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Detroit treasures star at national African American museum

September 25, 2016

DETROIT (AP) — A violin that a Michigan woman kept under her bed for 35 years now has a star spot at the new National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.

Shirley Burke of West Bloomfield donated the instrument, which dates to the 1800s and belonged to her great-grandfather Jesse Burke. He played it when he was a slave owned by Elisha Burke, and later as a free man. It was passed down through the generations until it came to her from an aunt in 1981.

Now, instead of under the bed, it sits in a hushed glass case in the solemn Slavery and Freedom gallery of the shimmering bronze-colored museum, which openes to the public Sept. 24, according to the Detroit Free Press ( http://on.freep.com/2cE9lrX ).

When the Smithsonian expressed interest in the violin, “I wanted to do the right thing,” said Burke, a retired school assistant principal. “I never thought the violin was owned by me.”

The violin is one of many ties that Michigan has to the $540-million museum on the National Mall.

A few other Michigan highlights are: Boxing gloves worn by raised-in-Detroit Joe Louis. A “March” banner that was in a famous photograph of 12-year-old Detroiter Edith Lee Payne at the 1963 March on Washington. A cherry red, made-in-Detroit 1973 Cadillac Eldorado owned by singer Chuck Berry. A photo of Aretha Franklin singing. A video of Motown artists like Tammy Terrell and Marvin Gaye. A painting by former Detroit artist McArthur Binion entitled “Rutabaga in the Sky.”

In addition, Detroit-based Smith Group JJR was one of the four architects on the project, figuring out how to actually build the new museum on the Mall with its three underground concourses while avoiding flooding from the groundwater below.

Still, Burke’s violin may best tell the story the new museum wants to convey, “the tension between moments of tears and moments of great joy,” founding director Lonnie Bunch said Wednesday. “The goal is to help all of us realize how profoundly we are by affected by the African American experience.”

The violin’s warm color and burnished surface speaks to the dignity and joy of its player despite his life circumstances. It moved from Burke’s ancestor Jesse of Phyllis County, Ark. to his oldest child, Darkus, who passed it to her sister Savannah, who “passed it to Uncle Dan, and Uncle Dan passed it to his niece Lorraine Burke Butcher. And she passed it to me,” said Burke, 73.

Now the violin is in a giant museum where millions of visitors are expected to pass by it every year.

In addition to Michigan’s ties to the exhibition itself, plenty of Michiganders plan to be among the first to visit the new museum, which sits near the Washington Monument, not far from the White House.

“We have a group of at least 50 people from Delta Sigma Theta age 62 years and older,” said Marion Binion of Detroit, 67, whose Detroit Chapter group scored tickets for Oct., 16. “Everybody has been excited since they’ve talked about it. We’re very proud of the fact we’ll have an African American museum on the Mall.” She is a cousin to artist McArthur Binion.

Floyd Myers of Detroit is taking a busload of 34 men to the museum Oct. 6-9. He said it was confusing at first to get group tickets, although that problem since has been ironed out. “I want to see the Pullman car and anything else that will totally blow my mind,” he said. The only thing he’s worried about? Getting his group’s foot in the door.

Folks are going to have to leave for other people to get in,” he said.

Burke, as an artifact contributor, got a chance to attend a special party but is going back for the museum opening to see President Obama cut the ribbon.

“Of course I’ll be excited to see the violin,” she says. But I’m excited to see all the artifacts in the museum.”

“It’s really going to be one of a kind.”

Legislation to create the museum was signed in 2003, but it took 13 years for the structure to go up and the vast enterprise to be completed. It is 400,000 square feet, with nine levels. It is opening with 11 inaugural exhibitions. The museum has collected 37,000 objects, with about 3,000 on display.

Among the other notable things to see: a giant 1920s Southern Railway Pullman car, Michael Jackson’s black fedora, Nat Turner’s Bible, the dress that Rosa Parks was making when she refused to give up her seat on the bus, a slave cabin from South Carolina, Harriet Tubman’s hymnal, a perfectly restored Tuskegee airplane and Louis Armstrong’s trumpet.

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Information from: Detroit Free Press, http://www.freep.com

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