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Sweet: Obamas help open nation’s African-American history museum

President Barack Obama watches as first lady Michelle Obama embraces former President George Bush, accompanied by his wife, Laura Bush, at Saturday's dedication of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. | Getty Images

WASHINGTON — With a stirring opening ceremony over, at 12:31 p.m. Saturday President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama were the first to walk into the new National Museum of African American History and Culture, a place Obama said tells “a richer and fuller story of who we are.”

“African-American history is not somehow separate from our larger American story,” Obama said. “It’s not the underside of the American story. It is central to the American story.”

That Obama is the nation’s first African-American president added to the celebratory tone of the dedication ceremony outside the new museum, where the Obamas were joined by former President George W. Bush and his wife, Laura Bush

Mrs. Obama greeted Bush onstage with a big hug.

The stars who spoke or sang at the dedication on a plaza in front of the museum: Stevie Wonder, Will Smith, Robert DeNiro, Angela Bassett, Patti LaBelle and Oprah Winfrey — whose foundation gave the museum $21 million, its biggest gift.

RELATED STORY: Chicago treasures at new African-American history museum

In the audience, the front rows included Vice President Joe Biden, his wife Jill Biden and former President Bill Clinton, without wife Hillary Clinton, who was off cramming for Monday’s presidential debate with Donald Trump.

Bush signed the legislation establishing the museum in 2003, and it took 13 years to raise the money, design, build and collect the objects that show the difficult, horrible and uplifting sagas of African Americans in the United States.

The the $540 million museum, which sits on five acres near the Washington Monument, “shows our commitment to truth,” Bush said. “A great nation does not hide its history. It faces its flaws and corrects them.

“A country founded on the promise of liberty held millions in chains, that the price of our union was America’s original sin,” Bush said.

The museum’s opening comes in the final months of Obama’s presidency, as intractable race-related problems — the latest in Charlotte, N.C., and Tulsa, Okla. — fester as Obama is preparing to leave office with major urban crime issues unresolved.

“This museum provides context for the debates of our times,” Obama said.

“It illuminates them and gives us some sense of how they evolved and perhaps keeps them in proportion,” the president said. “Perhaps it can help a white visitor understand the pain and anger of demonstrators in places like Tulsa and Charlotte.

“But it can also help black visitors appreciate the fact that not only is this younger generation carrying on traditions of the past but, within the white communities across this nation, we see the sincerity of law enforcement officers and officials who, in fits and starts, are struggling to understand, and are trying to do the right thing,” Obama said.

A leader of the massive fund-raising effort for the museum has been Chicago’s Linda Johnson Rice, who chairs Johnson Publishing Company, founded by her parents John and Eunice.

On stage Saturday, Rice spoke about her father’s journey from Arkansas, where there were no opportunities, to Chicago, “where his mind blazed with new ideas,” including the creation of Ebony magazine, founded on the premise that, “if white readers loved Life magazine, wouldn’t black readers like to read something about” their “lives and aspirations.”

The Kovler Foundation of Washington and Chicago donated $2 million to support the exhibit featuring the original casket of Emmett Till, the Chicago teenager who was lynched in Mississippi in 1955.

“The deaths in Charlotte and Tulsa” and Till’s murder put in context all the “issues connected to criminal justice,” Peter Kovler, chairman of the board of the Kovler Foundation, told me. The racial strife of the 1950s “is still going on to some extent,” Kovler said.

Curators from the new African American museum sought photos from the collection of the National A. Philip Randolph Pullman Porter Museum in Chicago’s South Side Pullman community.

Oprah Winfrey and Will Smith wave to guests before speaking at the dedication ceremony for the National Museum of African American History and Culture. | AP
Oprah Winfrey and Will Smith wave to guests before speaking at the dedication ceremony for the National Museum of African American History and Culture. | AP

“Having some of our collection included in the museum is an honor beyond words,” said Lyn Hughes, who founded the museum in 1995.

I caught up with former U.S. Sen. Carol Moseley Braun, the Illinois Democrat who was the nation’s first African-American woman to hold that office, at Saturday’s ceremony, and she said the museum “gives all Americans a chance to see a part of our history that was for so long buried.”

Pointing to the ongoing struggles — as well as the progress that’s been made — the Rev. Jesse Jackson told me, “This is a living museum, not a static one.”

The Washington Monument is framed by a window at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington. | AP
The Washington Monument is framed by a window at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington. | AP