John Lewis: The Birth of a Museum

Rep. John Lewis (left), seen here with Lonnie Bunch, director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, was a driving force behind the new museum. (Courtesy photo)
Rep. John Lewis (left), seen here with Lonnie Bunch, director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, was a driving force behind the new museum. (Courtesy photo)

For too long, the legacy of Black men and women who poured out their gifts in a world that denied their humanity had been left silent.

However, in 2009, when the Smithsonian Institution named the architectural firm that would design the new National Museum of African American History and Culture on the National Mall in the nation’s capital, Lewis was nothing shy of ecstatic.

It wasn’t long after he was elected to Congress in the 1980s that the Alabama native, who’s often called one of the most courageous persons the Civil Rights Movement ever produced, became aware of an effort first launched by African-American Civil War veterans who wanted to appropriately honor the service of Black soldiers in the war.

They had petitioned Congress decades earlier to build a museum to pay tribute to veterans whose service was all but forgotten, according to Lewis who decided to seek legislation to make a new museum happen.

For years, the legislative process of the idea had stopped and started until Lewis took the helm and made it a priority.

In every session of Congress for 15 years, he introduced a bill authorizing the building of a national museum which would recount the contributions of Blacks to the American story.

Finally, in 2003, the bill was passed by both sessions of Congress and later signed into law by President George W. Bush.

“At last, the work of these awesome and talented Americans [would] find a home. And I believe that when citizens of the world see what these people have accomplished, they will be inspired and amazed,” Lewis, 76, said.

“I only wish those Civil War veterans could see what their dreams, their actions and their enduring tenacity has created,” he said.

Now, as the grand opening dawns with President Barack Obama presiding, and because of the tireless work done by Lewis, the new museum counts as a successful project even though it once thirsted for money, land and political support.

Visitors to the $540 million building, designed to resemble a three-tiered crown, will encounter the sweeping history of Black America from the Middle Passage of slavery to the achievements and complexities of modern Black life.

But, as spelled out in a recent New York Times article, also compelling is the story of how the museum itself came to be through a combination of negotiation, diplomacy, persistence and cunning political instincts.

The strategy included an approach that framed the museum as an institution for all Americans, one that depicted the Black experience, as Museum Director Lonnie Bunch often puts it, as “the quintessential American story” of measured progress and remarkable achievement after an ugly period of painful oppression.

The tactics included the appointment of Republicans like Laura Bush and Colin L. Powell to the museum’s board to broaden bipartisan support beyond Democratic constituencies, and there were critical efforts to shape the thinking of essential political leaders, according to the New York Times.

Long before its building was complete, for example, the museum staged exhibitions off-site, some on the fraught topics it would confront, such as Thomas Jefferson’s deep involvement with slavery.

A Virginia delegation of congressional members was brought through for an early tour of the Jefferson exhibition, which featured a statue of him in front of a semicircular wall marked with 612 names of people he had owned.

“I remember being very impacted,” Eric Cantor, then the House Republican leader, who was part of the delegation, told the Times.

Bunch said that he hoped the Jefferson exhibition pre-empted criticism by establishing the museum’s bold but balanced approach to difficult material.

“Some people were like, ‘How dare you equate Jefferson with slavery,’” Bunch recalled. “But it means that people are going to say, ‘Of course, that is what they have to do.’”

And the museum began an exceptional effort to raise money from Black donors, not only celebrities, like Michael Jordan ($5 million) and Oprah Winfrey ($21 million), but also churches, sororities and fraternities, which, Bunch said, had never been asked for big donations before.

Nearly three-quarters of the gifts from individuals were from African-Americans. An unusually high amount – $4 million – came from average people in gifts of less than $1,000.

The Alfred Street Baptist Church, in Alexandria, Va., donated $1 million to the museum, while three couples who belong to the church gave individual contributions totaling an additional $4 million.

“There is no doubt that we knew you couldn’t build this with African-American money alone,” Bunch said, “But we also know that there was much more money in this community than most cultural institutions had ever tapped.”

Although the idea of a national African-American museum had been hatched more than a century ago, there remained staunch opposition.

Some claimed that Hispanic Americans would be offended if Blacks received a museum and they didn’t. Politicians and some citizens alike railed against Lewis.

Indeed, Lewis’s dream faced many challenges, but as noted in a recently-published report, he kept the faith.

He didn’t give up when people said a separate museum for African Americans would lead other groups to seek their own. Congress had passed legislation in 1989 authorizing the National Museum of the American Indian, and efforts continue for Latino, women’s history and immigrant museums.

Through it all, Lewis remained steadfast and, on Saturday, Sept. 24, his efforts and those of others will see the fruits of their labor.

“It’s very simple – if you believe in something and you want to see it through, you have to be persistent and consistent,” Lewis said.

“You never ever give up. You just keep believing,” he said.

About Stacy Brown 243 Articles
I’ve worked for the Daily News of Los Angeles, the L.A. Times, Gannet and the Times-Tribune and have contributed to the Pocono Record, the New York Post and the New York Times. Television news opportunities have included: NBC, MSNBC, Scarborough Country, the Abrams Report, Today, Good Morning America, NBC Nightly News, Imus in the Morning and Anderson Cooper 360. Radio programs like the Wendy Williams Experience, Tom Joyner Morning Show and the Howard Stern Show have also provided me the chance to share my views.