For while the tale of how we suffer and how we are delighted and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard – President Obama, quoting James Baldwin
 

RINGING A HISTORIC CHURCH BELL, President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama officially marked the opening of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) today. In the moments following, church bells could be heard echoing across Washington, joining in the clarion call to celebrate the monumental museum full of the stories of men and women like Elijah Odom, whose family was on hand to help ring the bell from First Baptist Church in Williamsburg, Va., one of the oldest African American congregations in the nation.

Representing four generations, the Bonner family was invited to participate in the celebration because their story reflects the long arc of history, both the challenges and achievements explored in the museum. The matriarch, Ruth Bonner, 99, is the daughter of Odom, who was born a slave in Mississippi. Regarded as chattel, he bravely embraced his right to humanity and and as a young boy escaped to freedom. Odom lived through Reconstruction and Jim Crow. He became a farmer and eventually graduated from medical school. A life of suffering, delight, and triumph. A tale that must be heard.

“…This national museum helps to tell a richer and fuller story of who we are. It helps us better understand the lives, yes, of the President, but also the slave; the industrialist, but also the porter; the keeper of the status quo, but also of the activist seeking to overthrow that status quo; the teacher or the cook, alongside the statesman. And by knowing this other story, we better understand ourselves and each other,” Obama said.

“It binds us together. It reaffirms that all of us are America—that African-American history is not somehow separate from our larger American story, it’s not the underside of the American story, it is central to the American story. That our glory derives not just from our most obvious triumphs, but how we’ve wrested triumph from tragedy, and how we’ve been able to remake ourselves, again and again and again, in accordance with our highest ideals. I, too, am America.”

“This national museum helps to tell a richer and fuller story of who we are. It helps us better understand the lives, yes, of the President, but also the slave; the industrialist, but also the porter; the keeper of the status quo, but also of the activist seeking to overthrow that status quo; the teacher or the cook, alongside the statesman.” — President Barack Obama

President Obama was the final speaker at the dedication ceremony. Following his remarks, First Lady Michelle Obama and the Bonner family, joined him to ring a historic church bell, officially opening the museum. | Pool Photo, Courtesy Getty Images

 

The President’s remarks concluded the long-awaited grand opening ceremony of the African American museum on the National Mall. The 400,000 square foot building sits adjacent to the Washington Monument. It boasts nearly 37,000 artifacts and houses galleries dedicated to history, culture, and community, presenting the contributions and experiences of African Americans from slavery, through civil rights up to Obama’s presidency. Designed by the architectural team of Freelon Adjaye Bond/SmithGroup, David Adjaye led the vision for the museum, a three-tiered bronze-plated corona referencing Nigerian sculpture. The building also takes inspiration from African American traditions with a large and inviting porch at its Southern entrance. For the opening, the porch was transformed into a well-designed stage befitting the architecture.

The moving and celebratory event featured remarks by President George W. Bush, Chief Justice John Roberts, Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga), Secretary of the Smithsonian David J. Skorton, Lonnie Bunch, the museum’s founding director, and Shirley Ann Jackson, president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and a member of the Museum Council. Her story is museum-worthy. The first African American woman to earn a doctorate from MIT, Jackson has a Ph.D. in nuclear physics. She said her love of science was spurred by access to the Smithsonian when she was growing up.

REV. CALVIN O. BUTTS pastor of Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem opened the program with a lively address with the passion of the pulpit. He praised the president and quoted Langston Hughes and James Brown. Three times he said, “Say it loud…” And each time, the audience responded, “…I’m Black and I’m Proud.”

 

Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), a civil rights pioneer, co-sponsored the legislation that made the museum possible. | Photo by Astrid Riecken, Courtesy Getty Images

 

In closing, Butts acknowledged that despite the occasion, times are troubled.

