Why It Took 100 Years To Open The National Museum Of African American History And Culture
On Saturday, Sept. 24, thousands gathered in DC for the opening ceremony of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. The celebrations continued over the weekend with events, including a three-day festival planned through Sunday. After 100 years of working toward this museum, President Obama and Rep. John Lewis, who spearheaded the move to establish it, both spoke during Saturday's event about the importance of this particular space in regards to the history and culture of the United States. But why did it take 100 years to approve the museum?
According to Huffington Post, the idea to establish the museum was first discussed in 1916 between a group of black Civil War veterans. While it didn't come to fruition at the time, establishing and building the museum was a cause Lewis worked toward as soon as he was sworn into Congress in 1987. Lewis proposed the bill to receive funding for the museum every year for 15 years until former President George W. Bush finally signed the National Museum of African American History and Culture Act into law in 2003.
Huffington Post reported that many of the hurdles that kept the museum from being built until now were rooted in bigotry and the country's history of anti-black racism. New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker told the outlet, "In many ways, it itself is reminiscent or reflective of the African-American experience. Nothing has been easy. Everything has had to be earned."
During his remarks at Saturday's ceremony, Lewis spoke to that exact struggle of making this museum become a reality and his hope that the visitors of the museum will have a better understanding of this country's history:
As these doors open, it is my hope that each and every person who visits this beautiful museum will walk away deeply inspired, with a greater respect for the dignity and worth of every human being, and a stronger commitment to the ideals of justice, equality, and true democracy.
In 1994, when Representatives worked to pass the bill into law, North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms suggested that allowing a museum for African American history would apparently set a "dangerous precedent," Huffington Post reported. He said: "Every other minority will give thought to asking the taxpayers to pony up for a special museum for them." However, his reasoning only served to erase the history of African Americans communities in this country.
Even after the bill was finally signed into law in 2003, the museum still faced various hurdles, though this time financially as the federal government agreed to pay for just half of the total $540 million cost to build the space. With contributions from the Oprah Winfrey Charitable Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation as well as various other individual donors, this important museum finally holds its rightful spot on the National Mall.
During his address on Saturday, President Obama shared why such a space is so important to not only the African American communities in America, but to this country's history, present, and future. He noted, "Perhaps [this museum] can help a white visitor understand the pain and anger of demonstrators in places like Ferguson and Charlotte." He added, "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 the 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."