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The Smithsonian’s new African American museum was a long time in the making

It is a tale of false starts, disingenuous efforts, gridlock, and also unexpected alliances.

President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama, ring the Freedom Bell: First Baptist Church of Williamsburg, with members of the Bonner family at the dedication ceremony for the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture on the National Mall in Washington, Saturday, Sept. 24, 2016. Four generations of the family, descended from Elijah B. Odom, a young slave who escaped to freedom, rang a bell from First Baptist Church, founded in 1776 and one of the country’s oldest African-American houses of worship. CREDIT: AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais
President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama, ring the Freedom Bell: First Baptist Church of Williamsburg, with members of the Bonner family at the dedication ceremony for the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture on the National Mall in Washington, Saturday, Sept. 24, 2016. Four generations of the family, descended from Elijah B. Odom, a young slave who escaped to freedom, rang a bell from First Baptist Church, founded in 1776 and one of the country’s oldest African-American houses of worship. CREDIT: AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

WASHINGTON, D.C. — A chuckle erupted across the crowd on the National Mall at the opening ceremonies for the National Museum of African American History and Culture on September 24, when former First Lady Laura Bush announced her husband, George W. Bush, signed the 2003 legislation authorizing the creation of a museum in the nation’s capital showcasing the experience of Black people in America.

The crowd, predominantly African American, likely was a bit surprised and amused to learn that Bush had a direct hand in establishing the museum that offers six levels of artifacts reaching back 400 years, which tell the story of the African American experience. After all, Bush was the same president who oversaw the disastrous rescue efforts following Hurricane Katrina.

The former president’s involvement is just one of the many twists and turns in the long history of how this historic museum was won. It is a tale of false starts, disingenuous efforts, gridlock, and also unexpected alliances.

The story is chronicled in Long Road to Hard Truth: The 100 Year Mission to Create the National Museum of African American History and Culture, a slim, comprehensive, and slightly wonkish volume by Judge Robert Leon Wilkins, the newest member of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.

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Wilkins, who joined the powerful D.C. Circuit in 2014, has spent the last year chronicling the many efforts to make the National Museum of African American History and Culture a reality — efforts he was involved in reviving after decades of false starts.

How it all began

The idea for a museum dedicated to African American history first took root after the reenactment of an event called the Grand Review of the Armies in the nation’s capital in 1915, marking the 50th anniversary of the Civil War.

The original Grand Review in 1865 was a way for the public to heartily thank the troops and was marked by music, parades, and patriotic banners. For two days 200,000 soldiers marched on the nation’s capital, and past the White House, in a big celebration. All branches of the government and all public businesses were closed, and even the trial for conspirators in the assassination of President Lincoln was postponed.

But at the end of the Civil War, no Black regiments were present at the march during the party — despite their prominent role fighting to preserve the union. Not only were their efforts overlooked, but according to Wilkins, the Black soldiers who were present at the event were mocked and viewed as comic relief.

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Fifty years later, the country hadn’t made much progress on its treatment of the African American community or recognized its contributions to maintaining the union. While Black veterans were allowed to participate in the reenactment, they were excluded from a planning committee organized to arrange transportation, lodging, meals, and entertainment for the soldiers attending the event. Instead, the African American community in Washington, D.C. had to form its own committee to receive and honor visiting Black veterans.

Pinback button promoting the arrival of the National African American Museum CREDIT: National Museum of African American History and Culture
Pinback button promoting the arrival of the National African American Museum CREDIT: National Museum of African American History and Culture

A year later in 1916, members of this group, led by Howard University-trained attorney Ferdinand Desoto Lee, reorganized to launch a campaign to recognize African American veterans. They later determined that there should be a memorial building to recognize other contributions the African American community had made to the country.

“It was fascinating that you had people who were that audacious to have a plan like this,” Wilkins told ThinkProgress. “I think to them it was part of the overall struggle to have African Americans recognized as humans — as equals — because if that could be done it would be harder to say to the African American community, ‘You can’t vote,’ or ‘We don’t care about lynching,’ or all these other things that people were concerned about and fighting.”

The same year, a lawmaker introduced a bill proposing a monument or memorial at a cost of no more than $100,000, but it never received a committee hearing, and the country soon turned its focus to World War I.

