A century in the making

African American museum finally opens

COMPILED FROM STAFF AND WIRE REPORTS

WASHINGTON – The National Museum of African American History and Culture may have started out at a distinct disadvantage. But it has already begun to overcome its humble roots.

The new National Museum of African American History has a prime location on the National Mall across from the Washington Monument.(ALAN KARCHMER / SMITHSONIAN)
The new National Museum of African American History has a prime location on the National Mall across from the Washington Monument.
(ALAN KARCHMER / SMITHSONIAN)

The first of the Smithsonian Institution’s 19 museums to begin without a dedicated collection, its 3,000-plus artifacts were mostly donated from private individuals and organizations.

Yet already, more than 100,000 people have registered as museum members, a Smithsonian record.

Artistic exterior
Designed to resemble an African wooden column, the museum’s exterior is covered with 3,600 bronze-colored aluminum panels that resemble 19th-century ironwork created by New Orleans slaves.

The $540 million, 400,000-square-foot facility comes more than 100 years after Black Civil War Union Army veterans first called for a memorial to honor the contributions of Black soldiers and other African-Americans in 1915.

President Calvin Coolidge signed legislation in 1929 authorizing a “National Memorial Commission” to construct a building to serve as a tribute to African-American contributions.

But racial opposition in Congress blocked the appropriation of seed money. The stock market crash of 1929, the Great Depression and World War II also kept the project from moving forward.

Bush pushes project
It wasn’t until December 16, 2003, when President George W. Bush signed legislation creating the National Museum of African American History and Culture, that the effort finally began to take shape.

Some view the museum as a small down payment on reparations and recognition owed to African-Americans after centuries of state-sanctioned bondage, inhumanity, violence and disenfranchisement in the United States.

The attitude is understandable, considering the horror of the Middle Passage, the false promise of Reconstruction, the shame of Jim Crow and the nation’s violent resistance to the civil rights movement.

Long overdue
But others see the museum as a long-overdue acknowledgment of America’s great failings on race and a salute to the resilience, faith and pride that helped African-Americans overcome it and thrive.

Just as pressure that bursts pipes can also produce diamonds, the museum, which will be dedicated Saturday by President Obama, explores the nation’s faulty racial plumbing and the priceless cultural gems that somehow came spewing out.

They include people like Muhammad Ali, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Dr. Daniel Hale Williams and Ida B. Wells. They also include jazz, blues and hip-hop – creative self-expressions of pain and pride that drew from African oral and rhythmic traditions. Yet they are all uniquely American art forms.

‘More African-American’
“The music, dance, distinctive foods, art and artists that people outside the United States associate with ‘American culture’ were and are originally African-American,” said an email from V.P. Franklin, professor emeritus of history at the University of California, Riverside and editor of The Journal of African American History. “White Americans are much more African-American than most will admit.”

Serving as a portal to the past and window to the future, the museum has the capacity to “touch lives and transform the way people see the world and interact with each other,” Smithsonian Secretary David Skorton said.

That theory will be put to the test almost immediately.

Advancing the conversation
“Opening now at a time when social and political discourse remind us that racism is not, unfortunately, a thing of the past, this museum can, and I believe will, help advance the public conversation,” Skorton said.

The museum will have on display more than 3,000 artifacts ranging from pieces of a slave ship to Carl Lewis’ Olympic medals, employ a staff of 200 and boast a fundraising program that has topped $315 million in private funds.

The museum’s 12 inaugural exhibitions are grouped around three main themes: history, community and culture and include an exhibit about the museum’s evolution called “A Century in the Making.”

The facility also houses an education and technology center on the second floor, the Sweet Home Café, a museum store, the Oprah Winfrey Theater, a welcome center and orientation theater, and a contemplative court. About 60 percent of the building is below ground.

‘Now at last’
“This joyous day was born out of a century of fitful and frustrated efforts to commemorate African American history in the nation’s capital,” said Lonnie Bunch, founding director of the museum.

“Now at last the National Museum of African American History and Culture is open for every American and the world to better understand the African American journey and how it shaped America. Today’s historic dedication honors the dreams of many generations and thousands of people who have worked so hard and sacrificed so much to make this dream a reality.

“If we’ve done our job right, I trust the museum will be place for all Americans to ponder, reflect, learn, rejoice, collaborate and, ultimately, draw sustenance and inspiration from the lessons of history to make America better.”

Tony Pugh of the McClatchy Washington Bureau / TNS contributed to this report.

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