Obama Leads Dedication of African-American Museum

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September 25, 2016

President Barack Obama, America’s first African-American President, cut the ribbon at the opening of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, an act that many observers found poignant in its symbolism.

Obama also gave a speech dedicating the museum; among the words that he spoke about the museum were that it was a “place to understand how protest and love of country don’t merely coexist but inform each other.” The remarks were especially timely given the ongoing controversy over protests against the national anthem.

The President’s address was part of a three-day celebration on the National Mall that also included musical performances and oral history activities. Also speaking was former President George W. Bush,who signed legislation authorizing the creation of the museum in 2003.

The exhibition experience, according to the organizers, is designed to take visitors on a journey from the darkness of despair to the light of hope. Along the way through nine levels and 400,000 square feet of exhibitions, visitors will see more than 35,000 artifacts from around the world.

The museum covers the entirety of the African-American experience, even up to the present day. Artifacts include such harrowing hallmarks of cruelty as a slave cabin from a South Carolina plantation, a modern equivalent in the form of a segregated rail car (reminiscent of the one that triggered the events that led to the famous Supreme Court case Plessy v. Ferguson, such poignant reminders of courage as the hymnal that Harriet Tubman carried (left), such examples of soaring success as a biplane flown by Tuskegee Airmen and some clothing worn by some of music’s greatest names (among them James Brown, Chuck Berry, and Michael Jackson).

The ceremony began with 99-year-old Ruth Bonners, whose mother was enslaved, ringing the Freedom Bell, though to have also rung at America’s first African-American Baptist Church, founded in 1776, the year of the Declaration of Independence.

Helping to ring the bell were Bonners’ 7-year-old granddaughter, who has known only an African-American President, and that President (Obama) and First Lady Michelle Obama.

To mark the opening of the museum to the public, the 99-year-old daughter of a former slave, Ruth Bonners, and her seven-year-old granddaughter joined the president and first lady Michelle Obama to ring the Freedom Bell, which is believed to be from the First Baptist Church of Williamsburg, Va., believed to be the first black baptist church in the U.S., founded in 1776. The bell was cast in 1886 and was silent for many years as America struggled through the Civil Rights Movement. The bell was front and center next to President Obama on August 28, 2013, as he gave a speech commemorating the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” Speech.

The Freedom Bell will remain at the museum for a brief period before being returned to its church.

The museum itself was a century in the making. African-American veterans of the Civil War proposed the museum in 1915. The struggle to get from proposal to reality took many, many years. Former President Herbert Hoover established a commission to plan construction of the museum, but the planning stalled. During the Civil Rights Movement, African-American leaders found more support for a revival of the drive to build the museum. One champion was Congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis, who also spoke during the opening ceremonies. Another driving force in the eventual securing of support and funding was former Congressman Mickey Leland, who died in 1989.

Also speaking during the three-day opening celebration were actor Will Smith, actress and TV host Ophrah Winfrey (who is also a founding donor with a wing in the museum named after her), and Chief Justice of the United States John Roberts.

The architect, David Adjay, won an international competition to design the museum.

Among the artifacts on display are these:

  • a letter by Toussaint L’Ouverture, who led the Haitian slave revolt
  • copies of the 13th Amendment and the Emancipation Proclamation (both signed by Abraham Lincoln)
  • the dress that Rosa Parks was sewing the day she refused to give her seat on a Montgombery, Ala., bus
  • a trumped owned by musician Louis Armstrong
  • boxing equipment used by Muhammad Ali
  • the uneven bars gripped by Gabby Douglas, who in the 2012 Olympics in London became the first American gymnast ever to win a team gold medal and the gold medal in the individual all-around competition.

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