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Wish Stories

Irma Visits the National Museum of African American History & Culture

What is your prized possession? Irma’s is The Black Heritage Commemorative Society Collection, a book set containing over 200 biographies of African American people who have contributed to every aspect of American culture and history.

That’s because Irma’s passion is learning about African American history—and sharing that knowledge with others. Even at age 84, she regularly gives history presentations in her residential community. It comes naturally to her after a lifetime dedicated to helping others.

After graduating from college, Irma began her teaching career in her hometown of Brooklyn, NY, and later became an educator in the Air Force. That exciting position took her overseas, and she relished all the new experiences that came with her life abroad.

But not all her experiences were positive. In Japan and Germany, the Air Force provided housing for the teachers. In London, Irma had to find her own apartment. Potential landlords were friendly and polite to her on the phone, but in person, Irma was shocked when people laughed at her, insulted her, and even slammed the door in her face.

She eventually found an apartment and refused to let her experience with racism impact her teaching. Irma created strong bonds with her students and thrived in her role. By the end of the year, the parents of the children were so thankful to her that they threw Irma a surprise farewell party. She left London feeling accepted by the city that so harshly rejected her when she arrived.

After teaching, Irma became a social worker specializing in adoption and foster care. And she continued to care for others even after retiring. Irma has volunteered for different literacy programs to help children learn to read. She also spends time with the Interfaith Community Services, where she helps refugee families learn English and acclimate to their new homes in Arizona.

In 2003, Irma was thrilled to learn that an Act of Congress had established the creation of the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture.

“I thought, well, finally!” she said. “Finally, our capital will have a museum that will show people the importance of African American contributions, that African Americans have played major roles in our country, and that African American history is truly American history.”

Irma became a charter member and contributed financially to the museum. And then, she waited patiently for it to open—a process that took 13 years.

When Wish of a Lifetime heard Irma’s story, we were thrilled at the opportunity to celebrate her passion for history while recognizing the incredible woman she is today. Accompanied by her friend Sally, Irma traveled to Washington, D.C., for a long-awaited visit to the museum. Upon arriving, she also reconnected with Juliana and Joan, two of her closest friends from elementary school in Brooklyn. It was a wonderful reunion; touring the museum with her friends made the experience even more meaningful.

The museum is home to over 40,000 artifacts, and Irma took her time absorbing every little piece of history. She enjoyed the interactive exhibits and remarked on the Museum’s thoughtful presentation of the many stories that shaped American history.

“It is really wonderful that this kind of display is available for the world to see,” she said.
In the sports section, Irma saw a bronze statue of Jackie Robinson stealing home plate, which brought back a special memory from her life. When she was in high school, Irma interviewed him for the school paper! She remarked that seeing the statue made her happily relive that moment—it was like she was with him in person again.

Other exhibits made her emotional, like the powerful imagery and objects within the “Slavery and Freedom” exhibition. “The stories need to be told,” Irma said.

Upon returning home to Arizona, Irma and Sally eagerly began putting together a presentation about their experience in Washington, D.C. They could not wait to share what they had learned at the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture. For Irma, it was indeed the trip of a lifetime.

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