The National Museum of African American History and Culture officially opened its doors to the public on Saturday in Washington, DC — the result of nearly 30 years of political advocacy and $315 million in private donations.
The institution, which is the first national museum dedicated exclusively to African American history and culture, opened with a series of speeches from Congressman John Lewis, one of the museum’s strongest advocates; former President George Bush, who signed the bill to establish the museum in 2003; and President Barack Obama, the country's first black leader.
In his address, Obama spoke about the importance of the museum as a window to another crucial side of American history.
The national museum, Obama said, “helps us better understand the lives, yes, of the presidents, but also the slaves. The industrious, but also the poor. The keeper of the status quo, but also the activists. The teacher, or the cook alongside the statesman.”
He added that by knowing this history, “we better understand ourselves and each other."
In September 1988, a year after he became a Georgia representative, famed civil rights activist John Lewis introduced a bill to establish a museum of African American history and culture.
The bill failed. So Lewis tried again, this time with Rep. Paul Simon of Illinois, in 1992. The bill passed in the Senate but was shot down in the House, according to a timeline compiled by the Washington Post.
It wouldn’t be until November 2003 that former President George Bush signed the bill into law.
Speaking before a crowd at the official opening, Lewis said, “This place is more than a building. It’s a dream come true.”
After a series of soft openings, the museum can now be accessed by the public. Its opening was marked by a star-studded, weekend-long celebration of moving speeches, as well as musical performances by Stevie Wonder and Patti LaBelle.
Bush said Saturday that the museum “honors not only African American equality, but African American greatness.”
The center is housed inside a striking two-story facility located on the National Mall. It contains a total of 36,000 artifacts, 3,000 of which are currently organized into categories ranging from the American South, to segregation, sports, and fashion.
In the expansive basement, guests can view artifacts dating back to the 1600s, like an amulet in the shape of a small set of shackles from West Africa, a document of the sale of slaves between two men, and pieces of a slave ship.
The two upper floors feature exhibitions dedicated to culture and community that span centuries, and include a poster supporting Tuskegee airmen, as well as a collection of iconic clothing worn by MC Lyte, the first female rapper to release a full album.
Some fixtures — like a prison tower from Louisiana’s Angola, the largest detention center in the country — were so large, they had to be lowered into the museum before the building was finished, CNN reported.
In his speech, Obama described a stone block on display in the museum with a marker that reads: “Gen. Andrew Jackson and Henry Clay spoke from this slave block during the year 1830.”
Obama then went on to describe the black families that had been separated, bid on, bought, and sold on that block, which had been “worn down by the tragedy of over a thousand bare feet” over years.
“For a long time, the only thing we considered important, the singular thing we once chose to commemorate as history with a plaque, were the unmemorable speeches of two powerful men,” he said.
That was why he considered the National Museum of African American History and Culture so important, he said.
“That same object, reframed, put in context, tells us so much more.”