Thursday, February 23, 2012

Breaking new ground in racial history -- Feb. 23, 2012 column


Exactly 150 years ago this month, while the Civil War raged, the Smithsonian Institution opened its doors for a series of abolitionist lectures.

Among the prominent speakers were Ralph Waldo Emerson and Horace Greeley. Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune, made an impassioned plea to end slavery, turning repeatedly to face one person in particular. President Abraham Lincoln was less than pleased to be lobbied in public.

Frederick Douglass was scheduled as the final speaker in the series. Times being what they were, though, the secretary of the Smithsonian balked. Joseph Henry could not bring himself to allow a black man to speak in the rooms of the Smithsonian. The invitation to the most influential African American orator of the day was withdrawn.

Richard Kurin, undersecretary for history, art and culture at the Smithsonian, told the sad tale Wednesday at the ground-breaking ceremony for the National Museum for African American History and Culture on the National Mall.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t the only time the Smithsonian showed great racial insensitivity. When the National Zoo opened in 1891, it allowed African Americans to visit only on Easter Monday. For years, curators routinely excluded African American history from the museum’s exhibits.

But there is a happy ending.

With this building, Kurin said, as President Barack Obama looked on, “Frederick Douglass’ words will certainly be heard in the rooms of the Smithsonian.”

And so too will be heard the voices of slaves and civil rights activists, singers and soldiers, preachers and presidents.

The museum – the 19th in the Smithsonian’s solar system – will tell stories some of us will find hard to hear, but the hope is that we will grow stronger as a nation from knowing our past.

Representing the fulfillment of many dreams, the museum was first proposed by black veterans of the Civil War and was championed for 15 years by civil rights leader and Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga.

Lewis patiently battled Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., who blocked the legislation. Helms insisted that it was too costly and besides if the government built a museum for black history, it would have to build one for Hispanic history and Asian history.

Congress finally approved the African American museum after Helms retired in 2003, and George W. Bush signed the bill into law. It is scheduled to open in 2015 between the Washington Monument and the American History Museum, not far from where slave pens once traded human property. The $500 million tab is being split between taxpayers and donations.

The museum ceremony reminded that the civil rights era is fading fast into history. Lewis, 82, is the last living speaker from the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, which drew 250,000 people to the National Mall on Aug. 28, 1963. He was 23 then and national chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

“This is an idea whose time has come,” he said Wednesday, stressing that the museum must tell the whole story of 400 years of African American history, from slavery to the White House, “without anger or apology.”

“There’s still a great deal of pain that needs to be healed,” he said.

Using technology and a vigorous outreach program, the museum hopes to open dialogue and foster racial reconciliation. But at its heart are the memories -- some painful, some triumphant -- it will keep alive.

“Just as the memories of our earliest days have been confined to dusty letters and faded pictures, the time will come when few people remember drinking from a colored water fountain or boarding a segregated bus or hearing in person Doctor King’s voice boom down from the Lincoln Memorial,” Obama said.

“That’s why what we build here won’t just be an achievement for our time, it will be a monument for all time,” the president said, noting that he wants his daughters and the millions of others who will visit the museum in years to come to see the story of black America as part of the larger American story.

“I want them to see how ordinary Americans could do extraordinary things, how men and women just like them had the courage and determination to right a wrong,” he said.

The museum, he said, “should remind us that although we have yet to reach the mountaintop, we cannot stop climbing.”

© 2012 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

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