In a recent article in Smithsonian Magazine, Lonnie G. Bunch III, the man behind the Smithsonian Institution’s vaunted National Museum of African American History and Culture, which opened to much fanfare over the weekend, describes an odyssey that began with a drive from his former home here in Oak Park to Washington D.C. in July 2005.

“The trip gave me plenty of time to ponder whether I’d made the right decision,” said Bunch, the museum’s founding director. “After all, I loved Chicago, my home in Oak Park and my job as president of the Chicago Historical Society. But it was too late to turn back.” 

What happened next, said Bunch, is a tale of wile, heroism, dignity and gumption that might make for a museum exhibition of its own one day. 

For instance, on his first day on the job, Bunch and his assistant found themselves locked out of their own “temporary offices somewhere off the National Mall.” When Bunch went to the building’s security office to inform the authorities that, as the then-non-existent museum’s director, he wanted access to his offices, an officer told Bunch no, “because we have no record of you.”

“I called back to the Castle, the Smithsonian headquarters building, and confirmed that we were supposed to be allowed in,” Bunch recalled. “As I stood looking foolishly at a locked door, a maintenance man walked by pushing a cart holding some tools. One of those tools was a crow bar. So we borrowed it and broke into our offices.”

Lonnie, Oak Park loves you back.

Michael Romain

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