After 100 Years Of Challenges, The 1st Nat’l Black History Museum Is Here

 By Rahel Gebreyes, Huffington Post Black Voices

“Nothing has been easy. Everything has had to be earned.”

The National Museum of African American History and Culture rises in a place of honor: the last museum to be built on the National Mall in our nation's capital.

Black history is finally taking its rightful place within the Smithsonian Institution with the National Museum of African American History and Culture’s grand opening on Saturday.

While the museum is now opening to considerable fanfare ― the ceremony includes a three-day festival and a dedication led by President Barack Obama to mark the historic occasion ― getting the project off the ground was anything but easy.

A group of black Civil War veterans first advocated for the idea of a national African-American history museum in the early 1900s. Decades later, a group of congressmen led by civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) took the fight for the museum to Capitol Hill. Lewis introduced legislation to fund the museum every year for 15 years, but it was defeated every time.

Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) said the museum faced plenty of challenges, from “overt bigotry” to “lack of prioritization.”

“In many ways, it itself is reminiscent or reflective of the African-American experience. Nothing has been easy. Everything has had to be earned,” he said.

 

Some representatives who opposed the museum said the project was too costly. Others, like Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), warned the museum would set a dangerous precedent and open the floodgates for additional museums dedicated to other racial minorities.

“Every other minority will give thought to asking the taxpayers to pony up for a special museum for them,” Helms said in 1994.

Lonnie G. Bunch III, the visionary director of the NMAAHC, has worked tirelessly for over a decade to bring this new national treasure into existence.

Lonnie G. Bunch III, the visionary director of the NMAAHC, has worked tirelessly for over a decade to bring this new national treasure into existence.

In 2001, President George Bush created a commission to explore the need for the museum and develop a plan of action. After much debate over the location for the museum, the National Museum of African American History and Culture Act was finally signed into law in 2003, establishing the 19th Smithsonian museum.

But the project still faced another hurdle: funding. It would ultimately cost $540 million and the federal government was only going to cover half.

Bunch said the funding situation was “unusual.” According to The New York Times, government funds have covered all or most of the building costs for every other Smithsonian museum.

Organizations including the Oprah Winfrey Charitable Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation contributed millions to the project. The museum also found support from the black community. According to The Washington Post, 74 percent of individuals who donated $1 million or more to the project were African-American.

The museum’s three-tiered building, which sits on the National Mall alongside the Washington Monument, is inspired by Yoruban caryatid ― a slender wooden column with a crown at the top. The museum is filled with everything from historical artifacts of the days of slavery to pop culture relics.

“In essence what you will find in this museum is a tension. A tension between difficult moments and a tension between moments that are full of happiness hope and resiliency,” Bunch said.

And with Obama’s dedication on Saturday, the journey for the museum has truly come full circle. Booker said the presence of the first black president coupled with the museum’s opening will mark “spiritual culmination” of sorts.

“I mean these two moments in history have met up in a beautiful way, almost as if it were sort of ordained by the spirits, like the heavens are sort of rejoicing,” he said. “I just think it’s a wonderful exclamation point on the journey of this museum.

Take a virtual tour of the new museum.

Watch the full Dedication Ceremony.

At the Dedication Ceremony, the crowd listens as President Obama explains that the museum tells of both "suffering and delight." (Photos by Brad Pruitt, America's Black Holocaust Museum)

At the Dedication Ceremony, the crowd listens as President Obama explains that the museum tells of both “suffering and delight.” (Photos by Brad Pruitt, America’s Black Holocaust Museum)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Restoring Black History

By Henry Louis Gates, Jr., New York Times

logo-nmaahcWith the ringing of a bell and a speech from President Obama, the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington is to officially open its extraordinary collection to the public on Saturday. But the museum can claim another, equally important achievement: helping resolve the protracted debate about the contributions of black people to American history and, indeed, about whether they had a history worth preserving at all. Those questions were at the heart of the nation’s original debate about whether, and how, black lives matter.

For years, the issue was whether black people were fit to be more than slaves. “Never yet could I find that a black had uttered a thought above the level of plain narration; never see even an elementary trait of painting or sculpture,” Thomas Jefferson wrote. “I advance it, therefore, as a suspicion only, that the blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind.”…

gww_negroraceinamerica_2_cropIn the 1880s, George Washington Williams, whom the historian John Hope Franklin called “the first serious historian of his race,” published the “History of the Negro Race in America from 1619 to 1880”; he confessed that part of his motivation was “to call the attention to the absurd charge that the Negro does not belong to the human family.”

About a decade later, W.E.B. Du Bois became the first black person to earn a Ph.D. (in history) at Harvard, followed by Carter G. Woodson, a founder of Negro History Week, who wanted to make history by writing it. “If a race has no history,” he wrote, “it stands in danger of being exterminated.” Arthur A. Schomburg, the famous bibliophile, posited a solution: “The American Negro must remake his past in order to make his future.” History “must restore what slavery took away.”

Representative Leonidas C. Dyer, a Missouri Republican, introduced legislation to create a monument to black veterans. One hundred years later, the effort he and the veterans began has finally born fruit.

Representative Leonidas C. Dyer, a Missouri Republican, introduced legislation to create a monument to black veterans. One hundred years later, the effort he and the veterans began has finally born fruit.

This mandate to rewrite the status of the race by writing the history of its achievements was too broad to be contained only in books. Public history mattered, too. In 1915, Woodson and several of his friends established the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, in part to popularize the study of black history. That same year, black leaders called for a memorial to honor black veterans. And a year later — exactly a century ago — Representative Leonidas C. Dyer, a Missouri Republican, introduced legislation to create a monument in their honor. After decades of resistance, that effort took a giant leap forward in 2003, when Congress passed bipartisan legislation to build the museum that was signed by President George W. Bush.

Some $540 million later, the first black president will open the museum’s doors…We can only imagine the triumph that the pioneers of black history would feel had they lived to see this occasion.

The new NMAAHC repudiates the long and dismal tradition of objectifying black people in museums, as exemplified here by the famous display of the "Venus Hottentot," Saartjie Bartman, in the European freak shows of the 19th century.

The new NMAAHC repudiates the long and dismal tradition of objectifying black people in museums, as exemplified here by the famous display of the “Venus Hottentot,” Saartjie Bartman, in the European freak shows of the 19th century.

More than a museum, the building on the National Mall is a refutation of two and a half centuries of the misuse of history to reinforce a social order in which black people were enslaved, then systematically repressed and denied their rights when freed. It also repudiates the long and dismal tradition of objectifying black people in museums….

[The NMAAHC] reinscribes race at a symbolically central place in American culture, on the National Mall, where we celebrate our collective public histories, ensuring that a mountain of evidence about black contributions to America will be on permanent display. It does this on the same mall shared by those symbols of the founding fathers’ hypocritical slaveholding past, the Washington Monument and the Jefferson Memorial, which the new museum, brilliantly designed by David Adjaye, complements and also deconstructs.

Read the Gates’ full opinion piece here.

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