The idea of erecting a museum that would highlight the contributions of African Americans first received public attention a century ago when Black veterans of the Civil War proposed the idea.
After being sidelined for many years, the idea gained real momentum when Civil Rights Movement icon and Georgia Congressman John Lewis took up the mantle, securing the support of several of his colleagues. Finally, in 2003, then President George W. Bush signed legislation that allowed the project to begin.
And on Saturday, Sept. 24, with the ringing of a bell fittingly borrowed from First Baptist Church in Williamsburg, Virginia, one of the nation’s oldest Black churches founded in 1776, President Barack Obama officially dedicated the newest addition to the family of Smithsonian institutions located on the National Mall – the National Museum of African American History and Culture [NMAAHC].
In his address, the president referred to the museum as an “essential part of our [America’s] story.”
“What we can see of this beautiful building tells us that it is truly a sight to behold. But what makes it special are the stories contained inside,” Obama said. “It is this national museum that will help tell a fuller story of who we are. The African-American story is not a sidebar or a secondary tale. No, it is central to the American story – a glorious story that illustrates how African Americans have been able to rise again and again from tragedy to triumph.”
“Of course this museum won’t end job discrimination, escalating violence in our cities or so many other ills and examples of injustice that we face – those things are up to us to change by speaking out, protesting and voting,” he said. “Hopefully it will help us begin to talk to one another, really see one another and listen to one another.”
The president’s remarks served as the finale to a program attended by several hundred guests, many of whom were donors in an impressive fundraising initiative resulting in millions of dollars, led by Lonnie G. Bunch III, founding director, NMAAHC.
Bunch, overwhelmed with emotion, began his remarks by saying, “Today a dream too long deferred is a dream no longer.”
“This is not just about telling the story of a people but a nation’s story,” he said. “And it will forever show how the lives of all Americans have been and will continue to be enriched because of the contributions of African Americans.”
As Georgia Congressman John Lewis approached the podium, he found himself met by a thunder of shouts and well wishes with everyone standing to their feet.
“I feel like singing the way Mahalia Jackson did so passionately during the March on Washington,” he said. “This museum is dedicated to the dignity of the disposed. My hope and prayer is that all who enter its doors will leave with a stronger commitment to justice, truth and true equality,” he said.
President George W. Bush, who signed the legislation in 2003 which signaled the beginning of the museum, said passing the bill served as a rare example when Congress saw “eye to eye.”
“Our country is without question better and more vibrant because of the contributions of African Americans. Now that truth can she shared for all the world to see. All Americans need to experience this place,” he said.
D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser said in her words to the audience that we should never forget that we “stand on the shoulders of a great people.”
“We continue to walk in the footsteps of those who blazed the trail and today they now have a resting place on the National Mall. On these same grounds Martin dreamed, Louis [Farrakhan] welcomed millions of men and Barack delivered on the promise of a change in which we could all believe,” she said.
“The 670,000 resident of the District, while proud to be the hosts of this day which illustrates how far we have come, realize that we still have a ways to go. We cannot manifest our own history as citizens of Washington, D.C. until we have a vote in Congress – until we are the 51st state,” Bowser emphasized, eliciting a round of applause that served to affirm her words.
American Citizens Share Their Excitement
Those fortunate enough to secure tickets for the two-hour dedication had much to say about why they attended the ceremony and what they hoped to experience after viewing the panorama of exhibits located within the walls of the museum.
Naturally those Blacks who have achieved celebrity status attended the dedication with some even participating in the ceremony including: Will Smith, Oprah Winfrey, Stevie Wonder, Patti Labelle and Angela Bassett. Other well-known Americans, Black and white, could be spotted in the front rows: Henry Louis Gates, Dionne Warwick – even former President Bill Clinton.
Still, in many respects, the real “stars” could be counted among the thousands of Black men, women and children – some fortunate enough to be ensconced within the midst of more well-known figures – others who stood and surrounded the museum behind police-guarded gates witnessing the ceremony on televisions.
