her daughter, telling her it was filled with her love. Ashley was being sold away from her mother, a common and tragic occurrence during the days of domestic slave trade in the United States.

Tsione Wolde-Michael ’08, a PhD candidate in history at Harvard University, tells the story of the pillowcase to illustrate how otherwise unremarkable objects can touch hearts and minds when given their historical context. For six years, she worked with a small team curating the Slavery and Freedom exhibition at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.

“This was the first Smithsonian Museum built from the ground up,” says Wolde-Michael, pointing out that the museum started with no collections. “We were simultaneously erecting the building, amassing the collections, and developing the narrative. We really had to dig for these materials.”

As the building went up, items were donated, purchased at auction, and borrowed. The upside of this, says Wolde-Michael, was that it allowed staff to plan the building around some larger items, including a slave cabin, a Tuskegee Airmen airplane, and a segregated railcar.

Wolde-Michael, with her history background, researched the collected items and wrote much of the narrative found on the museum’s plaques. Her words are now read by thousands of visitors—more than 103,000 in the first 10 days after the museum opened last September.

Asked about opening day, Wolde-Michael (who is of Ethiopian lineage), didn’t mention the celebrities who were there—Presidents Obama and George W. Bush, Rep. John Lewis, Oprah Winfrey, and others—but instead recalled, “I’d never seen that many Black folks on the Mall. The ceremony was beautiful, but seeing people react to the exhibition with shock, surprise, and excitement—that was so special.”

Wolde-Michael is quick to note that visitors to the museum are diverse. “It’s not only an African American story; it’s the American story through an African American lens.”

During her six years at the museum, Wolde-Michael rose from intern to contractor to federal employee. In fact, during most of her years of graduate school, she was also working full time—either at the museum or teaching.

With the museum now open, Wolde-Michael continues her work with the Smithsonian as part of the Slave Wrecks Project (SWP). With the support of a Fulbright–Clinton Fellowship, she has been in Ethiopia working out of the African Union to support the project in South Africa, Senegal, and Mozambique to recover the first known objects from slave ships wrecked off the coast of Africa during the transatlantic slave trade.

As part of SWP, she says, “We are training a new generation of African maritime archaeologists.” Although Wolde-Michael became a certified diver to view the wreck sites, she’s not an archaeologist; her role is that of public historian, working closely with communities and helping local museums reinterpret their collections in a way that better reflects the African experience.

Concurrent with her SWP work, Wolde-Michael is completing her dissertation on Ethiopianism, which explores the significance Ethiopia held for African Americans from the late 18th century through the 20th century. This is a longtime interest of hers; she did her honors thesis at Macalester on the same topic. She anticipates receiving her PhD within the year.

Explaining how her scholarship can be seen as a form of activism, Wolde-Michael says, “Good scholarship pushes us to think differently, and by doing so, we hope to reach some reconciliation with our shared past and each other.”

June 1 2017

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