The groundbreaking for the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) will be held Feb 22 in Washington, D.C. The museum will be located on the National Mall, on Constitution Avenue and 14th Street NW, next to the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History and adjacent to the Washington Monument.

Rep. John Lewis (D-GA), who spearheaded efforts to build the museum, and former First Lady Laura Bush who serves on the museum’s board, are expected to attend the ceremony as are other civil rights leaders, dignitaries, Congressional representatives and prominent African Americans from business, academia, arts and entertainment, according to a museum spokesperson. Opera singers Denyce Graves and Thomas Hampson will perform, along with Stanley Thurston and The Heritage Signature Chorale and the U.S. Navy Band. Actress Phylicia Rashad will emcee.
The ceremony is not open to the public but will be webcast.

The event marks a milestone in the development of a national museum for African-American history. Initial efforts to create the museum began after the end of World War I with Black veterans, the descendants of slaves and their supporters, which led to legislation in 1929 authorizing the construction of a “National Memorial Building to serve as a museum and a tribute to the Negro’s contributions to the achievements of America.”

But it wasn’t until Rep. Lewis picked up the cause in 2001 when a presidential commission was formed to oversee site selection and planning. In 2003, President George W. Bush signed legislation creating the museum.

When it opens in 2015, the NMAAHC will be the nation’s largest and most comprehensive cultural destination devoted exclusively to showcasing African-American life, art, history and culture. “Collaborating with other African American museums nationwide, the NMAAHC will tell America’s story through the lens of the African American experience,” said Dr. Lonnie Bunch, executive director of the museum.

Bunch noted that there will be an emphasis on the local region between Baltimore and Richmond. “We want to take care of home first and this area has a rich history,” he said.

Currently, a section of the Museum of Natural and American History houses the National Museum of African American History and Culture gallery. The NMAAHC also has traveling exhibits, curriculum-based activities for schools, and a host of preservation programs to document and display African American history.

Cost of construction for the museum is $500 million. Bunch explained that this is the price tag for a national museum and a Smithsonian Institution museum. Congress contributed half. Nearly $90 million has been raised through donations from corporations, foundations, organizations and individuals. American Express, The Boeing Company, Target, UnitedHealth Group and Wal-Mart each donated $5 million. Gifts of $10 million came from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Lilly Endowment.

The 19th museum in the Smithsonian Institution collection, the NMAAHC will also be the most “green” museum on the National Mall, Bunch said. The museum is being built as a sustainable building.

Four architectural firms, including two led by African Americans, joined to design the new museum. Philip Freelon, an African American, of The Freelon Group is the firm of record, responsible for ensuring that the design maintains the Smithsonian’s standards throughout the process. He also designed the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of African American History and Culture in Baltimore. Also on the architectural team is lead designer David Adjaye of Adjaye Associates, a British transplant of Ghanian descent who designed the Nobel Peace Centre in Oslo, Norway.

For more information about the National Museum of African American History and Culture, visit


Maria Morales

Special to the AFRO