In the shadows of the innumerable stories soon to bear fruit within the National Museum of African American History and Culture, sits, perhaps, its most endearing story of all – the tale of its own gestation. Judge Robert L. Wilkins’ “Long Road to Hard Truth: The 100 Year Mission to Create the National Museum of African American History and Culture,” is an examination of the people, the movement, and the tenacity that fashioned the new museum.
Judge Robert Wilkins wrote a book on the creation of the new Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture. (Courtesy Photos)
The book chronicles the early history, when staunch advocates sought to create a monument for Black soldiers fifty years after the end of the Civil War and in response to the pervasive indignities of the time. In September of 2016, exactly 100 years after the movement to create it, the Smithsonian will open the new museum. Likening the push for recognition to Carter G. Woodson’s organization of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH), Wilkins said the demand for acknowledgment was tantamount to demanding respect. The museum is scheduled to open to the general public on Sept. 24.
“I was struck by the context of how this began and really by how wise and prescient and bold these people were to have this idea in 1916,” Wilkins told the AFRO. “This is a time when Black people were being lynched regularly and it is being celebrated with The Birth of a Nation and there are lots of people who don’t even want Blacks to be in the military… These people were saying ‘we want this country to honor the contributions that Black soldiers and sailors have made because they have fought and served valiantly.”
Wilkins is a United States Circuit Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.
Wilkins said that the movement to establish a monument to Black soldiers evolved into creating a national museum – an effort that required several planning stages, a Presidential Commission and eventually incorporated bipartisan support.
“ were driving a stake in the ground, in the midst of all of the disrespect, subjugation, violence and Jim Crow, and it was a brave – in today’s terms – ‘boss’ move. It was a nationwide movement with participants from every state who helped push to get the museum that we now see,” Wilkins told the AFRO. “A lot of researchers believed the museum movement began in the 1960s, but old microfiche editions of the AFRO document 1920s meetings. It was important that as the museum opens and tells lots of important stories, that the story of the process of how it came to be was also told.”
The book’s title is inspired in part by James Baldwin, who, along with Malcolm X’s widow, Betty Shabazz, testified in Congress in 1968 on the importance of establishing a museum.
“What Baldwin was trying to get the Congress to confront was that if they it would not be easy and they did not need to delude themselves that it would be a happy venture. There would be pain involved,” Wilkins said. “Something good can come out of that pain. In order to heal it, you’ve got to lance it. It is always relevant to look at it this way.”
The book is currently available on amazon.com.