When one thinks of Belleville, and well-known people who have once called the township home, you can understand that often, people mention the likes of Frankie Valli and Joe Pesci among many others. But there’s one man who has made his mark on this nation’s history and who continues to do so today in Washington, D.C., and that is Lonnie G. Bunch III, the current secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, the first Black man to hold the position.
His meteoric ascension to the top post at the Smithsonian wasn’t always an easy ride, including the first 17 years of his life, which were spent in Belleville. Still, the secretary says the lessons he learned as a young child and then, as a young man, have stuck with him throughout his life and his career.
Two years ago, we first encountered Bunch when CBS Sunday Morning interviewed him, following his taking over the Smithsonian. Then the pandemic hit. But just a few weeks ago, the communications director at the Smithsonian responded to a request for an interview and said Bunch was willing to grant an interview The Observer, even though we didn’t cover Belleville when he lived here.
That day, March 13, sitting in my home office, I was expecting to hear someone else’s voice on the other end when I saw the 202 D.C. area code show up on my phone. But, unlike any expectation, it was the secretary himself immediately on the other end of the call straightaway.
“Hey, it’s Lonnie Bunch,” he says after my introductory salutation on the call.
Immediately it was clear — this man is someone special. He’s a historian. He’s a scholar. He’s the head of the nation’s museum. But that down-to-earth Belleville style was still there. There was nothing pretentious about him.
We got right into a discussion of his life and career and how Belleville helped to shape the man he is today. And the man who is a 1970 graduate of Belleville High School and 1966 graduate of School No. 5, says being the only Black family in his neighborhood was a challenge, at times intolerably so.
And it all brought Bunch back to a lesson he learned while playing baseball during his elementary school days. Though the game was not organized by or played at School No. 5, it’s where he was going to school at the time. And, by the way, he was a terrific athlete then and thereafter.
“We were on DeWitt Avenue,” he says. “I was a good ball player. And I was the only Black kid in the school. And I don’t know what happened. All of a sudden, it went from a friendly ball game to everybody sort of attacking me. They started chasing me down DeWitt Avenue and I’m just running and running and I’m exhausted because they keep chasing me.”
After this long chase, finally, Bunch says, he gave up and accepted this group of youngsters was probably going to attack him. He collapsed on the driveway of a home on Bell Street where a young girl was standing nearby.
“There was this little girl and I will never forget, she said, ‘Get off of the property.’ I thought she was talking to me. And instead, she was talking to the people chasing me. And she basically chased them away. And saved me. I never forgot that because the lesson was that as angry as I was about issues of race, it taught me never to generalize. That there are always good people.”
Bunch says he has no idea who that young girl was. But if she’s still around today, he would “love to thank her” for what she did that day. He estimates she was probably a second-grader whilst he was in the fifth grade. It was circa 1962.
So a moment where it could have been disastrous instead turned into another of Bunch’s good memories of Belleville, a place he still treasures.
Most Black families back then, he says, lived in the Valley, though his didn’t. Instead, they lived on Beech Street in a home his grandfather Lonnie G. Bunch I, built, in 1925. His grandpa and father, Lonnie G. Bunch II, also attended No. 5 school.
“Yes, the ‘N-word’ was used frequently,” he says. “And yet, there were other people who were just wonderful. I used to walk up Beech Street to No. 5. And about four blocks away, there was this little girl, younger than me, and she would sit on the porch, and she’d see me and she’d point and yell things like, ‘God left you in the oven too long! That’s how come you’re so Black. And it was just this little girl, but I just remember hating I had to walk past that. But on the other side, there were amazing people who treated me wonderfully. There were some families that didn’t want me coming into their house, but there were others who were wonderful who would invite me in to have dinner. So I will never say it was all good, but it was never all bad.”
Off to Belleville High School
Bunch says things began to improve in his life once he got to Belleville High School, arriving in the fall of 1966. He was a scholar-athlete and played football for the varsity team in his four years there. Because he was so good, everyone knew who he was — from schoolmates to parents to residents who would flock to games to cheer on the Bucs.
He was also a great baseball player.
All these years made him who he is today.
“Belleville taught me when to run, when to fight and when to talk my way out of things,” he says. “And that has stayed with me in my career since then.”
Not only is Bunch the secretary of the Smithsonian, he was also tasked in 2003 with creating the National Museum of African American History and Culture, where he served as the founding director from 2005 until his appointment to the Smithsonian in 2019.
President George W. Bush gave him the freedom to make the museum what it should be — and did he ever come through. When Bush’s term was up, President Barack H. Obama kept Bunch on board for those eight years. President Donald J. Trump did the same when he became president and took over the White House in 2017. And now, Bunch continues to serve under President Joseph R. Biden Jr.
Do the math, that’s two Republican and two Democratic presidents.
In this modern world, there are very few people who could wrangle bipartisanship the way he has.
When the museum, located on Constitution Avenue in Washington, D.C., opened in September 2016, both Bush and Obama spoke and the future President Biden was in attendance. Also there, President William J. Clinton, Gen. Colin Powell, U.S. Rep. John Lewis, Michelle Obama, Jill Biden, Laura Bush and scores of others.
Also present that day, original copies of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which abolished slavery and the Emancipation Proclamation, as written by President Abraham Lincoln.
None of this happens without Bunch’s expertise and experience as a museum curator throughout his life.
And to think, it all started in Belleville.
“Belleville taught me how to straddle many worlds,” the secretary said. “But I had to learn, because I still cursed in Sicilian. That ability made me think about how I bring people together. How does the work I do help people grapple with race, but how do I bring people together? That day, the opening of the museum, was America at its best. Suddenly you have Republicans, Democrats, African American and non-African Americans, all kinds of people coming together to celebrate the Smithsonian, the opening of a (new) museum. That, to me, is what always gives me hope about America. …And that comes out of Belleville. You either despair or find hope — and I always want to find hope.”
And with all that hope and all he’s accomplished in his storied career, Bunch remains extremely humbled and gives all the credit to his dad, his grandpa and the others he’s encountered. To this day, he says his dad’s former students reach out to him to thank him for his father — who, by the way, taught for 40+ years in Lincoln Park, not in Belleville, because he says at the time, Black teachers were not hired in Belleville.
And to any young person, who may read this and be struggling, it brought back a day when a classmate told him he’d never make it to college because he was Black.
“I wrote that down on a piece of paper and kept it in my wallet all through graduate school,” he says. Instead of letting challenges bring you down, use those moments to inspire you to achieve your goals, he says. And, remember:
“I am not a big deal,” Bunch says. “Just a kid from Belleville who made it to the big city.”
Learn more about the writer ...
Kevin A. Canessa Jr. is the editor of and broadcaster at The Observer, a place where he has served on and off since 2006. He is responsible for the editorial content of the newspaper and website, the production of the e-Newspaper, writing several stories per week (including the weekly editorial), conducting live broadcasts on Facebook Live, including a weekly recap of the news — and much more behind the scenes. Between 2006 and 2008, he introduced the newspaper to its first-ever blog — which included podcasts, audio and video. Originally from Jersey City, Kevin lived in Kearny until 2004, lived in Port St. Lucie. Florida, for four years until February 2016 and in March of that year, he moved back to West Hudson to return to The Observer full time. Click Here to send Kevin an email.