Decades of planning and organization finally came to fruition on September 24, 2016, when the National Museum of African American History and Culture opened on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. The new building is part of the Smithsonian Institution and was dedicated by President Barack Obama.
The idea for a national gallery celebrating African American history has been around for over a century, as the first known organization of an effort to spur a project can be traced back to the efforts of veterans of the Union Army in the early 1900s. The sentiment was that it was important to showcase the achievements and contributions of African Americans to American history. Advocates believed that a collection that depicted an accurate and full history, no matter how uncomfortable some of the subject matter, would help to educate and give people a better understanding and appreciation for the contributions of all Americans. Over subsequent decades, however, ideas for such an endeavor gained little traction in Congress. There were concerns about funding, location and the scale of the project. It wasn’t until the 2003 that legislation, spearheaded by Representative John Lewis, was finally approved for the museum to be built.
The collection at the National Museum of African American History and Culture includes items from all parts of African American history, including political activism, performance arts, and the world of sports. Visitors can view items owned by former slave and abolitionist Harriet Tubman, and the dress Rosa Parks was sewing when she refused to give up her seat on a bus in 1955. Boxing gloves owned by Muhammad Ali and a Cadillac owned by Chuck Berry, as well as other items owned by famous African Americans, are on display. Visitors will also see items from the darker periods of American history, such as a drinking fountain from the Jim Crow south and clothing worn by slaves. The collection also features artifacts from President Obama, the nation’s first black president.
The museum’s inclusion in the Smithsonian Institute and its prominent location on the National Mall aims to make sure that the significant contributions of African Americans to the nation’s history will not be overlooked or diminished, and helps to make everyone feel included in discussions of America’s past. Some of the details paint a grim picture of American history, but understanding and full awareness is important for progress for all Americans.