The National Museum of African American History and Culture opens Saturday, Sept. 24. (Photo by Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)
More than 100 years after it was first proposed and 13 years after it was authorized by Congress, the National Museum of African-American History and Culture opens today in Washington.
“There were some who said it couldn’t happen, who said ‘you can’t do it,’ but we did it,” said Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), who led the charge to make the museum a reality. “This place is more than a building. It is a dream come true.”
The long-awaited moment is being heralded by a weekend of celebrations across the city, in what the museum director Lonnie Bunch has called a “mini inauguration.” The most anticipated event is the grand opening ceremony on the National Mall, which is being broadcast on C-SPAN and streamed online, including at washingtonpost.com. More than 7,000 official guests heard speeches from Oprah Winfrey, Will Smith, Supreme Court Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and former president George W. Bush, who signed the 2003 bill that authorized the museum.
Bush called the finished product “fabulous,” saying: “It shows our commitment to truth. A great nation does not hide its history. It faces its flaws and corrects them.”
In his speech, President Obama, the country’s first African-American chief executive, repeated the words of Langston Hughes: “I, too, am America.”
“We are not a burden on America, or a stain on America, or an object of pity or charity for America. We are America. And that’s what this museum explains,” he said.
A building alone, he said, will not fix the country’s problems. But it can inspire its citizens to go out and do so.
“Hopefully this museum can help us talk to each other, and more importantly listen to each other, and most importantly, see each other,” he said.
[Live updates: Opening day at the National Museum of African American History and Culture]
Since the day Obama presided over the museum’s groundbreaking in 2012, an impressive 400,000 square foot structure has been built-in the shadow of the Washington Monument. Serving as home to more than 36,000 artifacts, the museum exists to both memorialize and educate, and most importantly to museum director Bunch, cement the African-American story’s place in the American story.
The museum, Bunch said in his speech, will “not just tell of a people’s journey, but a nation’s story.”
“There is nothing more powerful than a people, than a nation steeped in history,” Bunch continued. “And nothing more noble than honoring all of our ancestors by remembering.”
The museum’s bronze-hued exterior and unusual shape stand starkly in contrast with the buildings surrounding it, and purposefully so. Inside, visitors walk the path from slavery to civil rights to the Black Lives Matter movement, and everything in between. The familiar and the untold stories of history are shared through meaningful objects: from the shawl of Harriet Tubman to a candy-red Cadillac driven by Chuck Berry, to the uneven-bar grips used by Gabby Douglas in the 2012 Olympics.
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For the time being, getting inside the museum will take some advance planning. Although, as with all Smithsonian museums, entry is free, admission currently requires a timed ticket, available at nmaahc.si.edu/visit/passes. All the tickets for opening weekend were snapped up the moment they were made available in August. Tickets for September, October, November and every weekend in December are sold out. But starting Monday, individuals can obtain up to four same-day passes from the visitor services staff starting at 9:15 a.m.
Even without a ticket, there’s still good reason to head to the Mall this weekend, if you don’t mind crowds and security checkpoints. On the Washington Monument grounds between 15th and 17th streets NW, the museum is hosting a free, three-day festival celebrating African-American culture. Food stands will offer Southern barbecue, Kenyan curries, Caribbean jerk and Gulf Coast po’ boys. Music, poetry, dancing and storytelling will entertain visitors throughout the day, leading to a Saturday night concert featuring Living Colour, Public Enemy and the Roots. The festival will continue on Sunday. (Full schedule here.)
People were already streaming onto the grounds of the Washington Monument before sunrise Saturday, hoping to get a view of the festivities — or at least see them on the Jumbo-trons nearby.
“We are very excited to see our family history,” said Gladys Atkins, from Helmetta, N.J.“We of course descended from slaves… I have photographs of my slave ancestors.”
She and her husband have tickets to enter the museum for 5:30 p.m. In fact, they have tickets for four separate days.
“We are serious,” she said.
Attendees looking up at the Mall’s newest landmark wondered aloud what its existence means to the conversation about race in America. The opening ceremony comes at the end of a week when two deadly police shootings — of Keith Lamont Scott in Charlotte, N.C. and Terence Crutcher in Tulsa, Okla. — became the latest catalysts for ongoing protests about the way black men are treated by law enforcement.
“I can only hope that this [museum] does provide an opportunity for greater healing,” said Atiba Muse, a political organizer from Petersburg, Va. who sat among other donors at the ceremony. “We’re in need of triage. This is the initial steps to resuscitate.”
Others were overwhelmed thinking of how far the black community has come. Beulah Stowe Cary, 92, sat outside the ceremony in a motorized wheelchair, telling the story of her childhood. She was born in North Carolina in 1924, but remained in the state for just three weeks before her family sent her to relatives in Virginia. She had a white mother and a black father; they feared that a biracial baby wouldn’t be safe in the South.
David Hudson, a volunteer from Silver Spring, recalled being chased out of a restaurant in South Carolina because he was black. He was 8 years old at the time.
Now, at 63, he’s passing out programs at the foot of a building meant to ensure his country will never forget how boys like him were treated.
“To see all of our story and history from the very beginning, from the shackles,” reflected poet Sonia Sanchez before the ceremony began. “From how we were enslaved and how we have become president, and how we have come writers in this country and professors…We are a part of this great American landscape and you are going to remember us. You’re going to remember us when you come to this museum.”
This story will be updated throughout the day.
Ellen McCarthy, Peggy McGlone, Michael Ruane and Krissah Thompson contributed to this report.