Columbus leaders were among an estimated 20,000 visitors, including politicians and celebrities, who crammed the National Mall on Saturday for the grand opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
The Smithsonian’s 19th museum in Washington, D.C., is a far cry from the white marble and limestone structures that permeate the mall.
The $540 million building is a three-tiered, crown-inspired design that rises into the sky and disperses the sunlight through 3,600 bronze-colored panels reminiscent of 19th century ironwork created by New Orleans slaves.
Rep. Calvin Smyre, D-Columbus, traveled to the event with Robert L. Wright, the local business mogul who chaired the blue-ribbon presidential commission charged with planning the museum.
Museum director Lonnie Bunch cited Wright by name in his opening remarks. Chairman emeritus of the Virginia-based Sentel Corp., Wright also serves on the museum’s advisory council.
Wright and other members of the council had a front-row seat for Saturday’s grand opening ceremony.
“When I reflect on the hardships and struggles of other people and my family, as well growing up, to now see this museum tell the story that it’s telling, it’s overwhelming,” Wright said. “Hopefully it can be something that can bring people together rather than divide, because it tells America’s story, both good and bad. ... I think if we face our truths, we can work toward better solutions.”
Wright was a board member with Columbus-based Aflac in 2005 when it became the first company to donate $1 million to the museum effort.
Aflac CEO Dan Amos, who could not attend Saturday’s ceremony due to scheduling conflicts, said in a statement that Aflac’s “contribution was a great way to demonstrate our commitment to national history, our culture and the wonderful diversity that makes us a great country.”
“With a workforce consisting of 44 percent minorities and 67 percent women, Aflac has a long-held commitment to diversity of thought and opportunity,” Amos added. “As I think back to 2005, being the first company to lend its support to this museum, I am comforted that our values 11 years ago were the same as they are today.”
Smyre also attended the ceremony on Saturday and said the Kennedy Center gala Friday night celebrating the museum was a high point of the weekend. Produced by Quincy Jones, the event featured performances by Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight, John Legend and Atlanta’s own Usher.
Smyre said the biggest applause of the evening was reserved for surviving members of the Tuskeegee Airman. The iconic flyers again drew hearty applause as they were seated at Saturday’s ceremony, Smyre said.
“This opening, it has to be one of the most cherished opportunities of my life of public service,” Smyre said. “it’s an inspiring day.”
Other Columbus leaders at the ceremony included Congressman Sanford Bishop and his wife, Muscogee County Municipal Court Clerk Vivian Creighton Bishop, Smyre said.
‘America’s front yard’
The first of the Smithsonian Institution’s 19 museums to begin without a dedicated collection, most of museum’s nearly 37,000 objects — about 3,000 of which are on display — come from individuals and families.
“Memories passed down through generations, stored in cupboards and attics, hung on walls, displayed on coffee tables,” said Smithsonian Institution Secretary David Skorton. “Yet the people who donated these personal mementos knew of their great power.”
The idea of a museum recognizing African Americans on “America’s front yard” right next to the monument honoring the nation’s first president — himself, a slave owner — is testimony to the depth of America’s painful social evolution and proof of the nation’s amazing capacity to grow and change.
“What this museum does show us is that, even in the face of oppression, even in the face of unimaginable difficulty, America has moved forward,” President Barack Obama told the audience.
As the police-involved killings of black men and a re-emergence of white supremacist rhetoric stoke the nation’s racial tensions anew, Obama said the new museum’s exhibits might contribute greater understanding to both sides of the debate.
“Perhaps they can help a white visitor understand the pain and anger of demonstrators in places like Ferguson and Charlotte,” Obama observed. “But it can also help black visitors appreciate the fact that not only is this younger generation carrying on traditions of the past, but within the white communities across the nation, we see the sincerity of law enforcement officers and officials who, in fits and starts, are struggling to understand and are trying to do the right thing.”
The president reminded the audience that Jim Crow and rampant racial discrimination have not long been erased from the national landscape.
“So we should not be surprised that not all the healing is done,” he added.
For civil rights icon John Lewis, who authored the original bill to establish the museum and who introduced similar legislation in every session of Congress for 15 years, the opening ceremony capped yet another monumental triumph in his career.
“We gather here today to dedicate a building,” Lewis told the audience. “But this place is more than a building. It is a dream come true. … This museum is a testament to the dignity of the dispossessed in every corner of the globe who yearn for freedom.”
Lewis marveled at the museum’s striking design.
“It is the story of life, the story of our lives wrapped in up in a beautiful golden crown of grace,” he said.
Former President George W. Bush, who signed the legislation authorizing the museum, said it shows America’s commitment to telling the truth about its past.
“A great nation does not hide its history. It faces its flaws and corrects them,” Bush said. “This museum tells the truth: that a country founded on the promise of liberty, held millions in chains.”
In an e-mail message, Glenn T. Eskew, a history professor at Georgia State University who studies the growth of museums documenting the civil rights struggle, said scattered tributes, memorials and historic collections have preserved important pieces of the black experience in the United States for many years.
“Yet in the national narrative, black Americans were largely ignored until the second half of the 20th century when efforts truly began to weave their stories into the larger saga of America,” Eskew noted.
Eskew said the new Smithsonian museum will become the crown jewel of a growing chain of civil rights museums, mainly in the South.
“No doubt it will serve as the United State’s leading museum of African American history because of its centrality to the nation’s other interpretative sites, just as the Native American Museum further down the National Mall has eclipsed other museums telling the stories of the country’s indigenous population,” Eskew’s message said. “This comes from the power of the Smithsonian and its ability to collaborate with other institutions.”
As the nation struggles to fulfill it’s goal of true equality, the museum’s documentation of the black experience in America will help illuminate that effort — however painful that may be.
“Because of its honesty, this museum will spark dialogue, not just about our past but, about our present,” said Skorton, of the Smithsonian Institution. “It will be an important part of the national conversation, helping us to more effectively face our racial issues and divisions and move forward somehow together.”