“We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of Now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.“
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
The words of Dr. King transcended race. It brought about the need for change, and with it, opened the doors for so many men and women of color to find opportunity, once thought unheard of.
For Lonnie Bunch III, a journey to greatness, truly, if you’ll pardon the Frankie Valli, ‘Jersey Boys’ analogy, started in Belleville, New Jersey.
“It sure did,” said the affable and brilliant Bunch, as he spoke from his sprawling Washington, D.C. office, on the top floor of the beautiful National Museum of African American History and Culture, a Smithsonian Institution Museum, of which he is the Founding Director. “Those were some times. I wouldn’t have traded them for anything.”
Bunch has been the Founding Director of the museum since 2005, over a decade before the structure was opened to the public.
On Sept. 24, 2016, the National Museum of African American History and Culture was opened at the hallowed Mall in D.C., near the Washington Memorial, and was dedicated by President Barack Obama.
On May 28, 2019, Lonnie was formally appointed secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, becoming the first African-American leader in its 173-year history, after being approved by the Smithsonian’s Board of Regents.
According to the Washington Post, Bunch will become the 14th secretary of the institution, responsible for a $1.5 billion annual budget that supports 19 museums, nine research centers and the National Zoo. He is the first Smithsonian director to ascend to the secretary’s post in 74 years and starts his new job June 16.
Growing up in Belleville, NJ
Bunch’s love of History had elevated him to greatness. He is regarded as one of the nation’s leading history and museum professionals.
Bunch is a 1970 graduate of Belleville High School, where he played football and baseball. He grew up in Belleville, NJ, and attended School #5 as a child.
“We were the only black family in the neighborhood at the time,” Bunch recalled. “And those were different times, for sure. I was fascinated by the vast population in town of the Sicilian heritage. I wanted to know more about it, and at the same time, the culture of my family, too.”
To say Belleville was a diverse community in the late 1960’s would not be accurate. But Bunch soon learned that growing up in a mostly white community would teach him a level of mental fortitude which has carried on in his professional life. Bunch found himself fascinated by the differences in culture.
“I remember walking up and down Greylock Parkway many times as a child,” recalled Bunch. “I learned how to run, and when not to run.”
During the summer of 1967, the neighboring city of Newark was ravaged by racial violence.
“I was horrified by the Newark riots,” Bunch said. “They were happening pretty close to Belleville. We had all seen in television what was going on.”
Bunch recalls a day when he was walking home and stopped by a Belleville police officer during that turbulent summer.
“I’m a 15-year-old kid, and, like I said, there weren’t many African-American children growing up there at time. The police officer had me up against the police car, asking what I was doing there. When he asked my name, and I told him, he let me go, and said to get home. Everyone in town knew our name. That had an effect, but, again, they were tough times for everyone.”
Less than a year after the riots, the nation was devastated by the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., on April 4, 1968.
“As a youngster, my parents would bring me to the television set to watch Dr. King’s speeches,” recalled Bunch. “I was a northern kid, obviously, growing up, and Dr. King was a southern man. But I’ll tell you, as I became an adult, I have been guided, profoundly, by Dr. King’s vision.”
Bunch’s family was extremely close.
“My grandparents settled in Belleville back in 1919,” he said proudly. “I’m actually Lonnie Bunch, III. My grandfather, the original Lonnie, was a sharecropper as a young man who would later become a dentist. My grandmother, Leeanna, was a force of nature in my life. I didn’t get to know my grandfather very well. He passed away when I was young. But he was a great man.”
Dr. Bunch’s father, Lonnie, II, also attended School #5 in Belleville. He would marry a Southern woman, Montrose, whom he met in college. Lonnie’s parents would become school teachers and the educational background of his parents was clearly a factor in love of school, and particularly, history.
Lonnie’s dad has since passed. He remains very close to his mother, and was proud to have her at the dedication of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, in 2016.
Family, Education and meeting 6 presidents
Lonnie also has a younger brother, Gregg, who was graduated from Belleville High in 1975, and continues to live in New Jersey today. Gregg was a standout sprinter for the Bellboys track team for three years.
After graduating from Belleville High 49 years ago, Lonnie went to college at Howard University, before transferring to American University, in Washington. He would earn his Bachelors and Masters in American History and African History. Bunch and his wife, Maria, have two adult daughters, Sarah and Katie. In 2015, Lonnie and Maria became grandparents for the first time to Harper Brace,.
Bunch, who has written many books, was curator of the California African American Museum and later, curator at the National Museum for American History, at the Smithsonian. In 2000, he was named president of one of the nation’s oldest museums for history, the Chicago Historical Society.
Bunch has been in the presence of six United States presidents, something which really seemed to resonate, as he discussed his background.
“Yes, that is something, now that I think of it,” the humble man said. “I’ve met Presidents Reagan, Ford, Carter, Clinton, Bush (43) and Obama.”
Bunch was appointed by President George W. Bush to the Commission for Preservation of the White House in 2005 and reappointed to the Commission by President Obama.
He was also greatly influenced by Franklin D. Roosevelt and FDR’s vision for dealing with crisis, as well as an admirer of Abraham Lincoln’s compassion, and the ending of slavery.
With all his worldly accomplishments, Bunch can’t help but recall the influences he continues to have from his native Belleville.
“I’ve had so many wonderful friends in Belleville, who have been happy for my successes,” he said.
In 2010, Bunch was named to the prestigious Belleville High School Wall of Recognition.
Ann Schneider was one of Bunch’s favorite high school teachers. “She was brilliant,” Bunch said. “Ann nurtured me in history, and used to give me different books to read.”
She was ecstatic to contribute to this article.
“I am a charter member of ‘his’ museum, and an admirer of (Lonnie’s) work,” said Schneider. “Lonnie was an enthusiastic and thoughtful student. Adept at advancing his own ideas, he skillfully and respectfully commented on the ideas of others. He wanted to know things, found history interesting — a gift to a teacher.
“If you have not seen it, you may be interested in ‘Call The Lost Dream Back’, his book of essays published in 2005. Of special importance would be the first chapter about his family and early life — mentions of Belleville.
“One great quote, page 25: ‘Ultimately, history became my weapon of choice in the struggle for justice and racial equality, and the shield that gave me courage to face the challenge of race in my own life.’”
Bunch also credited Belleville High School principal Raymond O. Smith, a World War II veteran, for teaching him the Japanese language, and culture.
“I actually ran a project for the Smithsonian in Japan,” he said. “And Mr. Smith was the reason why I enjoyed it so much. His teachings really stuck with me.”
The world has indeed changed. When asked if he, as a child, could have envisioned an African American as the nation’s president, he chuckled. “I would have said you were crazy,” Bunch said. “But it’s happened. Our country is amazing.”
As he prepared for the great day in September, 2016, when the National Museum of African American History and Culture opened, he was excited, but a little wistful.
“I wish my grandparents could be there to see it,” Bunch said. “I know it would have been very special for them. And while the day approaches, I’ll think of my days growing up in Belleville. It shaped my life, in so many ways.”