When Lonnie Bunch was named the 14th secretary of the Smithsonian this week, former Charleston Mayor Joe Riley was among the first to offer his congratulations.
“I sent him an email, yes, and quickly got a very warm response from him,” Riley said.
Since 2005, Bunch has served as the founding director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. In that role, he has kept in close contact with Riley and others working to establish the International African American Museum in Charleston.
On June 16, Bunch will become the first African American to lead the Smithsonian's network of 20 museums and galleries, as well as the National Zoological Park. He also will become the first historian to serve as the Smithsonian's secretary.
Riley said Bunch's ascension won't necessarily provide practical benefits for Charleston, but it's encouraging to know the city has such a prominent national figure cheering on its emerging museum — which should break ground this summer. City Council is expected to consider a construction contract for it on July 16.
"He is very, very interested in what we’re doing here and is a huge supporter of it and understands its importance," Riley said.
The National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington has attracted about 4 million visitors and collected about 40,000 objects since opening a few years ago, but Bunch has noted Charleston's planned museum has something the national one does not: a site where enslaved Africans were taken off ships.
In 2017, Bunch came to Charleston and met with Riley and IAAM Director Michael Moore. During that visit, Riley noted Bunch has called Charleston's museum site, the former Gadsden's Wharf, one of the most sacred African American sites in the western hemisphere.
"He told us what is happening in Charleston is so very important because if you don’t honor history where it occurred, then it raises the question of whether you are interested in honoring that history," Riley said. "He knows the great importance of what we’re doing for the country."
Bunch also said Riley, Moore and others should not be concerned that the nation already has several dozen African American museums.
"My argument has always been there is something powerful about letting a thousand flowers bloom," he said in 2017.
During that visit, Bunch also spoke at Emanuel AME Church, where he he noted many artifacts in the national museum came from South Carolina's coast, including one of Edisto Island's last surviving slave cabins.
Others in the audience chimed in about other local objects in the national museum, such as a sweetgrass basket by Mary Jackson, slave badges, Philip Simmons's ironwork and objects from the home of Robert Smalls.
“Oh, I forgot,” Bunch joked to them. “This is the Museum of South Carolina!”
U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts, who also serves as the Smithsonian's Chancellor, noted Bunch's accomplishment in bringing the national museum from a concept to completion and added, "I look forward to working with him as we approach the Smithsonian’s 175th anniversary, to increase its relevance and role as a beloved American institution and public trust.”
Bunch, who grew up in New Jersey, has written on topics such as the black military experience, the American presidency, race in the American West, as well as diversity, funding and politics in America's museums.