On Saturday, September 24, 2016, the National Museum of African-American History and Culture will open to incredible fanfare in Washington, D.C. This magnificent museum is finally opening after decades of hard work from luminaries who were dedicated to creating a national archive that told our story of strength and perseverance. Here are five facts about how we got to this glorious day.
1. For Founding Director, Lonnie G. Bunch III, the National Museum of African-American History and Culture has been almost 40 years in the making.
Lonnie Bunch has wide-ranging experience in making history come alive. In the 1980s, he served as the curator of history and program manager for the California Afro-American Museum. In this role he organized successful exhibitions like, “Black Angelenos: The Afro-American in Los Angeles, 1850-1950” which was an award-winning feature that explored the Black contribution to Los Angeles history and culture. He also produced historical documentaries that aired on public television.
His work with the Smithsonian began in 1989 when he worked as a supervising curator for the National Museum of American History. During his tenure, he managed curatorial staff, worked on educational projects, and helped create the “Smithsonian’s America” for the American Festival Japan 1994. This was an exhibit presented in Japan, which revealed the history, culture and diversity of the United States of America.
He has taught at his alma mater, American University, and the University of Massachusetts in Dartmouth, and George Washington University. He is a prolific author and has either written, co-written, or contributed to over thirty books. He has traveled internationally and given lectures on education and museum curation to professionals throughout the globe. He was appointed the Founding Director for the National Museum of African-American History and Culture in 2005.
2. Over 75% of donations from individuals came from the African American community!
The Museum’s final price tag was $540 million. In 2003, Congress passed the legislation establishing the Museum and pledged to fund $270 million or half of the Museum’s expense. Interestingly, previous Smithsonian museums had received all or most of their funds from the government. The shortfall was made up by donations from major corporate sponsors and our community. Churches, fraternities, sororities, celebrities and civic organizations were galvanized for the fundraising effort. Over 75% of donations from individuals came from the African American community. Over $4 million in funds came from people donating in amounts less than $1,000. Oprah Winfrey has been the largest donor at $21 million. As of this writing, the Museum has raised over $315 million in private funds which far exceeded the congressional requirement.
3. The museum’s collection was built from scratch.
Museum Director Lonnie Bunch and the other organizers of the museum had the monumental task of building the collection from scratch. Unlike any of the Smithsonian’s eighteen previous museums, the National Museum of African-American History and Culture was created without any artifacts on hand. To grow a collection, the organizers came up with the unique idea of “Saving African-American Treasures,” which was a 15 city tour launched in 2009. During this effort, they encouraged Americans to donate family heirlooms to the museum. The result was amazing. Precious artifacts were found hidden in the community. One woman from Virginia Beach, Virginia donated Nat Turner’s Bible which had been kept safe in her closet for decades! It is estimated that over half of the Museum’s 37,000 artifacts came from donations.
4. The building’s architecture is an ode to African and African-American roots.
The principle architect for the building, David Adjaye, wanted the building to be unique and speak to the creativity of Africans throughout the Diaspora. The building is inspired by a Yoruban caryatid, which is a column popular in West Africa with a corona at its peak. The building’s patterns also allude to architecture found in Georgia and South Carolina that was built by enslaved and freed Blacks. This metalwork inspired Mr. Adjaye and the bronze color and shape of the building is an additional aspect similar to that Southern style of architecture.
5. The fight to create a museum to honor our history initially began in the 1800’s.
The idea to create a museum that honored African-American history started from a desire to create a museum that honored Black Civil War veterans. After different permutations of honoring African Americans with a national museum festered, the strongest push came in the 1980s. In 1988, Mickey Leland who was a Representative in the United States House of Representatives from the state of Texas, co-sponsored legislation with fellow Representative and Civil Rights legend John Lewis of Georgia to establish a museum honoring African-American history. Mr. Leland died in a plane crash the next year, so Mr. Lewis took up the cause himself. Each year for the next fifteen years, Mr. Lewis proposed his legislation but it was defeated. In 1994, it passed the House of Representatives but staunch segregationist Jesse Helms of North Carolina filibustered against the bill and it died in the Senate.
It was not until the early 2000s when Republicans like Representative J.C. Watts of Oklahoma and Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas showed their support that the bill was passed. On December 16, 2003, George W. Bush signed H.R. 3491 into law which authorized a Smithsonian Institution museum created to honor the legacy of African Americans in America.
Information attained from:
Michael Kimmelman, “David Adjaye on Designing a Museum that Speaks a Different Language”, New York Times, published September 21, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/22/arts/design/david-adjaye-museum-of-african-american-history-and-culture.html?action=click&contentCollection=Art%20%26%20Design&module=RelatedCoverage®ion=EndOfArticle&pgtype=article
Graham Bowley, “How the Fight for a National African American Museum was Won”, New York Times, published September 4,2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/05/arts/design/how-the-fight-for-a-national-african-american-museum-was-won.html
Lonnae O’Neal, “Our place in America: New Smithsonian museum portrays the furious flowering of black history and culture”, The Undefeated/ESPN.com, published September 22, 2016, http://theundefeated.com/features/smithsonian-museum-of-african-american-history-our-place-in-america/
African American Registry, “H.R. 3491 Signed to create African American museum in Washington,”http://www.aaregistry.org/historic_events/view/hr3491-signed-create-african-american-museum-washington
Newsdesk, “Staff Biographies: Lonnie G. Bunch III,” Smithsonian, http://newsdesk.si.edu/about/bios/lonnie-g-bunch
About The Author
Rick McCray is a married father of three amazing sons. He is also a proud graduate of Duke University where he holds a BA in History and African/African American History, and Howard University School of Law. He is also a regular commentator on the In The Black podcast. Rick is passionate about our history and helping to educate our community concerning the great contributions of people of color to the world. You can find Rick on Twitter @RealRickMcCray.