One woman from Atlantic City and a longtime collector of Black artifacts brought her grandson Bryce with her to witness the historic event.
“I’m excited to see the president and the first lady today. Our family were donors and so we came last week for an earlier ceremony,” said Henrietta Wallace Shelton, 74. “There’s so much to see – you need four or five days.
“And because I’m a member of an historical foundation back home, seeing so many examples of Black life and our contributions means a great deal to me,” said Shelton whose group, the Chicken Bone Beach Historical Foundation, donated a table and chair from Club Harlem, a once-popular jazz club in Atlantic City where Blacks swayed to the sounds of Black entertainers during the days of segregation.
One businessman, a real estate investor from Northwest, said his excitement peaked after realizing that the museum had finally been built.
“Now we have a place on the National Mall that tells our story – the history of Blacks in America,” said Maurice White, 66. “So many youth think our history began in 1964. They’re unaware of our earlier history. But here they can experience the complete story in an integrated way.”
His wife, Renee DeVigne, 58, shared her own unique reasons for her excitement.
“My grandfather, Gaston, and grandmother, Yvonne DeVigne, were known for their photography and for creating beautifully designed women’s hats and their works are represented in the museum – and I’m extremely moved. It fills me with enormous pride. I wish they were alive to see this,” she said.
As for one Philadelphia resident sporting a T-shirt representing his fraternity, Alpha Phi Alpha, and whose father and grandfather also pledged the Black fraternity, he said attending the dedication fulfilled a list of goals he set for himself years ago.
“I was here for the Million Man March, the dedication of the King Memorial and the inauguration of President Barack Obama. I had to be here as this is another significant event for African Americans. The world needs to know that we are more than sports figures and entertainers. We’re more than the negative images portrayed in the media. Finally our contributions to America, I hope, will get their just due,” said Woody Adams, 60.
Here are more comments shared by those who attended the dedication ceremony.
Era Marshall, director of EEO and Supplier Diversity, Smithsonian Institute: “This is my professional home and seeing it finally completed is amazing. This is the real birth of the nation. I celebrate today while realizing that the lives for Blacks have been and continue to be filled with struggles yet still we rise.”
Allyson Duncan, federal judge, Raleigh: “I would have moved mountains to be here. This is such a tangible moment for Black America and a day of remarkably historical significance.”
Congresswoman Frederica Wilson (D-FL): “I gave my donation and prayed for the success of this venture. This had to happen and for it to occur during the tenure of our country’s first Black president further validates that we too are America. This place is a wonderful gift that generations of children, born and yet to be born, will be able to enjoy. But learning the truth about African-American history benefits more than just Blacks – it benefits everyone.”
Maud Newbold, Miami resident: “This represents the history of mankind. It will educate all mankind as it tells the real history of African Americans since our arrival on these shores as slaves. Now all the world will see the truth about our contributions to this country. It says ‘we are somebody.’”
Congressman Danny Davis, (D-IL): “This is an incredible accomplishment that speaks to the patience and tenacity of John Lewis who reintroduced and reinforced the importance of this museum from the beginning until today. It illustrates how far America and Black Americans have come. This is the most inclusive gathering of Americans I’ve ever seen. Lonnie Bunch came from my district in Illinois and I know he can’t help but be proud.”
Michael Eric Dyson, author and professor: “Finally we have a permanent site where our history will be shared – one that will include the challenges we’ve long faced in the midst of capitalism, one which reiterates the terrible price our people paid for freedom and one which chronicles the sojourn of Blacks in America.”
Rev. Jesse Jackson, Sr.: “This changes the American narrative. We’re not the bottom of society, we’re the foundation. The magic number is 1619. We were here before refugees and immigrants arrived on these shores. And we should be treated as creditors not debtors. After all, we built this land – and without any financial compensation.”
But perhaps the award-winning actor Samuel L. Jackson said it best.
“I’m here to enjoy this day and all that it represents. I’m here because I needed to be here, he said.