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Linking past and present, African American Museum opens with dynamic celebration of black experience

🕐 7 min read

WASHINGTON – In a dim, quiet backroom in the National Museum of African American History and Culture, a gray-haired man paused in front of a bronze casket, and he stood to pay his last respects to Emmett Till.

“Jesus,” whispered the man, a retired college administrator named Samuel Wright. He leaned forward. He saw that behind the glass, inside the coffin, lay a picture of the disfigured face of Till, a 14-year-old boy who was lynched in 1955 for the alleged offense of flirting with a white woman. “That was something terrible,” Wright said. Behind him, the next person moved quietly forward to see the terrible artifact of history, and another person after that.

The scene in Washington on the African American Museum’s opening weekend: The National Museum of African American History and Culture opens its doors to the public. The visitors had all come to this building on the Mall – presidents and statesmen, Freedom Riders and Tuskegee Airmen, a 99-year-old woman whose father was born a slave and died a doctor – to see a museum chronicling one of the most profound narratives in America’s identity; a place exploring both the country’s history and its present, its greatest shame and its people’s greatest triumphs.

“African-American history is not somehow separate from the American story,” said President Barack Obama in a ceremony before the museum’s opening. “It is not the underside of the American story. It is central to the American story,” he said, adding that it was a narrative that was messy and full of contradictions, “as all great stories are.”

He addressed an audience of tens of thousands, who watched in folding chairs and on large screens, some of whom had traveled thousands of miles to see Oprah Winfrey and Will Smith read poetry by Maya Angelou and Langston Hughes, and to hear the joyful and anguished performances by Stevie Wonder, Patti LaBelle and Denyce Graves.

Congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis, D-Georgia, talked about growing up in Alabama and cutting out pictures of African-American heroes. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. told the history of the court’s moral failings and successes: Plessy v. Ferguson, which upheld segregation, and Brown v. Board of Education, which ruled it unconstitutional.

The museum was born after 100 years of fitful efforts, beginning in 1915 when a group of aging African-American Civil War veterans came to Washington and proposed their own memorial, and through 2003, when a commission appointed by President George W. Bush produced a report, titled “The Time Has Come,” and officially established the newest Smithsonian institution.

“A great nation does not hide its history,” Bush said at the opening ceremony, where Smithsonian Secretary David Skorton and museum founding director Lonnie Bunch also spoke. “It faces flaws and corrects them.”

There were a few moments of confusion and delay related to ticket entry on Saturday, but otherwise the two-hour morning ceremony and afternoon museum opening went on as planned.

Now the 400,000-square-foot building sits on the Mall’s last open space, next to the Washington Monument. Some of the artifacts inside had been preserved in other collections, but others had been stored in the family attics of regular citizens. They included Rosa Parks’s dress and Michael Jackson’s fedora, Harriet Tubman’s hymnal and Louis Armstrong’s trumpet. The leotard worn by then-16-year-old gymnast Gabby Douglas in the 2012 Olympics, and the receipt of sale for a 16-year-old girl named Polly, whose Arkansas owner transferred her to another man, as property, for the sum of $600 in 1835.

In front of an exhibit featuring a case holding the shackles of a child slave, Tyree Boyd-Pates, a museum curator visiting from California and wearing a Jackie Robinson jersey, put his hand over his mouth, stood silently next to his girlfriend and shook his head in horror.

Near a map showing the paths of slave ships, Roy Myers, a retired advertising executive, ran his finger along the surface, tracing a path from South Africa to Georgia, where he grew up and where his family still lives.

Last year, Myers had a DNA test showing he had roots in Ghana. His wife, Stephanie, watched his finger resting on his home state.

“Fifty-four percent of us ended up there,” she said, noting the statistic listed on the map.

“I call it the birth canal,” Myers said of the route he had traced.

“This museum is incredible,” he continued, “because in many cases, as we know, the story has not been passed to the younger ones. It’s a difficult subject to talk about in any meaningful way. This museum is going to open up another side of it.”

Myers, like many of the visitors allowed into the museum on Saturday – 7,000 special guests and a limited number of regular passes – had come to witness a history that reflected the fabric of his own family. Visitors described unknowingly sitting at Southern drugstore lunch counters as small children and being told, angrily, to leave. Or of attending segregated schools with hand-me-down books. Or, as one woman remembered, being taken away from her mother and her home town because the mixed-race union between her parents was dangerous.

“I am here representing all of the ancestors before me,” said Sonya Patterson, a grandmother who had brought three generations of her family across the country to see the opening of the museum, even though they would not be able to obtain tickets for several more days. “The struggles that you made were for us to be here today, for us to be able to celebrate your life. . . . I’m here to say thank you. Thank you for surviving.”

The museum was designed to be toured from exhibits on the lower floor, which depicted the pain of America’s past, through to the higher floors, which honored the contributions of African-Americans in culture, science and sports.

On a top floor, Bubba Knight, the musician and brother of Gladys Knight, quizzed visitors on their musical trivia and shared stories of performing at the Apollo. Funk legend George Clinton stood near his own band’s P-Funk Mothership, enjoying the crowds.

“You’re George Clinton? Get out of here!” said one onlooker when she spotted the sequin-wearing 75-year-old musician. “You always had outfits that were outrageous,” the fan said. She started dancing, and then Clinton started dancing with her.

“I feel like a child in a candy factory,” Clinton said. “It took so long, but I’m so glad it happened in my lifetime.

The Saturday opening came within 10 years in which the country elected its first black president, but in a year when the country’s racial wounds have repeatedly torn open, and in a week broken by more violence: In Oklahoma, a police officer was charged with the fatal shooting of an unarmed black driver whose car had stalled in the middle of the road. In North Carolina, the governor declared a state of emergency after chaotic protests that followed another fatal police shooting of another black man.

It came more than 400 years after the first slave ship landed on America’s soil. It came 229 years after the Founding Fathers decided that black slaves should be counted as only three-fifths of a human being. It came 53 years after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech, also on the Mall.

“How can you fail to see the links between current events – Charlotte, Tulsa and Black Lives Matter – and the brutal death of Emmett Till all those years ago?” said Peter Kovler, a philanthropist who had come to the opening and whose family foundation had donated $2 million to it. “Some history, you don’t see the link between that time and your own time. This history is right in your face. Sometimes people say, that was then, this is now. That’s not true here. Then and now have come together,” he said.

Outside the museum, the poet Sonia Sanchez waited for her entrance and talked about the arc of history witnessed through the building of the museum. “The great thing about it is that we came out of slavery and we built,” she said. “And we build and we build, and that’s what we’ve done – in spite of all kinds of terrible things that have happened to us, we’ve built. We built churches and schools, and we built homes, and we said we’re here now, you’ve brought us here. 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.”

A little while later, the museum’s first visitors began to exit, some of them excited, some of them lost in reflection or overwhelmed by the amount and the power of what they had just seen.

Back in the room of mourning, where Till’s casket sat on its pedestal, a woman walked away from the exhibit quickly, with tears pooling in her eyes.

Another older man wiped his eyes with a tissue.

A young man behind him leaned forward as in prayer.

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