“With the unrest that’s in the nation today—and I am very aware of what’s going on—when I go in here and walk past the casket of Emmett Till, I am very aware of what’s going on, And I want you to know that this was only accomplished because men and women of goodwill, black and white, rich and poor, Republican and Democrat, put their hearts together, their minds together, and their hands together in order to build this great monument to a people who have truly given their all to the United States of America,” he said. “And finally, I want to say, ‘Don’t be discouraged,’ listen beloved, ‘Don’t be discouraged, by what’s ahead.’ Hold onto your dreams and keep the faith.”

“I want you to know that this was only accomplished because men and women of goodwill, black and white, rich and poor, Republican and Democrat, put their hearts together, their minds together, and their hands together in order to build this great monument to a people who have truly given their all to the United States of America.” — Rev. Calvin O. Butts

It languished for decades, but it was a bill co-authored by Lewis that eventually made the African American museum possible.

“This museum is a testament to the dispossessed in every corner of the globe who yearn for freedom. It is a song to the scholars and scribes, scientists and teachers, to the revolutionaries and the voices of protest to the ministers and authors of piece it is a story of life the story of our lives wrapped up in a beautiful, golden crown of grace,” said Lewis, the civil rights pioneer who as the leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee was the youngest speaker at the March on Washington.

“As these doors open, it is my hope that each and every person who visits this beautiful museum will walk away deeply inspired filled with a greater respect for the dignity and the worth of every human being and a stronger commitment to the ideal of justice, equality, and true democracy.”

 

As they take their seats onstage, President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama greet President George W. Bush and former First Lady Laura Bush. | Photo by Astrid Riecken, Courtesy Getty Images

 

Former First Lady Laura Bush, who sits on the Museum Council, introduced President George W. Bush. On Dec. 16, 2003, Bush signed the bill that authorized the construction of NMAAHC. “I hope all of our fellow citizens come and look at this place,” Bush said. “It is fabulous.”

Bush paid tribute to Bunch and said that it is important to understand that without him the museum “would not and could not have happened.” He called the museum “a national treasure” and said he was “pleased it stands where it always belonged, on the National Mall.” He went on to state the reasons why the museum is important to the country. First and foremost, Bush said: It shows our commitment to truth. A great nation does not hide its history. It faces its flaws and corrects them. This museum tells the truth that a country founded on the promise liberty held millions in chains. That the price of our union was America’s original sin.”

“[The museum] shows our commitment to truth. A great nation does not hide its history. It faces its flaws and corrects them. This museum tells the truth that a country founded on the promise liberty held millions in chains. That the price of our union was America’s original sin.”
— President George W. Bush

On a personal note, Bush said the museum showcases America’s greatness and some of its finest talents and referenced his post-presidency foray into painting. As a struggling artist, he said “I have a new appreciation for the artists whose brilliant works are displayed here. People like Robert Duncanson, Henry Ossawa Tanner, Charles Henry Alston. Our country is better and more vibrant because of their contributions and the contributions of millions of African Americans. No telling of American history is neither complete or accurate with out acknowledging them.”

 

nmaahc-opening-ceremony-performances
Clockwise from top left, Patti LaBelle, Pool Photo; Oprah Winfrey and Will Smith, Photo by Astrid Riecken; From left, Chief Justice John Roberts, Shirley Ann Jackson, Rev. Calvin O. Butts, David J. Skorton, Ken Chenault, and Linda Johnson Rice, Photo by Astrid Riecken; Stevie Wonder, Pool Photo | All photos courtesy Getty Images

 

THE REMARKS WERE INTERSPERSED with musical performances and recitations of poetry and prose by historic and literary luminaries. Stevie Wonder said we need a love song for humanity. He had written one and sang it while playing a unique electronic stringed instrument called a harpejji, along with his famous harmonica. Patti LaBelle performed Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” and, at the end of the song, she slipped in a final lyric: “Hillary Clinton.”

