THE SMITHSONIAN’S black history museum has been entrusted to Spencer R. Crew, a curator, scholar, and veteran museum director.

In the wake of Lonnie Bunch’s appointment as secretary of the entire Smithsonian Institution, the founding director of the National Museum of African America History and Culture (NMAAHC) tapped Crew, 60, as his temporary replacement. The two men have worked together for two decades.

“We are friends and we talk about a lot of things, but that came as a surprise,” Crew told George Mason University News. He is a professor of U.S. history at George Mason. “A nice surprise, a wonderful surprise. I just feel honored that he would ask me to take on that responsibility.”

“We are friends and we talk about a lot of things, but that came as a surprise. I just feel honored that he would ask me to take on that responsibility.”
— Spencer R. Crew

News of Bunch’s elevation came May 28 and he officially took over as head of the Smithsonian on June 16, overseeing 19 museums and the National Zoo.

With Kinshasha Holman Conwill maintaining her role as deputy director of NMAAHC, Crew is serving as interim director of the museum until a new permanent director is hired. He is on a leave of absence from George Mason, which is located in Fairfax, Va.

PREVIOUSLY, CREW SERVED as director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History (NMAH), where he developed the landmark exhibition “Field to Factory: Afro-American Migration 1915-1940.” Crew led the museum from 1994 to 2001. He was the first African American director of the museum and also its youngest. While Crew was at the helm, Bunch was associate director for curatorial affairs (1994-2000).

Crew left NMAH to become founding president of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, which opened in 2004. He led the Cincinnati museum for six years.

More recently, Crew developed “Defending Freedom, Defining Freedom: Era of Segregation 1876-1968” as a guest curator. The exhibition is one of the permanent displays that debuted with the grand opening of NMAAHC.

According the museum’s description, the exhibition explores “the years following the end of Reconstruction to show how the nation struggled to define the status of African Americans. This period represents a critical era for the United States and for African Americans. It puts to the test whether African Americans would have full citizenship rights after more than 250 years of enslavement.”

THREE BLACK MEN are now playing influential roles in the future of the National Museum of African American History and Culture—Bunch, Crew, and Kenneth Chenault, former CEO of American Express (2001-2018). Chenault chairs the Advisory Council of NMAAHC, which is undertaking a search process to identify Bunch’s successor.

Chenault indicated Crew would provide steady leadership in the meantime. He told The Washington Post: “Spencer understands the Smithsonian, he was heavily involved in the inaugural exhibitions…and he is one of the foremost historians of African American history.”

Bunch echoed his endorsement of Crew. “We have someone who can lead the organization, that can help it continue its fundraising, its programmatic initiatives. I’m very comfortable,” Bunch said to the Post. “Not only is [the museum] in good hands with its leadership, but the staff there, who I hired, is really wonderful and they are able to carry on the vision of the museum.” CT


IMAGES: Top of page, National Museum of African American History and Culture at dusk. | Courtesy Smithsonian; Left, Portrait of Spencer R. Crew. | George Mason University


Spencer R. Crew is the author of the forthcoming biography “Thurgood Marshall: A Life in American History” (September) and among the contributors to “Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle.” Slated for release in November, the volume “sets the precedent for the next generation of Lawrence scholars and studies in modern and contemporary discourse. The American Struggle explores Jacob Lawrence’s radical way of transforming history into art by looking at his thirty panel series of paintings, “Struggle…from the History of the American People (1954–56).” Crew is also the author of “Field to factory: Afro-American migration 1915-1940.” In addition he has worked on books focused on slave narratives. He is co-author of “Unchained Memories: Readings from the Slave Narratives” and co-editor with Lonnie Bunch of the three-volume “A Documentary Collection of the Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project” and “Memories of the Enslaved: Voices from the Slave Narratives.”


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