Without fanfare, the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington has featured U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas in a new display about the court alongside the late justice Thurgood Marshall.
The new installation was added shortly before the museum marked its first anniversary September 24, and may or may not end a long-simmering controversy over the museum’s treatment of Thomas.
Before the addition, the only reference to Thomas, the second African-American justice in history, was in a display about Anita Hill, who accused Thomas of sexual harassment during his confirmation hearing in 1991.
Conservative groups and members of Congress including Sen. R. Ted Cruz, R-Texas complained about the omission, accusing the museum’s leaders of political bias. Cruz wrote to Smithsonian officials last December that “I became deeply disturbed upon learning that Justice Thomas’s moving story and incredible contributions to the country are not even mentioned, much less discussed in detail, in the new museum.”
Smithsonian spokeswoman Linda St. Thomas confirmed the installation, noting that Marshall had not been depicted previously for his position as a Supreme Court justice, but rather as the attorney who argued Brown v. Board of Education. The new display recognizes both justices for their role on the high court.
The Smithsonian did not formally announce the exhibit. St. Thomas said the institution does not typically issue news releases about individual exhibits. The Washington Times reported on the installation on Monday.
The glass-enclosed display includes photos of both justices and written histories titled: “Thurgood Marshall: Civil Rights Lawyer to Supreme Court Justice,” and “Clarence Thomas: From Seminary School to Supreme Court Bench.” Photos of Thomas as a student at the College of the Holy Cross and on the cover of Jet Magazine were part of the exhibit.
The display includes Marshall’s eyeglasses and a watch, but no objects from Thomas. Asked if Thomas discussed or cooperated with the museum about the exhibit, St. Thomas said she did not know.
At the height of the controversy over Thomas’s treatment last year, Smithsonian secretary David Skorton said in a statement, “While we recognize that we cannot tell every story in the inaugural exhibitions of our newest museum,” new exhibitions would be added and “we expect that Justice Thomas’s story will be an excellent illustration of one of the themes that exemplify that [African American] experience.”