In 1919, more bills calling for an African American monument or museum were introduced into Congress. Some advocates believed highlighting loyal Black soldiers would humanize African Americans and increase support for anti-lynching and anti-discrimination legislation. But it took a decade for one of them to become law. On his last day in office in March 1929, President Calvin Coolidge signed a law to create a National Memorial Commission. The legislation allowed $50,000 in federal funding for the commission to start planning the project, but only after supporters first raised $500,000 in private funding.

“One way to kill a project is to not fund it,” said Wilkins. “There were people who didn’t want to see this national memorial be approved by Congress, and they were throwing up roadblocks all throughout the [1910s] and 1920s. Obviously, that was not an ideal situation and not what the people pushing for this memorial wanted, but that’s what it took to get it passed.”

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Even as they were dealt a bad hand, supporters geared up to raise the money. But six months later, the October 1929 stock market crash and the ensuing Great Depression killed that effort.

Over the next several years, Congress refused the commission’s requests for funding. Bills resurfaced again during the Civil Rights era, but with no hearings and no votes, they didn’t get far in Congress.

U.S. Representative John Lewis (D-GA) speaks at the opening ceremony of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture on September 24, 2016 in Washington, DC. Credit: Olivier Douliery / Pool via CNP / MediaPunch/IPX
U.S. Representative John Lewis (D-GA) speaks at the opening ceremony of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture on September 24, 2016 in Washington, DC. Credit: Olivier Douliery / Pool via CNP / MediaPunch/IPX

In 1984, an entrepreneur from Los Angeles created an organization that conducted research and lobbied lawmakers, historically Black colleges and universities, the Smithsonian, and prominent African Americans — like columnist Carl Rowan Jr., activist Dorothy Height, and artists Patti Labelle and Stevie Wonder — to make the museum a reality. In 1988, U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) drafted a bill, and Congress held hearings on it. But again, the plan broke down after disagreements of where the museum should be located and who would manage it.

In the mid-1990s, an effort to create an African American museum in an existing Smithsonian building, such as the Anacostia Museum, was shut down due to a fiscally conservative Congress and steadfast opposition from U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms (R-NC).

An attorney called in to service

After eighty years of failed efforts, Wilkins enters the story.

A native of Muncie, Indiana who pursued a career in law after earning a degree in chemical engineering, Wilkins’ experiences at the Harvard Law School would shape his life’s work, including his contribution to the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

It was at Harvard as a student and later as president of the Black Law Students Association (BLSA) where Wilkins would develop his appreciation for law and for African American history. With the BLSA motto, “every month is Black History Month,” Wilkins helped organize campus events to preserve and celebrate African American history.

His activities in law school also taught him how the law could be used to support efforts toward equality. After his first year, Wilkins spent the summer interning with a group of South African lawyers doing civil rights work for individuals and businesses during its apartheid regime.

“I saw how these Black lawyers [in South Africa] had not given up hope that they would defeat that system and how courageous they were, and it gave me strength and insight and a sense of purpose that as cushy as my life compared to theirs, I should be able to stand up and do something,” Wilkins said.

During his three years at Harvard Law, Wilkins was active in social justice — from support for the divestment movement to protesting the absence of Black women faculty members at Harvard Law. In 1988, he co-chaired an effort to support Rev. Jesse L. Jackson for president. And it was at Harvard that he would first cross paths with the future president, who would nominate him to his current post, and first lady.

“My third year of law school was his first year, and I overlapped two years with Michelle Robinson — now Michelle Obama — because she was a year ahead of me,” Wilkins said. “I was the BLSA president, so it was kind of my job to get to know all the Black students and the incoming Black students.”

After graduating, Wilkins found ways to use the legal system for good in his work for Judge Earl B. Gilliam, his time as a public defender in the nation’s capital, and his own lawsuit that exposed a deliberate and illegal scheme of racial profiling within the Maryland State Police Department that has come to be known as “driving while Black.”

“I guess I’m just not one of those people who has a lot of patience for people who just always want to harp on the negative,” Wilkins says. “Yeah, it’s negative, we don’t sugarcoat it or overlook it, but don’t be paralyzed by it.”

