Monumental moment for African-American history

Race Issues | Over 100,000 people gather for opening of new Smithsonian museum
by Evan Wilt
Posted 9/24/16, 04:37 pm

WASHINGTON—More than 100,000 people crammed onto the National Mall to witness the dedication of a new national monument commemorating the contributions of African-Americans and reflecting on America’s dark history of slavery.

“A cleared-eyed view of history can make us uncomfortable,” President Barack Obama told the crowd. “But it’s precisely because of that discomfort that we can learn, grow, and harvest our collective power to make this nation more perfect.”

Obama anchored a series of speakers ranging from Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts and former President George W. Bush to celebrities Oprah Winfrey and Robert De Niro before the doors opened to the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Each speaker paid tribute to the sacrifices and injustices of African-Americans and offered a similar outlook of the museum’s significance: a step forward in Americans’ being honest about previous failures while instilling hope for a better future.

Opening the doors to the public of the new Smithsonian Institution museum marked a historic moment more than a century in the making.

Efforts began in Washington, D.C., to open a museum dedicated to African-American history and culture as early as 1915. Yet, Congress never backed the project, and earlier efforts failed to get off the ground.

Decades later in 1988, Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., introduced legislation to establish the museum and spent the next 15 years fighting for it to see the light of day. After getting Senate sponsorship from former Republican Sen. Sam Brownback, now the governor of Kansas, the legislation finally passed through Congress for Bush to sign on Dec. 16, 2003.

“This place is more than a building. This is a dream come true,” Lewis said in a slow, measured tone, trying to fight back his emotions.

The audience roared with applause as the 76-year-old Lewis moved slowly from the podium into a prolonged embrace with America’s first African-American president.

Barbara Ross traveled with a group of 40 other African-American women from Savannah, Ga., to witness the historic event. She told me she didn’t even have a ticket to get inside the museum, which is now booked through the end of the year, but she just wanted to be there to soak it all in.

“This is a high point in our nation’s history,” Ross said.

Stephen Robbs and his wife, LaDawndra, coordinated a trip for 10 relatives from Kansas, Texas, Missouri, and California to be together in Washington for the celebration.

“There are a lot of people who want to be here right now who couldn’t make it,” Robbs told me. “I’m going to enjoy every second of this. I’m here to take lots of pictures and tell the story of today to all our friends and family who couldn’t be here.”

Construction workers first broke ground on the 400,000-square-foot structure in 2012. Congress provided $270 million to fund the project, with an additional $270 million coming from private donations.

The museum has five floors and extends 40 feet underground to provide additional exhibition space. Curators collected 37,000 artifacts, many from private collectors or families who donated or sold pieces to the museum.

Bush said the new museum is important for the country because it demonstrates a commitment to the truth about its history of slavery.

“A great nation does not ignore its history; it faces its flaws and corrects them,” Bush said. “This museum tells the truth that a country founded on the promise of liberty held millions in chains—that the price of our union was America’s original sin.”

Evan Wilt

Evan is a reporter for WORLD Digital based in Washington, D.C.

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