Black history’s home is open
Black history officially has a new, prominent place in America's story.
The Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture opened. It was opened with hugs, tears and the ringing of church bells. It opened Sept. 24. The goal of the museum is to help this nation understand, reconcile and celebrate African-Americans' often-ignored contributions toward making this country what it is today.
President Barack Obama, the nation's first black president, wiped away a tear as he formally opened the Smithsonian's 19th museum. He made a moving 31-minute speech. The ceremony was held on the National Mall. Obama's audience included two former presidents and leaders from all branches of the federal government. First lady Michelle Obama also shed a tear. Her family has been traced back to slaves in the South.
Obama noted one artifact in the museum. It was a stone marker. It came from a slave block. And it was where Andrew Jackson and Henry Clay spoke in 1830. This item, Obama said, chronicles not just the fact that two powerful men spoke, but also that multitudes of slaves were "bought and sold, and bid like cattle."
"This national museum helps to tell a richer and fuller story of who we are," Obama said. "It helps us better understand the lives, yes, of the president, but also the slave. The industrialist, but also the porter. The keeper of the status quo, but also of the activist seeking to overthrow that status quo. The teacher or the cook, alongside the statesman. And by knowing this other story, we better understand ourselves and each other."
Ground for the $540 million museum was broken in 2012. It was built on a five-acre tract. The museum is near the Washington Monument. The construction was completed earlier this year. Millions of donors contributed millions of dollars to help build it.
"It's like walking across the desert and finally getting to a fountain of water to quench your thirst. It's absolutely breathtaking for me," said Verna Eggleston. She is 61 and lives in New York City.
The names of some big donors are on prominent spaces inside. These include the Oprah Winfrey Theater and the Michael Jordan Hall: Game Changers. There is the Robert F. Smith Explore Your Family History Center. It is named for the leader of an investment firm, Vista Equity Partners.
Exhibits are wide-ranging. There is the glass-topped casket used to bury lynching victim Emmett Till. And the fedora owned by late pop superstar Michael Jackson.
The museum helps to complete the American tale. It does it by incorporating highs and lows, triumph and trauma experienced by black Americans since the first African slaves arrived on this continent. That was almost 400 years ago.
"We're not a burden on America, or a stain on America, or an object of pity or charity for America. We're America," Obama said. "And that's what this museum explains. The fact that our stories have shaped every corner of our culture."
Obama was joined on stage by his predecessor, former President George W. Bush. It was Bush who, in 2003, signed legislation establishing the museum. Also on stage was John Lewis. He is a veteran civil rights activist and longtime Democratic congressman. He is from Georgia. He co-sponsored the bill.
Bush was with his wife, Laura. He said the museum tells the unvarnished truth. That is the fact that a country founded on the promise of liberty once held millions of people in chains.
"A great nation does not hide its history," Bush said. "It faces its flaws and corrects them."
Lewis also is featured in the museum. He said he could feel the weight of history around the museum, with slave voices whispering of escape and church choirs singing of freedom.
"All their voices, roaming for centuries, have finally found their home here, in this great monument to our pain, our suffering and our victory," Lewis said. After the speech, Obama hugged the congressman.
Also on hand were former President Bill Clinton, Chief Justice John Roberts and House Speaker Paul Ryan. There also were celebrities. They included Oprah Winfrey, Robert De Niro, Will Smith and Angela Bassett. And, there were thousands of Americans who just wanted to witness the museum's opening firsthand.
"I'm just elated and can't express how much joy and gratitude I have to be here today and witness history," said Master Sgt. Donald Sparks of Houston. He just finished a deployment in Iraq.
The honor of helping Obama open the doors went to Ruth Bonner, 99. She is daughter of a Mississippi slave who escaped to freedom. The president and first lady joined Bonner and her family in ringing a bell from the historic First Baptist Church of Williamsburg, Virginia, to signal that the museum was officially open.
The church is believed to be among the first Baptist churches organized entirely by black people. It got its Freedom Bell in 1886. It will be returned to the church for its 240th anniversary. That is scheduled later this year.
The new African-American museum is 400,000 square feet. It was designed by British-Ghanaian architect David Adjaye. It strikes a unique shape on the Mall. It includes three-tiered bronze exterior panels. They were inspired by an African wooden column. The exterior tiles are inspired by 19th century ironwork. It was created by slaves in the South. The tiles allow sunlight into the museum through patterned openings.
Inside, museum officials say they have nearly 3,000 items. They occupy 85,000 square feet of exhibition space.
The museum's opening "finally marks the place and time where we're finally recognized. And it's about time," said Shenise Foster. She lives in Alexandria, Virginia.