President Barack Obama dedicated the National Museum of African American History and Culture on Saturday as the doors to the newest Smithsonian building on the National Mall officially opened to the public.
The ceremony — which included remarks from former President George W. Bush and Supreme Court Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., as well as readings from Oprah Winfrey and actor Will Smith — featured a 31-minute speech by Obama.
Roll Call spoke with one member of Congress who was there — House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland.
“It was moving, impressive, well-done and you have the sense that this is another step in America’s stride toward a more perfect union,” Hoyer said in a phone call after the event.
The congressman said the ceremony, and the museum itself, are a “recognition that we came a long way as a nation.”
“Even though some were treated as slaves, they made an extraordinary contribution to the creation of this country as it is today — and will make an extraordinary contribution to making it even better,” he said.
Hoyer was joined Saturday at the star-studded ceremony by several other lawmakers, including Vermont Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California, Rep. Barbara Lee of California, and Rep. Diana DeGette of Colorado, all Democrats.
“Although we’re on break and many returned home, many stayed here for this ceremony,” Hoyer said of his colleagues in attendance. The congressman’s Maryland district is located just outside Washington.
He also reflected on Obama’s role in Saturday’s event.
“President George W. Bush signed the legislation — what a historic reality that we now have an African-American president,” he said.
Hoyer said he was able to visit the museum earlier in the week. He spent an hour and 45 minutes inside on Monday, but said people really need an hour and 45 minutes for each display in each room.
“I was moved during the ceremony,” he said. “When you think of what African-Americans have been through in this country — fighting for this country, coming and returning from the battlefields to be treated as second- or third-class citizens. They were truly all loving their country and wanting to build a better life for themselves and for their families and for their future generations. That’s inspiration in and of itself.”
The most moving part of the museum for Hoyer was a simple saying.
“At one stage, it says ‘I, too, am America,’ expressing the ‘E Pluribus Unum’ — ‘Out of many, one’ — and that we are all Americans,” he said. “That’s what we have in common and that’s what we need to focus on.”