- © 2017 Tamzin B. Smith
Lonnie Bunch, who in 2017 received an honorary degree from WC in recognition of his efforts to create the landmark National Museum of African American History and Culture, has become the first African American to lead the Smithsonian Institution. And when Bunch shared the news with museum staffers, a Washington College student was there to congratulate him.
The man responsible for the successful design, build, and launch of the newest gem in the crown of Smithsonian museums has been tapped to lead the world’s largest museum and education organization. On May 28, the Smithsonian Institution’s Board of Regents announced that Lonnie Bunch, the founding director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) and an honorary alumnus of Washington College, would become secretary of the iconic American institution.
Jada Aristilde ’21, a sociology major interning at NMAAHC, heard the news directly from Bunch, whom she has studied, written about, and admired from afar. That day, in the museum’s Oprah Winfrey Theatre, she stood in line to meet one of her personal heroes (the other is Barack Obama).
“I was literally shaking and crying, and all I could say was ‘I love you so much!’” Aristilde recalls. “He’s such an open and caring person. You could feel the energy, you could feel how much he cares about people.”
Bunch took both of her hands in his and said something she’ll long remember. “You are our future. When I’m old and come back here to visit, getting pushed in a wheelchair, I want you to be the one to greet me as the director of the museum.”
Immediately after that historic moment, Aristilde called Pat Nugent, deputy director of the Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience who first helped her make the connection to Bunch and the museum he founded. Recruited from Rochester, New York, as a Washington Scholar, Aristilde was just a sophomore when she began working with Nugent on the Chesapeake Heartland Project, a collaboration between the Starr Center and NMAAHC that grew out of Bunch’s previous visits to campus.
“During those visits,” Nugent says, “Bunch saw the College’s and community’s potential to create a new model for African American public history and asked us to develop a proposal. After convening with campus and community leaders, we presented our proposal for the Chesapeake Heartland Project to Lonnie Bunch and senior staff at a meeting in Washington, D.C. They responded with great enthusiasm, saying that the project aligned with their vision of a museum without walls and of what they call ‘community curation’—empowering regular people to collect, share, and interpret the history of their own families and communities.”
Over the past several months, Aristilde, a sociology major, has played an integral role in that community curation, working with local organizations to preserve, digitize, and make accessible four centuries of materials related to African American history in Kent County. That experience led to her Explore America internship at Bunch’s museum. Throughout the spring semester, under the guidance of her faculty adviser Rachel Durso, she traveled to Washington every Monday for her accredited internship, where she focused on the professional curation of materials provided by local communities. In her expanded role this summer, Aristilde is digitizing the 35 mm slides that historian George McDaniel used in his work to date the Jones-Hall-Sims House, an early African American home—now being called the “Freedom House”— discovered in Montgomery County. The home built by former enslaved people is being reassembled at NMAAHC. She also spends two days a week in the family history center of the museum, where she helps visitors learn how to explore their past.
“When I first came to Washington College, I had no intention of following this path,” she says, “but I’ve learned so much—not the least of which is that opportunities present themselves all the time, and you just have to be open to them.”