There were presidents, movie stars, a pantheon of civil rights leaders, Oprah Winfrey and VIPs galore at the weekend-long celebration of the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington.
But there were also tens of thousands of people who flocked to the National Mall just to say they were there when it happened. Some had memories of the 1963 March on Washington and the struggle for equality. More than one was moved to tears. And a younger generation, focusing on the words of the country’s first black president, took heart at a time when the U.S. is struggling with questions about the treatment of African Americans by police.
We were there too, along with nine journalism students from the Duke Ellington School of the Arts who interviewed dozens of people in the crowd about what the museum opening means.
Anaiah Hamilton, 6, from Champaign, Illinois
On the morning after we met Anaiah and her family in front of the museum, Congressman John Lewis spoke there about growing up in the oppressive shadow of “Jim Crow,” an era when Southern states segregated by race their restaurants and libraries, water fountains and other public places.
Anaiah’s mother, Asia Fuller Hamilton, 39, brought her daughter and three sons from the Midwest to see the museum. “Given all of the things that are happening in America right now … this right here is a beacon of light,” she said. “It says, ‘You know what, we’re important as African Americans, we’re important enough to have our history placed in a museum. A Smithsonian museum to be exact.'”
The whole vibe
Left to right, Kiel Byrne, 33; his mother, Marva Richards, 67; and his son, Brayden X. Byrne, 2
Richards came from New York to visit her son and grandson and to attend the museum’s dedication ceremony. “I bought my ticket in May,” she said. “I will remember this day. It is overcast today, as if there is a shadow over African Americans. But the building is beautiful. Taken together, it’s the whole vibe.”
Brayden: “See my tooth?!”
Brian Farrow, 25, from Washington, came to perform at the opening festivities.
“We fought really hard to make sure our history wasn’t covered up. And it’s important that we go in [to the museum] and reconnect with all parts of our history,” Farrow said. Also, the festival is great for musicians — “It’s more work for us!”
Scott Schultz, 38, of Gaithersburg, Maryland, worked security for the museum opening.
He started work at 4 a.m. on September 24, the day the president would dedicate the museum. “I work events up and down the East Coast. Washington always does it right. It’s a big melting pot. The crowd here today is good. No tension.”
Natalia Rawls, 26, works for the Smithsonian and toured the museum before it opened.
“What resonates with me is the ‘I, too, sing America’ poem by Langston Hughes. It’s basically talking about overcoming oppression. It further helps me understand how much work I have to do as a person of color and how I have to reach back and pull up for future generations as well.”
We’re all Americans
From left to right, Osama Kandil, 61; Sanaa Ezzeddin, 58; and their daughter Iman Kandil, 29, all from Virginia
Osama Kandil: “We are from Egypt originally. We are African Americans.”
Hal Davis, 70, a lead architect for the museum, works in Washington for SmithGroupJJR.
“I grew up in the South, at a time when there were ‘colored’ and ‘white’ [distinctions]. I went to Clemson University, and one reason I chose that school is because it was the first to admit an African American, who was Harvey Gantt. He too became an architect and has had a very good practice. And he also became a mayor of Charlotte, North Carolina.
“I personally think the mall is the right place for this museum. Because of the strife that’s going on, both culturally, racially … I’m hoping that this museum will be a healing museum. This is a very emotional museum — the further you walk through it, the more it builds.”
Let’s move on, America
Virginia Smyly of San Francisco arrived at the mall at 7:30 a.m. for the museum’s dedication.
“I was here for the whole thing,” she said. “Our race relations are engendering a lot of disturbance and violence. … We should pay attention to our problems and resolve them so we can move on as a nation.”
Wearing my message(s)
Mark Perez, from Houston, said the new museum inspires him.
“I’m looking forward to seeing the Tuskegee airplane,” Perez said, referring to a vintage Stearman training plane on display in the museum. The plane was used to train the Tuskegee Airmen, a revered group of African-American pilots who fought in World War II. They were the first black aviators in the U.S. military and were educated at Tuskegee University in Alabama.
