100 years in the making, National Museum of African American History and Culture Opens on the National Mall

The National Museum of African American History and Culture opens today on the National Mall. It opens 100 years after the museum was first proposed and 13 years after it was authorized by Congress.

The museum’s website describes the NMAAHC as

[T]he only national museum devoted exclusively to the documentation of African American life, history, and culture. It was established by Act of Congress in 2003, following decades of efforts to promote and highlight the contributions of African Americans. To date, the museum has collected more than 36,000 artifacts. Nearly 100,000 individuals have become charter members of the museum.

The website goes on to spell out the four pillars on which the new museum is premised -It provides an opportunity for those who are interested in African American culture to explore and revel in this history through interactive exhibitions;

  1. It helps all Americans see how their stories, their histories, and their cultures are shaped and informed by global influences;

  2. It explores what it means to be an American and share how American values like resiliency, optimism, and spirituality are reflected in African American history and culture; and

  3. It serves as a place of collaboration that reaches beyond Washington to engage new audiences and to collaborate with the myriad of museums and educational institutions that have explored and preserved this important history well before this museum was created.

Congressman John Lewis, who was a driving force behind the museum, said “There were some who said it couldn’t happen, who said ‘you can’t do it’ but we did it. . . This place is more than a building. It is a dream come true.”

The museum opened with a series of celebrations and speeches (many still ongoing) from Chief Justice John Roberts (who serves as the chancellor of the Smithsonian Institution), President Barack Obama, former president George W. Bush (who signed the 2003 bill authorizing the museum), Oprah Winfrey, and many others.

Lonnie Bunch, the director of the NMAAHC, said of the museum that it will “not just tell of a people’s journey, but a nation’s story.” He went on to say, “There is nothing more powerful than a people, than a nation steeped in history. . . And nothing more noble than honoring all of our ancestors by remembering.”

President Obama, the nation’s first black president, said, “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 the activist seeking to overthrow that status quo.” He went on to say, in imagining taking his grandchildren to the museum, that “[t]ogether we’ll learn about ourselves, as Americans.”

The museum now owns close to 37,000 artifacts. You can explore their collection online here.

Here are some interesting artifacts in the museum’s collection:

(1) Digital collection of manuscripts and images related to the Freedmen’s Bureau;

(2) Rosa Parks’ dress

(3) The pen used by Lyndon B. Johnson to sign the Voting Rights Act of 1965

(4) Program from the March on Washington (1963)

(5) Jim Crow-era Southern Railway car

(6) Nat Turner’s Bible

(7) Emmett Till’s casket


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