The recent ceremony announcing plans to construct the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture on the National Mall was a nationally heralded event. But the celebration, where President Barack Obama spoke, took an awkward turn after he and the first lady were notably absent from the slate of officials who took up shovels for the groundbreaking.
U.S. presidents are normally provided shovels for groundbreakings, and after Obama delivered his speech, the call was made for participants to assemble.
However the president, who had unbuttoned his jacket -- prepared to participate – returned to his seat alongside Mrs. Obama after an official whispered to him. As a result, the Obamas sat watching as participants, who included former first lady Laura Bush (a member of the museum's advisory council), Congressman John Lewis (D-Ga.) and museum officials, dug in.
A statement released by the White House following the Feb. 22 gathering, explained that everything had been agreed upon beforehand. According to the statement, only museum officials and advisers were scheduled to take part in the shoveling – a decision that was part of a plan agreed upon between the White House and the museum.
The Smithsonian also issued a statement saying that "the groundbreaking ceremony did not call for President Barack Obama to participate in the actual shoveling of dirt. It was intended for members of the Smithsonian family—senior staff and members of the museum's council."
Dee Evans, columnist for Black Voices, was among those who expressed dismay over the president's lack of participation.
"This was a major oversight and one that I think was embarrassing for President Obama because he stood up when they called for the 'groundbreakers' but then sat back down when he realized that he was not included," Evans wrote. "I don't think I can ever recall witnessing a groundbreaking event where the president of the United States was in attendance but was not allowed to participate in the actual shovel ceremony. It seems to me that if the president was there, you would include him just out of a sense of protocol."
To the contrary, Michael Fauntroy, a political analyst at George Mason University, surmised that the decision to exclude Obama was a White House call.
"I don't believe that the president was snubbed or overlooked," Fauntroy told The Washington Informer. "I think there may have been some security concerns and that it was the White House -- and not the museum -- that decided Obama would not to participate in the actual groundbreaking."