WASHINGTON — Anticipation was tangible as black journalists from across the country loaded onto buses last month, headed for the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Weeks before the museum’s Sept. 24th opening, this group that had converged on D.C. for the National Association of Black Journalists annual convention were to be its inaugural guests.
D.C. bestie Shawn Goldstein and I chattered with excitement over this hot ticket to the only national museum devoted exclusively to the documentation of African-American life, art, history and culture.
Many of us in the African diaspora had waited for this museum ever since President George W. Bush signed the legislation birthing it in 2003, following the rising of the $540 million project closely.
To be the first to ogle the amazing exhibits we’d heard filled this 400,000-square-foot building on five acres adjacent to the Washington Monument gave goosebumps. The building itself is a masterpiece.
British architect David Adjaye, of Ghanaian heritage, was the creative force behind the exterior feature, a “Corona,” consisting of 3,600 bronze-colored cast-aluminum panels, inspired by Nigerian Yoruban sculpture. It glowed, stunningly, from light within.
We entered the Central Hall, the primary public space, then took the grand staircase below to the 350-seat Oprah Winfrey Theater, a beautiful, plush auditorium where the interior’s cast-aluminum panels shone silver, named for the icon whose foundation donated $21 million.
Following a presentation, we took the huge freight elevators to the third floor, which holds the museum’s four community galleries, where we were to receive a sneak peek.
The “Power of Place” exhibit explores place and region as a crucial component of the African-American experience, Chicago among 10 case studies; the “Military History Gallery” explores military service by African Americans from the American Revolution through the war on terrorism.
I was most intrigued by the “Making a Way Out of No Way” exhibit focusing on the ways in which African Americans created their own opportunities in a world that denied it to them — spanning education, religion, business, press, activism and organizations. There was the Rosenwald School, founded by Jewish clothier and Chicagoan Julius Rosenwald and African-American educator Booker T. Washington; the rise of historically black colleges and universities and the “Divine Nine” fraternities and sororities.
There was the black press, from the 1820s “Freedom’s Journal” to Ida B. Wells’ 1880s “Free Speech and Headlight,” to the Chicago Defender and Johnson Publishing Co.’s Ebony and Jet. There were the activists and organizations from the slavery era through the Civil Rights Movement. There was the oldest church founded by African Americans, First A.M.E. Church in Los Angeles, in 1872; and hair care entrepreneur Madame C.J. Walker, America’s first female, self-made millionaire.
I also loved the “Sports Gallery,” where from the little-known who broke barriers to those who became icons, all the greats are represented. Muhammad Ali’s white terrycloth robe is there, as are track and field Olympian Carl Lewis’ gold medals. Gymnast Gabby Douglas’s grip bag, uneven-bar grips and leotard from the 2012 Olympics are there. Basketballers, footballers and baseballers all are here. Loved the recreated baseball stadium paying homage to Jackie Robinson.
We were left struck, subdued; reflective, raring to go back to see the entire museum. I along with Shawn, whose father was a Tuskegee Airman, had particularly hoped to view the Tuskegee Airmen Trainer Plane, an open-cockpit PT-13 Stearman used to prepare Tuskegee Airmen for World War II combat duty. Hanging from the ceiling, it’s one of 10 major installations.
It was donated by a white pilot who’d bought it on eBay to use as a crop-duster, then researched the serial number and learned its esteemed history. On its trip from California to D.C., it stopped for re-fueling in several cities. In each one, surviving Tuskegee Airmen had waited to greet it, outfitted in their antique jackets in full salute.
Shawn had wanted to do that.