“Protest is important, but finding a way to use the resources that you have to develop a plan and push for that to be implemented to make things better is also important,” he added.

Program from the National Afro-American Heritage Museum fundraising event, 1988. CREDIT: National Museum of African American History and Culture
Program from the National Afro-American Heritage Museum fundraising event, 1988. CREDIT: National Museum of African American History and Culture

In the late 1990s, Wilkins created a plan. While researching the history of the museum efforts, he learned that Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) continued to introduce legislation for the project, but there had been no action on his efforts.

After meeting with Lewis, Wilkins, established the National African American Museum and Culture Complex. He created a team and sought advice from the advocates from prior efforts, conducted research, met with city planners, and even hired an architect to create some sketches.

Still working as a special litigation chief for the public defenders office, Wilkins felt like he needed to devote more attention to the effort. In 1999, he went to a part-time schedule, and in 2000, he left his post to focus fully on the museum project.

“Most people thought I was crazy, even members of my own family,” Wilkins writes in Long Road to Hard Truth. “My wife was completely supportive….And even though she was seven months pregnant with our second child, making this an inopportune time to walk away from a job to run a nonprofit with no funds to support a salary, we agreed to go for it.”

Then thanks to the bipartisan collaboration of Rep. John Lewis (D-GA), former Sen. Sam Brownback (R-KS), former Rep. J.C. Watts (R-KY) and former Sen. Max Cleland (D-GA), the idea of the museum began to gain traction. The research Wilkins’ unfunded organization conducted laid the groundwork for the passage of a bill in 2001 to create a new museum planning commission, to which Wilkins was appointed. This commission would have one year to produce a plan for the project.

More discussion led to consensus in Congress. Lewis and Brownback quickly introduced new legislation in the House and Senate. Their bills passed both houses of Congress and landed on the president’s desk.

“We were called into the Oval Office….I watched as the President put pen to paper,” Wilkins writes. “I thought of Ferdinand Lee, Mary Church Terrell and, so many others who had worked so hard for this museum, but who had not lived to see this day.”

Black experience on display

Thanks to Wilkins’ efforts — and many, many other activists — visitors can now attend the National Museum of African American History and Culture in the nation’s capital, though tickets for the rest of the year are already booked.

The story of the African American experience starts three levels below ground, where one of the first artifacts a visitor sees is a huge steel bowl that slaves used to process sugar cane and the entire level drives home how integral slavery was to America’s economic success.

Exhibits on display at the National Musuem of African American History and Culture. CREDIT: AP Photo/Susan Walsh
Exhibits on display at the National Musuem of African American History and Culture. CREDIT: AP Photo/Susan Walsh

The level shows how hundreds of thousands of African American slaves provided the labor used to build the country’s most profitable industries, processing sugar cane, picking cotton, cultivating rice, and tending tobacco crops, among other activities. Yet the exhibits also illustrate how their insistence on liberty shaped the foundations of U.S. law.

As visitors ascend to other levels in the museum, post-civil war exhibits tell stories from the Jim Crow era. A hallowed presentation of the casket of Chicago teenager Emmett Till, murdered on a trip to visit his uncle in the Mississippi Delta in 1955, tells one of the stories of continued hostility toward African Americans decades after the Civil War.

But their determination to make a way out of no way is clearly on display, as the exhibits on higher levels illustrate gains the community has made in politics, media, education, business, entertainment, music and the arts. And 100 years later, movements, such as Black Lives Matter, show this community still engaged in effort to fight against discrimination and, institutional racism.

Now that the museum stands tall on at 14th Street and Constitution Avenue filled with hundreds of exhibitions that teach visitors about the journey African Americans have taken in this country, from unpaid laborers in kitchens and cotton fields to occupying a desk in the Oval Office, Wilkins says advocates shouldn’t have unrealistic expectations.

“I never went into this project — when I started looking at this twenty years ago — trying to work toward building this museum, that it was the panacea, the cure [for racism] and I don’t think that 100 years ago people thought that it was going to be the answer,” he said.

But still, the museum’s presence in the heart of the nation’s capital could go a long way toward promoting equality.

“I think that [in 1916], they thought that it could help,” he said. “Today, I think that it can help.”