Seba Johnson fell in love with skiing when she was an elementary school student in Kittery and her mother would regularly let her and her sister cut school on Fridays to hit the slopes.

“My friends were all like, ‘Seba’s sick again? Suuure,’ ” Johnson said with a laugh, remembering getting up on skis when she was just a little girl. “There I was with my big huge afro and I said, ‘Mom, I want to ski.’ ”

That passion took her all the way to the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary, where the 14-year-old was the youngest skier and the first black female alpine skier to compete in the Olympics.

Now the two-time Olympian has her skis on display at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, which opens Saturday. She and her mother, artist Suzy Johnson of Kittery, got an early tour of the museum on Sept. 17.

“It was so surreal,” Johnson said. “I entered the sports gallery and I was really nervous. And I saw the case with all the Olympic things and there were my skis … with the Olympic symbol and all the other amazing athletes (items) to the left and the right.”

She hadn’t seen the skis, with her girlish 14-year-old signature sprawled across them, in decades. They had been in storage at her mother’s house.

“It brought back so many memories,” said Johnson, who was born in St. Croix and represented the Virgin Islands in the Olympics. In 1988, Johnson finished 28th of 64 in the giant slalom. She placed 37th in the same event at the 1992 Olympics in Albertville, France.

The $540 million museum – half of it funded by Congress – is on the National Mall near the Washington Monument. The opening, which will be live-streamed online Saturday, will include President Obama, first lady Michelle Obama, former President George W. Bush and former first lady Laura Bush. Members of the Supreme Court and Congress are scheduled to attend, as is Oprah Winfrey, who donated $21 million to the museum.


The museum has more than 36,000 artifacts from every era – whips from the slave trade to glossy magazine covers adorned with Obama’s smile. Other Maine-related items include furniture and items from Rock Rest, a Kittery Point guest house that catered to vacationing African-Americans during the Jim Crow era.

The home was owned by Hazel and Clayton Sinclair, a former maid and chauffeur in New York who came to Maine during summer visits with their employers, said Valerie Cunningham, of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, who has studied the history of African-Americans in New Hampshire and southern Maine and founded the Portsmouth Black Heritage Trail.

The Sinclairs worked for different families, met in York, Cunningham said, fell in love and married, then decided to stay in Maine.

They found a house on Kittery Point and bought it in 1938.

Hazel Sinclair described it as “a broken-down shack,” Cunningham said, and told her husband she wouldn’t move in until he fixed it up.

Clayton Sinclair figured that even if the house was in bad shape, it was a nice piece of land, and “he never stopped fixing it up,” Cunningham said.

They opened it as an inn in 1948, a time when African-Americans couldn’t stay in most hotels, even in Maine.

Clayton Sinclair worked at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery and the couple ran the inn, which eventually could house up to 16 guests, catering to upscale African-Americans mostly from New York, Baltimore and Philadelphia during the summer, said Cunningham, who worked at Rock Rest for a couple of summers.

She said the inn continued to thrive even after the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which barred discrimination in lodging, because it had developed a clientele of families that regularly returned year after year,

The couple were active members of both the Kittery Point community and the African-American community in Portsmouth, Cunningham said, and she’s glad that their story will be told in the museum.

“The Sinclairs, they’re the kind of people that deserve to be recognized,” she said.

Cunningham said a curator for the National African American Museum chose about 50 items from the guest house, including wicker furniture from the porch and badminton rackets, for inclusion in the museum.

Cunningham said the Sinclairs stopped operating the inn in the late 1970s, after Clayton died, but almost everything that they had was kept in the house. A tenant who rented the house from the family respected the history, Cunningham said, and made sure most of the furniture, sports equipment for lawn games the guests played and even linens were retained and well-maintained.

Cunningham said she will spend Saturday at the Portsmouth Library, which has a special exhibit about Rock Rest and will live-stream the opening dedication ceremony. She hopes to organize a group trip to the museum in the spring, she said.


Johnson said it has been an emotional week, particularly with police violence against black men dominating the recent headlines.

“It’s hard. This is supposed to be a very, very happy time,” she said. But that anguish was countered by the joy of meeting people at the museum, many who wanted to take pictures with her in front of the exhibit.

“All the love I felt from all these people, all that positivity, just warms my heart,” she said. “It was one of the highlights of my life and such an honor to be amongst such amazing individuals who have shaped our country.”

On the flight from her home in Los Angeles to Washington, D.C., Johnson found herself weeping as she watched “Race,” a biopic released this year about another black Olympian, Jesse Owens, who won four gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, in notable defiance of Adolf Hitler’s theory of Aryan superiority.

“I thought, ‘Oh my God, I’m going to be in the exact sports gallery as him.’ It takes a lot to do something you love yet persevere through such ugliness,” said Johnson, who said she has received racist hate mail and faced challenges because of her veganism and animal rights activism.

Johnson qualified for her third Olympics, the 1994 games in Lillehammer, but boycotted it because Norway had just lifted its moratorium on minke whale hunting. On another occasion, she was disqualified from a World Cup race because she refused to wear a ski suit that had a patch of leather sewn on it.

Her mother said it was a “great feeling” to see her daughter honored.

“I was speechless,” said Suzy Johnson, who donated over 100 items to the Smithsonian. “I was proud, to say the least.”

Johnson’s parents met in Africa when her mother, who traces her Maine roots to the 1600s, met her Burundian father while doing missionary work.

After her daughter got involved in skiing, Suzy Johnson wanted to move to a place with mountains, and picked Lake Tahoe based on a picture she saw.

She described moving the family on a shoestring budget and working at a casino to make ends meet while her daughter trained at Heavenly Valley Ski Resort. It all paid off once she got to the Olympics.

“It was the same year as the Jamaican bobsled team. We saw each other and couldn’t believe it,” Suzy Johnson said.

Over the years, Seba Johnson studied in Nevada and Germany. When she returned from overseas she had enough credits to graduate, and though she didn’t attend classes there, she graduated from Traip Academy in Kittery. She spent a year at the University of Maine in Farmington before transferring and graduating from Howard University in Washington, D.C.

Today, Johnson lives her activism in daily life, working with children with special needs and giving regular talks about her beliefs as a vegan and animal rights activist. In Washington this week, she arranged to visit a school in the district where 30 percent of the students are homeless.


The new museum has four levels, with chronological progression starting with slavery galleries in the basement and ending at the present day on the top floor.

Among the artifacts are Harriet Tubman’s shawl and hymn book; shackles used on an enslaved child; and a “pocket copy” of the Emancipation Proclamation. Interactive exhibits show the regional movement and settlement of African-Americans through the past few centuries and African-American culture and heritage in 10 major U.S. cities.

The sports section containing Johnson’s skis also shows equipment used by gymnast Gabby Douglas at the 2012 Olympics and gold medals from Carl Lewis’ illustrious track and field career. The sports gallery stresses the importance of athletics in the progression of civil rights, as the sports realm was one of the first to accept African-Americans as equals.

The top floor exhibits on current culture includes items such as singer Marian Anderson’s outfit from her historic 1939 concert at the Lincoln Memorial to Chuck Berry’s red Cadillac.

Staff writer Edward D. Murphy contributed to this report. It also contains information from the Associated Press.

This story was updated Saturday morning to correct the spelling of Harriet Tubman’s first name and the hometown of Suzy Johnson.

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