Perez’s ball cap honors the Airmen. So do some of his 550 pins.
A march from Mississippi
Sharde Thomas, 26, from Senatobia, Mississippi
Thomas was on the mall with her band, Rising Star Fife & Drum. Her late grandfather, Othar Turner, was a well-known fife player in the American blues tradition. “My grandfather picked up the music from friends who visited [from Senegal]. After funerals, we march behind the body like they do in Africa. We keep tradition going.”
Shamar Stokes, 17, and Harmony Ellerbe, 16, both of Philadelphia
These two students came to Washington on a school field trip to hear President Obama speak just before the museum’s opening. Stokes says his teachers expect him to understand history but that “a lot of schools don’t teach it from the point of view of African Americans.”
The president said, “We gather on our National Mall to tell an essential part of our American story, one that has at times been overlooked. We come not just for today, but for all time.”
Ellerbe: “I feel empowered being here. It makes me feel good about myself.”
This is personal
Mary Kay Reece, 73, from Oakland, California, and Latisha Lane, 42, from Atlanta
Reece is a retired teacher who lived through many events depicted in the museum. “I remember Emmett Till,” she said, referring to the 1955 murder of an African-American teenager in Mississippi. And she remembers when Martin Luther King Jr. organized the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott, a yearlong campaign touched off when seamstress Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white passenger. Reece’s mother sent Reece’s Easter dress, worn just once, to a girl in Montgomery so she would have something nice to wear.
Lane, a financial analyst, said, “It’s very important. A lot of our history has been overlooked.”
Tears of joy
Tracy Ware, 53, from Washington
Ware rose through the ranks at the U.S. Department of Agriculture to become its civil rights director. She took time during her lunch hour September 23 to cross the Mall and send photos of the museum to her two sisters and closest friend. “It almost makes me want to cry,” she said.
Colleen Pierre-Louis, 61, from Los Angeles
“This country wouldn’t exist as it does without the contributions of black Americans. … [The museum exhibits] show that much of America was built off the shoulders of blacks. We gave free labor that started this country — well, free labor was exacted from us.”
Pierre-Louis said she feels pride as the museum opens. “This is one step in a long road toward recognition for the contributions of African Americans in this culture and this country.”
Christopher Peli, 34, an architect from Washington, has been following the museum’s construction with interest.
A self-avowed “big fan” of the architecture, Peli said, “I’ve been watching this thing go up for a while.” He listened at the dedication, as Congressman John Lewis, after thanking a long list of dignitaries said, “and to all the construction companies and their crews, thank you.”
Sandra and Clemon Drain, and Pamela and Ron Lighten from California
When Africans were stolen from their places of origin by slave traders, Clemon Drain said, “We lost our customs, we lost our languages, we lost our kings, queens and princesses. We were royalty — and I still feel I’m royalty.”
Pamela Lighten said, “So this [museum] gives us something to hold onto. We have a place where our history is chronicled and documented. We can put our hands on it and look at it and touch it and feel it, and we know that we matter here.”
Altrena Mukaria, 60, and husband, Wellington Bruce Ashe, 59, from Baltimore
Ashe recalled his parents, both of whom had been active in the civil rights movement in the South. “When Obama talked about how our African-American ancestors are present in the moment … it was a very poignant moment for me.”
About the museum exhibits, he said, “Those exhibits will not just make white Americans uncomfortable, they’ll make African Americans uncomfortable. It’s a wonderful thing, that discomfort. It’ll lead to growth, conversation and understanding.”
Kyler Gilkey, 17, from Memphis, Tennessee
With the renowned Stax Music Academy, Gilkey brought Memphis soul to the mall each day of the three-day musical festival. While his academy can claim a connection to the producers who discovered such soul artists as Otis Redding, Isaac Hayes and the Staple Singers, he talked only fleetingly of his own group’s impressive performance.
“I can say to my children and grandchildren that I was here,” he said.
A special thank you to the reporters from the Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Washington: