African-American Museum Takes Next Step

Posted April 2, 2003 at 3:55pm

When Cicely Tyson was growing up in 1940s Harlem, she remembers going on field trips with classmates to many of the Big Apple’s storied museums. At no time during these excursions, however, were she and her fellow black students taken to visit a museum devoted to black history.

Thanks in part to Tyson’s efforts, all that may soon change.

The Emmy Award-winning actress was one of several members of a presidential commission present Wednesday when the panel submitted a report to Congress on the feasibility of building a National Museum of African American History and Culture on the Capitol grounds.

“If we were to spell the word ‘now’ backwards it would spell ‘won,’” a determined Tyson declared in reference to the commission’s motto: “The time is now.”

The report, which comes on the heels of a year-long effort by the 23-member commission, was presented to Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) and Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) at a ceremony in the Russell Senate Office Building Caucus Room.

Among the highlights of the commission’s recommendations are that the museum be built on the triangle of land between Pennsylvania and Constitution avenues Northwest just north of the Capitol Reflecting Pool and that it be fully integrated into the Smithsonian Institution with a board of trustees similar to that of the new National Museum of the American Indian.

The proposed 350,000-square-foot space is expected to cost $360 million and will be financed through a 75-25, public-private partnership. It is projected to be open to an anticipated 2 million visitors per year by 2011 and will employ a staff of more than 250.

While the preferred site is currently slated to be the home of the Congressional Award Youth Park, the commission has suggested that the legislation that authorized the park could be amended so the museum and the yet-undesigned park could share the 5-acre site. Congress alone has jurisdiction over the location.

The site holds added significance to black Americans because it was the gathering place of veterans of the United States Colored Troops when the group marched in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the end of the Civil War in 1915.

Legislation authorizing the creation of a national museum devoted to the contributions of black Americans has been bandied about for years. It was first passed in 1929 but remained unrealized because Congress never appropriated funds.

“1929 was not a good year,” quipped Lewis, referring to the stock market crash in October of that year.

Lewis called the report’s completion “a step forward in our journey,” adding that the moment had come to “face ourselves and our history” as a nation.

Tyson — who said she plans to bring to life black heroines such as Harriet Tubman and Jane Pitmann in any video presentations of the two in the museum’s exhibits — said it was “ludicrous” that blacks in America had had to wait so long for their own national museum. She pledged to “reach out” to help secure the necessary private funds for the endeavor.

Brownback and Lewis will introduce legislation in support of the commission’s report to Congress within the next week and a half. The bills will likely request that Congress appropriate $45 million in fiscal 2004 for the Smithsonian Institution to move forward with the commission’s recommendations.