Angela Bassett and Robert DeNiro, and Oprah Winfrey paired with Will Smith, paid tribute to the likes of Hughes, Frederick Douglass, Rosa Parks, Toni Morrison, and Zora Neale Hurston. Winfrey, who donated $21 million to the museum which has a 350-seat theater named for her, quoted Maya Angelou. When she was done, Smith jokingly asked if she had just challenged her to a poetry battle. Then he recalled the wisdom of Albert Murray: “What are the blues? They are homegrown black music that acknowledges the tenuous nature of all human existence, an heroic response to what is called the human condition. We invented the blues. The Europeans invented psychoanalysis. You invent what you need.”

The audience was peppered with a number of boldface names. Dignitaries and government officials in attendance included, Vice President Joe Biden and his wife Jill Biden, President Bill Clinton, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), Washington, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, former Secretary of State Colin Powell, Attorney General Loretta Lynch, former Attorney General Eric Holder, National Security Advisor Susan Rice, and former Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), now governor of Kansas, who sponsored the museum legislation in the U.S. Senate.

The audience also included baseball legend Hank Aaron, civil rights leader Jesse Jackson, Dionne Warwick, choreographer Debbie Allen, Gayle King, film director Ava DuVernay, and Robert L. Johnson, a member of the Museum Council who donated selections from the Barnett-Aden Collection of African American art to the museum. Actors David Oyelowo, Samuel L. Jackson and Chris Tucker, were also present.

 

After working for 11 years of as founding director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, through planning, collecting, development, and construction, Lonnie Bunch said it was “a grand and glorious day to open a museum.” | Photo by Astrid Riecken, Courtesy Getty Images

 

IN MARCH 2005, Bunch was appointed director of the African American museum. When Bunch came to the podium, he received a standing ovation. He praised his staff, calling it a “dream team” critical to bringing the museum to fruition. Because of its leadership role on the fundraising front, he said the foundation of NMAAHC is its Museum Council, including Johnson Publishing Chair Linda Johnson Rice (co-chair of the council) and American Express CEO Ken Chenault, who both spoke at the event. He also thanked the institutions and ordinary Americans whose commitment and support made the museum a reality.

“What a grand and glorious day to open a museum that will not just tell of a people’s journey, but also of a nation’s story,” Bunch said. “It’s hard for me to believe we are at this moment, where we as a nation will finally fulfill the expectations and hopes of so many generations who believed and labored for a presence on the National Mall that would help all Americans realize how much they’ve been shaped, informed, and made better by the African American experience.”

“It’s hard for me to believe we are at this moment, where we as a nation will finally fulfill the expectations and hopes of so many generations who believed and labored for a presence on the National Mall that would help all Americans realize how much they’ve been shaped, informed, and made better by the African American experience.”
— Lonnie Bunch, Founding Director, NMAAHC

Bunch said the occasion was bittersweet because of the people who began the journey with him, but died in the intervening years, including architect Max Bond, scholar John Hope Franklin (founding chairman of the Scholarly Advisory Council), Bunch’s father, and the mother of Kinshasha Conwill, deputy director of the museum.

“I am so honored and humbled to be a part of the group of people to build this museum. Thanks to you, I have had the time of my life,” Bunch said. “We believe there is nothing more powerful than a people, than a nation steeped in its history. And there is nothing more noble than honoring our ancestors by remembering. So let me conclude by simply saying, ‘Welcome home.'” CT

 

In addition to the dedication ceremony, the Grand Opening Weekend includes a Freedom Sounds Festival of performances.

 

BOOKSHELF
The National Museum of African American History and Culture has been mounting satellite exhibitions in the adjacent National Museum of American history and publishing books as the design and construction of its museum building moved forward. Double Exposure, a multi-volume series, features photography from the museum’s collection. Coinciding with the museum’s opening, two new books commemorate the groundbreaking institution: National Museum of African American History and Culture: A Souvenir Book and Begin with the Past: Building the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

 

President Barack Obama poses with four generations of the Bonner family, after ringing the First Baptist Church Bell to officially open the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. | Photo by Astrid Riecken, Courtesy Getty Images

 


As the audience waiting for the grand opening ceremony for the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture to officially begin, a number of performers, including Angelique Kidjo took the stage. The main program begins at (2:01:00). | Video by The White House