The president of the United States and the first lady were recently joined by two former presidents and a former first lady and millions of viewers around the country for the grand opening of the newest Smithsonian Institution museum.
President Barack Obama addresses the crowd at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture opening (AFRO/Photo by Samentha Moore)
President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama celebrated the takeoff of the National African American Museum of History & Culture on Sept. 24 with Vice President Joe Biden and his wife Jill; former President George W. Bush and former first lady Laura Bush; former President Bill Clinton; U.S. Chief Justice of the United States John Roberts; U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), who authored legislation to build the massive facility; Lonnie Bunch, founding director of the museum; and hundreds of thousands of people present on the National Mall.
“African American history is not somehow separate from American history,” Obama said, emphasizing that the museum ensures that Black history won’t be ignored. “It is not the underside of the American story. It is central to the American story.”
The president said that the museum will have the touch of the average Black person in that “it tells the lives of the president and also the slave. It tells the story of the industrialist and the porter,” he said. “It talks about the teacher and the cook and the statesmen.”
The idea of a Black museum commemorating the contributions of Black Americans was born a century ago and the U.S. Congress supported its authorization in the late 1920s.
Stevie Wonder speaks out to the crowd before his performance at the opening ceremony of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (AFRO/Photo by Samentha Moore)
However, the idea of a national museum dedicated to telling the story of the Black American’s journey didn’t formally start until Lewis sponsored legislation to build it. It was not until 2003 when President Bush signed legislation creating the museum and stating that it should be on the National Mall. Bunch was selected as the museum’s founding director and he had the full support of the Bush and Obama administrations.
Laura Bush, in her speech, said that she recently toured the museum with Bunch and he had an emotional moment. The former first lady consoled him saying “Lonnie, look what you’ve done.”
George W. Bush, in his remarks, praised Bunch for his drive, energy and optimism and said, “I hope all of our fellow citizens can come here. It is fabulous.”
David J. Skorton is the secretary for the Smithsonian Institution and he noted that the approximately 37,000 items in the facility came from people of all walks of life.
“These donated items come from individuals and families,” Skorton said. “African American history is indivisible from American history. This museum helps us in our common cause to help build a more perfect union.”
Powerful words from Congressman John Lewis at the opening ceremony of the historic Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (AFRO/Photo by Samentha Moore)
The Rev. Calvin Butts, the senior pastor at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York, said that the museum was a monument to “those who made America great.”
“Anybody can be great when they have people working for them for 250 years and was never paid a dime for their labor,” he said.
Lewis said that the museum’s presence in the nation’s capital has a lasting purpose. “As long as there is a United States of America, there will be the National African American Museum of History & Culture,” the representative said.
Dr. Shirley Jackson, president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, talked about growing up in racially segregated Washington, D.C. and the struggles that her parents went through to live a decent life and provide educational opportunities for her. D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) made remarks encouraging the audience to visit the rest of her city and support D.C. statehood.
Oprah Winfrey and Will Smith at opening ceremony of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. (AFRO/Photo by Samentha Moore)
Entertainment was provided by Stevie Wonder and Patti LaBelle, who moved many with her rendition of Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come”. Actors Robert DeNiro and Will Smith teamed with actress Angela Bassett and actress/entrepreneur Oprah Winfrey, in reciting African American quotes and poetry from leading Black literary figures and political activists.
Bunch thanked George W. Bush and President Obama for their support, saying “George Bush said that the museum must be on the National Mall and a senator from Illinois said ‘yes we can’”. Bunch also thanked the thousands of donors whether they were individuals or corporations and his Smithsonian staff “because they are the dream team” that built and will maintain the museum.
“This museum doesn’t belong to Black America but to all Americans,” Obama said. “It will help us to talk to each other, listen to each other and see each other.”
The ceremony ended with seven-year-old Christine Bonner and her 99-year-old grandmother, Ruth Bonner, ringing the historic Black First Baptist Church of Williamsburg’s bell, signaling the opening of the museum to the public.