Vista of the Museum from Constitution Avenue, looking across the north lawn to the Washington Monument. Photo credit: Alan Karchmer/NMAAHC
(AARP Bulletin) I, too, am America.” This line, from Langston Hughes’ 1925 poem “I, Too,” is prominently displayed at the National Museum of African American His – tory and Culture, set to open in Washington, D.C., later this month. It’s a museum that has been 100 years in the making. In 1915, a group of
It’s a museum that has been 100 years in the making. In 1915, a group of African-American Civil War veterans attended a reunion in Washington and called for the creation of a memorial there recognizing the achievements of African Americans. It was not until 2003 that the museum was established by Congress as part of the Smithsonian Institution, and groundbreaking did not take place until 2012.
Hughes’ verse seems ideally suited to the vision and even the location of this newest museum on the National Mall, where a quarter of a million Americans of all backgrounds came together in 1963 for the pivotal March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, a turning point in the history of civil rights. The sweeping vistas take in the Washington Monument, the Jefferson Memorial, the National World War II Memorial and the Lincoln Memorial, from whose steps the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his timeless “I Have a Dream” speech.
In the words of museum director Lonnie Bunch, “The African American story is the quintessential American story.” The museum’s collections tell that story from the period of the slave trade through the long and continuing battle for civil rights and equal opportunities.
The vast array of artifacts includes several touching on the life of Harriet Tubman, an escaped slave who brought freedom to hundreds through the Underground Railroad.
Visitors will see a 19th-century slave cabin, as well as the glass-topped coffin that carried the body of 14-year-old Emmett Till, brutally murdered in Mississippi in 1955 after allegedly flirting with a white woman. His death became a catalyst for the modern civil rights movement.
The museum houses a 77-ton Pullman Palace passenger car from the Jim Crow era and the Woolworth’s lunch counter stools from Greensboro, N.C., where four African American students carried out the 1960 sit-in that helped topple legal segregation.
The African American story is not only about oppression and struggle. It is also about achievement, heroism, and a vibrant culture celebrated throughout the world.
A PT-13D biplane, used at Tuskegee Institute to train African American airmen for combat duty in World War II, hangs from the ceiling. Louis Armstrong’s trumpet has a place of honor, and there is a parking space for Chuck Berry’s red Cadillac convertible. Artifacts in the sports gallery include boxing gear worn by Muhammad Ali and a tennis racket used by Althea Gibson, the first African-American to compete at (and win) Wimbledon, in the 1950s.
President Obama is scheduled to speak at the museum’s opening on Saturday, Sept. 24. The event will celebrate the opening as a milepost in a nation’s still-painful march toward what the late Congresswoman Barbara Jordan called “an America as good as its promise.”