Ralph Bunche Comes Home: A Commemorative Exhibit in New York City

Article excerpt

The year-long centenary celebration of Ralph Bunche's birth on 7 August 1903 has come full circle, in a sense, with the Queens Museum of Art's fascinating show, Ralph Bunche: Diplomat for Peace and Justice, in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park in Queens, New York, from 11 April to 4 July 2004. It has come full circle because Mr. Bunche, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate and former United Nations Under-Secretary-General, lived in Queens from 1947 until his death in 1971. In fact, he lived near the Queens Museum itself, first in UN housing and later in a private home in Kew Gardens. He worked at the building where the Museum is currently located when it served as home to the UN General Assembly from 1946 to 1950; it is the original New York City Building from the 1939 World's Fair and the site of the ratification of the plan for the partition of Palestine drafted by Mr. Bunche. So the Queens Museum seems a particularly apt spot to reflect on the life and legacy of this extraordinary African-American, who rose from humble beginnings (his father was a barber) to become a major player on the world stage.

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The exhibit, the most comprehensive of its kind in the country, is a showcase for more than 200 photographs, documents, films, artifacts and memorabilia culled from three earlier shows and from archives at his alma mater, the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA).

The material is organized around the three issues that most engaged Mr. Bunche, both personally and professionally: race relations in the United States, African decolonization and peace in the Middle East. An impressive time-line wraps around the main gallery space and highlights the milestones in his life and the century he lived in.

Although parts of the show have been on display elsewhere in the City (at UN Head-quarters, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and The Ralph Bunche Institute at the CUNY Graduate Center), the Queens Museum's exhibit is the first to weave in thematic art-works by Mr. Bunche's contemporaries--Archibald Motley, Augusta Savage, Charles White and Elizabeth Catlett--and by contemporary artists--Radcliffe Bailey, Doron Solomons, Brad McCallum and Jacqueline Tarry. Several of the works were commissioned especially for the Museum; Franklin Sirmans curated the art.

But the collection in the galleries is mainly archival material, a treasure trove for students of history of all stripes: political, social, cultural, intellectual and diplomatic. Sir Brian Urquhart, Mr. Bunche's successor as UN Under-Secretary-General for Special Political Affairs and author of the biography Ralph Bunche: An American Odyssey (1998), serves as historical advisor to the show and guides visitors gracefully through the complexities of the Palestine partition plan, Middle East peace agreements, the origins of modern peacekeeping forces and the genesis of the decolonization movement. Mr. Bunche played a central role in each case.

And as the time-line makes amply and delightfully clear, he specialized in "firsts". He graduated first in his class at Jefferson High School in Los Angeles, but was excluded from the city's honour society because of his race, and first in his class at UCLA. He was the first African-American to earn a doctorate in government and international relations at Harvard University, the first African-American to head a division in the United States Department of State, and the first person of colour to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Museum-goers can peer at a wealth of personal and academic memorabilia, from his high-school yearbook to his college sweatshirt (he was a three-letter athlete: baseball, football and basketball) to his Masters-programme grades in political science (he was an "A" student) to his dissertation, "French Administration in Togoland and Dahomey" (1934), the latter two while at Harvard.

This scholar-diplomat-activist was the quintessential mover and shaker. …