I recently returned from Washington, D.C., after witnessing the opening of the 19th and final Smithsonian Institution museum on the National Mall, the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Tens of thousands of Americans crowded the National Mall on all sides of the museum to hear tributes from leading Americans. President Barack Obama, former President George W. Bush and former first lady Laura Bush made presentations at the opening ceremony. Oprah Winfrey recited poetry, and founding museum Director Lonnie Bunch addressed the attendees. Angélique Kidjo sang “Redemption Song.” The legendary Stevie Wonder performed. Patti LaBelle sang Sam Cooke’s iconic “A Change Is Gonna Come.”
Although the museum has received enormous national coverage by all of the major broadcasters and print media, one had to be there to fully comprehend the significance of this undertaking — a half-billion dollar project encompassing more than 500,000 square feet on four levels, written into law 13 years ago and funded by Congress.
I was part of a group of 32 people, mostly from San Luis Obispo County, who attended. We were all there not only to witness history in the making, but also as a tribute to the late Joe Schwartz of Atascadero. Schwartz’s photographs became one of the first and only permanent exhibits adopted by the Smithsonian Institution to be prominently displayed at the museum. Schwartz’s work chronicled the plight of the “have-nots” of America from the 1930s to the 1980s with a focus on African-Americans.
Schwartz’s mantra was “we can all get along” regardless of race, religion, ethnicity, gender or age, and his work demonstrates this. The Smithsonian Institution selected 181 of Schwartz’s photographs that are displayed in his book, “Folk Photography: Poems I’ve Never Written.” The book was published in 2000 at Cal Poly in what is now The Graphic Communication Institute and part of the university’s graphic communication department. Without the book, none of this would have happened.
Though the photography of Joe Schwartz has appeared at art galleries and museums throughout the nation, it has now been experienced by tens of thousands of visitors to the NMAAHC during its opening days and will continue to be experienced by Americans and visitors from around the world in the months and years to come.
Our group spent several days together and participated in three formal dinners, one of which was attended by the congresswoman from our district in California, Lois Capps. As a tribute and expression of gratitude for all that Rep. Capps has done for our community, Paula Motlo, Joe Schwartz’s daughter, presented Capps with a matted Joe Schwartz photograph titled “Emotions, so much the same” and a copy of Schwartz’s book.
“I am thrilled that Joe Schwartz — and by extension, Cal Poly and the Central Coast — is part of this incredibly important museum,” Capps said. “The NMAAHC will connect all of its visitors to our country’s history and help us better understand and connect with our neighbors. I think these values of awareness, unity and understanding are deeply reflected in Joe’s work.”
Motlo said, “It’s important for smaller cities such as San Luis Obispo and its surrounding communities to cultivate any type of diversity in our community. My father brought to this community his passion for blacks and whites getting along through his photography. Now that his photography is being represented at such a prestigious Smithsonian Institution venue, it provides us, the citizens of California’s Central Coast, with the opportunity to take the path forward towards accommodating and accepting diversity at all levels.”
I represented Cal Poly in our group as a professor emeritus along with Camille O’Bryant, associate dean of Cal Poly’s College of Science and Mathematics.
“When I think of Joe Schwartz’s legacy and the images he captured of how people really do have shared experiences, are really able to love and connect with each other despite our differences, it makes me realize that this is also the type of legacy we would like to have … we deserve to have for Cal Poly and the Central Coast of California,” O’Bryant said. “Joe Schwartz’s art and the exhibits in the NMAAHC provide us with the opportunity to look inside, within and beyond those things that may be dividing us and find ways to come together.”
The lessons taught at the NMAAHC can also be an inspiration to Cal Poly in pursuing the university’s diversity goals.
“Cal Poly wants to aspire to become an institution of higher education that is excellent because we are an inclusive community,” O’Bryant said. “The collections in the NMAAHC are all about identifying those things that were (and in some cases still are) barriers to including all Americans as equal citizens. The fact that Cal Poly recognized Joe’s work and contributions at our first ever colloquium on diversity and inclusion several years ago is really significant. It shows that we can learn a lot about how people can and should come together and see how our differences make us stronger as a community.”
The Washington, D.C., trip was an experience of a lifetime, poetically described by Motlo.
“It would have been the happiest day of my father’s life had he been there,” Motlo said. “He would’ve wept tears of joy. There was so much love and acceptance in the crowds of people swarming into the opening ceremony and through the museum doors. You really felt it.”
Harvey R. Levenson is professor emeritus and former department head of graphic communication at Cal Poly.