Heard on the Hill

Museum of African American History Reveals History and Vision

Ahead of the Sept. 24 opening, the Smithsonian feels ready

Visitors try out one of the interactive displays at National Museum of African American History and Culture as the new museum holds its media preview day on Sept. 14, 2014. The newest of the Smithsonian museums on the National Mall will open on Sept. 24, 2016. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

After a long time coming, the National Museum of African American History and Culture opens its doors and 12 almost-ready exhibits to the press.

The museum’s grand opening on Sept. 24 will be attended by President Barack Obama and other luminaries.

On Wednesday, the visible construction in almost every portion of the museum prompts questions about whether the Smithsonian would be finished on time.

"We are so ready it's ridiculous. We've got 10 Days? Piece of cake," founding director Lonnie G. Bunch says in his welcome remarks.

Bunch says 11 years ago the museum had no site, little money and only two staff members. “All we knew is we had a vision.”

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“Our country will gain a further understanding of what it means to be an American,” the secretary of the Smithsonian, David J. Skorton, says. 

“It’s a beacon that reminds us of what we were, what challenges we still face and what we can become.”

A statue of U.S. Congressman Robert Smalls stands in the National Museum of African American History and Culture as the new museum holds its media preview day on Sept. 14, 2014. Smalls was a freed slave who served in Congress from 1884 to 1887. The newest of the Smithsonian museums on the National Mall will open on Sept. 24, 2016. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
A statue of U.S. Congressman Robert Smalls stands in the National Museum of African American History and Culture as the new museum holds its media preview day on Sept. 14, 2014. Smalls was a freed slave who served in Congress from 1884 to 1887. The newest of the Smithsonian museums on the National Mall will open on Sept. 24, 2016. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

From Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., and the late Shirley Chisholm, D-N.Y., to President Barack Obama, Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell, the museum honors the African American politicians who broke barriers in America.

"By age 25, John Lewis was a veteran of the civil rights movement,” Lewis’ portion reads. "He had been arrested and jailed, injured many times, and beaten nearly to death on bloody Sunday at the Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. His commitment to change ultimately led him to the Atlanta City Council in 1981 and five years later to the U.S. House of Representatives."

Chisholm, the first African American woman elected to Congress and the first black candidate from a major party to run for president, is described as someone who “sought to reform the system from within by battling against entrenched racism, sexism, and corruption.”

Even former presidential hopeful Ben Carson is represented. Carson’s lab coat and scrubs are displayed and the explanation said he “overcame poverty and failing grades to become one of the worlds more distinguished pediatric neurosurgeons.”

South Carolina Republican Sen. Tim Scott also visiting the museum on Wednesday, says “It’s a joyous and uplifting experience and it’s a sad and heavy experience at the same time.”

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He adds, “If you think about African American history, it’s hard to start anywhere other than South Carolina as it related to the fact that 40 to 60 percent of slaves came through South Carolina.”

A visitor walks past a video montage of still and video clips at National Museum of African American History and Culture as the new museum holds its media preview day on Sept. 14, 2014. The newest of the Smithsonian museums on the National Mall will open on Sept. 24, 2016. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
A visitor walks past a video montage of still and video clips at National Museum of African American History and Culture as the new museum holds its media preview day on Sept. 14, 2014. The newest of the Smithsonian museums on the National Mall will open on Sept. 24, 2016. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

The whole museum is ordered chronologically, starting from the bottom with a statue of President Thomas Jefferson in front of 609 bricks, representing the number of slaves he owned.

It spans the global slave trade, slavery in America and the civil rights movement. 

“It’s hard to take a look at the slave cabin from Edisto Island and not be moved, not to be frozen in time and journey back to what life must have been like for folks who were forced to leave their homes, forced to separate from their loved ones,” Scott says.

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Businesses run by African Americans are celebrated. Journalism fetes from the Freedom Journal in 1827 to Ebony magazine in 1945 are shown.

Singers and songwriters, actors and other entertainers are highlighted. Oprah Winfrey is prominently featured and the main auditorium is bears her name.

And, the sports section is extensive, it includes athletes from Mike Tyson and the Harlem Globetrotters to Tiger Woods and Gabby Douglas. There are life-sized statues of notable moments and people: the Mexico City Olympic protest, Venus and Serena Williams and Jackie Robinson.

“Being a cowboys fan and seeing Emmitt Smith up there, not a bad deal,” Scott said. “Muhammad Ali – they have a section on Muhammad Ali, which is phenomenal.”

Asked if anything was missing from the museum, Scott said he will need to return four or five more times. “A part of understanding what should be here is understanding how things were woven together and why,” he said.

The museum will use a timed pass system for the opening. More information about the opening can be found here. A café with a menu crafted by Chef Carla Hall is onsite.

 

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