The Triumph and Heartbreak of the National African American Museum

Glorious dedication is stark contrast to Charlotte uprising and extrajudicial killings.

Courtesy: Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture

One hundred years is a long time to fight for anything —but not when something challenges racist stereotypes of what it means to be Black in America. Finally, the glorious three-day dedication festivities of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) — which culminated in its grand opening yesterday — have affirmed the long and hard fight for a federally-mandated museum which celebrates black life, history, and culture.

The dedication was the crowning achievement of a fight begun in the shadow of the Civil War. Black veterans representing the 180,000 members of the United States Colored Troops were denied the opportunity to march in the Grand Review of the Armies, a parade through Washington, D.C. on May 23 and May 24, 1865 celebrating victory over the Confederacy.

Determined to receive the honor that was rightfully theirs during the fiftieth anniversary celebration of the parade in 1915, U.S. Colored Troop veterans formed the Committee of Colored Citizens of the Grand Army of the Republic. In addition to helping to provide housing, food, and logistical aid, the committee used its remaining funds to establish a National Memorial Association.

The fund was set up to create a permanent memorial to the military contributions of Black Americans, and early plans to erect a memorial building evolved into a vision for a National African American Museum.

The campaign to establish the museum received a modern push in the 1970s. But even these efforts had little effect until anti-poverty activist turned congressman the late Rep. Mickey Leland —a Texas Southern University alumnus — and Civil Rights Movement veteran Rep. John Lewis — an alumnus of American Baptist College and Fisk University — led a much more serious legislative push in 1988.

Leland was tragically killed in a plane crash less than a year later. Continuing the fight, Lewis introduced the museum bill during every session of Congress for 15 years. Due in large part to his bipartisan legislative efforts, in 2001, President George W. Bush created an exploratory and development commission for the museum.

The National Museum of African American History and Culture Act established the 19th Smithsonian museum two years later. A site was selected in 2006, its design was approved in 2009, and President Obama helped to break ground on February 22, 2012.

The museum still faced two additional unique challenges: securing funding and building a collection.

Historically, government funds have covered all or most of the building costs for every Smithsonian museum. In the case of this museum, the federal government was only going to cover half of its $540 million price tag.

According to The Washington Post, 74 percent of the individual donors who contributed $1 million or more were African American. Tennessee State University alumna Oprah Winfrey’s $21 million contribution secured her place as the museum’s largest benefactor, and considerable support came from organizations like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, as well as from the wider black community.

Since its congressional authorization, museum officials have painstakingly collected 37,000 items from institutions — including several historically black colleges and universities — and everyday Americans to tell the nation’s story through the lens of Black America.

Excitement in the months leading up to the three-tiered, Yoruban caryatid-inspired museum’s opening was palpable. It still is. Black America, arguably, has not felt this much pride since the elections and inaugurations of President Barack Obama.

President Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama, Will Smith, Stevie Wonder, Usher Raymond, Oprah Winfrey, Debbie Allen, David Oyelowo, Ava DuVernay, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, Lupita Nyong’o and Glynn Turman were among those who punctuated the opening’s star-studded celebrity guest list. With ornate gowns and tailored tuxedos that more than do justice to the 1950s and 60s ‘Sunday Best’ of modern Civil Rights Movement protesters, Black Hollywood and the Black intelligentsia smiled smartly into the flashing lights of cameras; their glamour a stark contrast to the plight of rank-and-file Black folk in communities across America.

Visitors to the museum should be more woke than ever to the connections of the museum’s artifacts to the affirmation and movement that is Black Lives Matter. While the funeral program of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. sits among the ruins of nonviolence, Nat Turner’s Bible, Harriet Tubman’s hymnal, a banner from the Attica rebellion, and guns owned by the Deacons of Defense endure as testaments of black self-defense.

“In one hand I witness the triumph of collective work and responsibility with the ribbon cutting of the Smithsonian African American History Museum an official federal landmark acknowledging not just the accomplishments of Black people, but this institution is a spiritual witness to our tenacity and creative ability to thrive in the lower circle of Dante’s inferno and still fashion a heaven while experiencing hell,” wrote the Reverend Dr. Otis Moss III, a Morehouse College graduate and senior pastor at Trinity United Church of Christ.

It is a high, weighted down with the painful reality of a growing number of extrajudicial Black deaths.

Moss continued, “But the duality of being black in America is intensified when death is recorded for public consumption yet justice is banished from the courtroom.”

The juxtaposition of the museum’s opening, and the continued police killings of black men, women, and children — including those in Tulsa and Charlotte in the past week alone — is at the very least, striking. With no justice in sight, Black Americans and their allies should be inspired by the museum to take the kind of action that will finally bring racism to an end.

Visitors to the museum — especially black folk — should be mindful that the objects on display earned their place in the museum — and in history — by virtue of the black people connected to them who disrupted business as usual with their ingenuity, acumen, and with their protest.

This is the harrowing story of blackness in America, of a people’s triumphant journey — a people still heartbreakingly under siege. And it continues.

#APeoplesJourney #NMAAHC