About a decade ago, Americans began receiving letters requesting donations for the creation of a Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. For too many recipients, the request sounded a bit far-fetched and bogus, and they tossed it aside with other pieces of junk mail.
But there were thousands who answered the call, mainly because the letter was signed by Lonnie Bunch, the museum’s executive director, whose integrity was unimpeachable. With even a minimal donation, they were deemed a charter member.
Those early donors must feel vindicated and excited after learning that on Wednesday at the National Mall in Washington, D.C., about a stone’s throw from the Washington Monument, President Obama was on hand with other dignitaries and elected officials, including former first lady Laura Bush, a member of the museum’s national advisory council, as the ground was broken to launch the museum.
There were times when the mission seemed absolutely impossible, but Bunch stuck to his guns and when Rep. John Lewis accelerated the process with his legislative act in 2003 hope was rekindled. In an age when there are a variety of attempts to humanize African American projects and individuals, from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and even “Porgy and Bess,” it’s good to know that such a notion is far more rewarding when attached to a promising museum.
“We are trying to humanize these big stories: slavery, migration, and the civil rights movement,” Bunch told reporters. Even while the project was just a dream, Bunch and a number of his colleagues were gathering the artifacts and items that would form the bulk of the collection. They attended auctions, visited antique stores, and spread the word far and wide of their interest in getting material, especially from families who had kept heirlooms, waiting for an opportunity to have them kept and displayed in a prestigious museum.
Well, that dream is gradually becoming a reality and Bunch and his team hope to have the $500 million, seven tiered structure, covering more than 320,000 square feet, up and running by 2015. “This day has been a long time coming,” Obama said, obviously aware that the idea was proposed after the Civil War. “The time will come when few people will remember drinking from a colored water fountain or boarding a segregated bus.” The museum, he added, “will be a monument for all time, it will do more than simply keep those memories alive.”
Yes, the sod has been turned and the official launch has occurred, but there is still much to be done and more money to be raised, according to the letters from Bunch.
“We have a huge task in front of us,” he wrote, “but it comes with an equally great reward!”