A Place for All People
Reflections on the NMAAHC
I welcome all the members of the community of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute—as well as our guests from middle school and high school, whom we hope soon will join us here as Rensselaer students.
I am delighted to have this opportunity to sum up, and give thanks for, a truly great accomplishment—the creation of the National Museum of African American History and Culture—a powerful addition to the Smithsonian Institution—our national museum and research complex, and the National Zoo—and, truly, a great contribution to the life and spirit of our nation. Let me tell you a little about the origin of the Smithsonian Institution.
In 1835, the United States received a rather disconcerting gift—the entirety of the estate of James Smithson, a British scientist who had never visited the U.S.—in order that an institution could be established in Washington, DC, for—in the words of Smithson—“the increase and diffusion of knowledge.”
This bequest was transported across the ocean in the form of 104,960 gold sovereigns. The U.S. Congress debated for eight years what the nature of the Smithsonian should be—a national university, an observatory, a basic research fund, or a library. Some argued that the gift should be refused outright, as insulting to our fledgling democracy.
Finally, wiser heads prevailed, and the Congress settled on the combination of research facilities, and art and science museums, that are the heart of the Smithsonian today.
James Smithson’s real motives are unknown. We do know that he was the out-of-wedlock son of two wealthy and powerful families—pained by his constrained status in British society. Historians speculate that he might have admired the greater fluidity of American society, and reached across the ocean to create something important here.
In addition to my role as President of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, I also have served, over the past three years, as Vice Chair of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution. I have been a Regent of the Smithsonian since 2005. It has been a great honor to help to shape the Smithsonian. I grew up in Washington, DC, with wonderful parents, but not from a wealthy family. Until the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision in 1954 declared racial segregation in the public schools unconstitutional, I attended segregated schools.
Smithsonian, however, was founded to increase and diffuse knowledge to all—and, although it, internally, was not always welcoming to African Americans, it served as a marvelous extension of my classrooms. Its museums opened my eyes to the wonders of science and nature. I am sure that all of the students here in the Science and Technology Entry Program, or STEP, could tell us how valuable such extracurricular exposure is. As well, through its art and historical resources, the Smithsonian opened my eyes to the lives of people whose experience was different from my own.
However, one aspect of the Smithsonian’s mission is to convey our national story. Most U.S. citizens are, or descend from, immigrants who themselves reached—and traveled— across the ocean towards something better. African Americans are no different, many descending from unwilling and unwitting immigrants, who came to these shores enslaved, brought here to help other voyagers build better lives—while striving to better themselves as well.
Without a serious examination of African American history and culture, the Smithsonian could not achieve its great goal of “understanding the American experience.”
Given the degree to which the history of African Americans is the history of our nation, that story was incomplete, until the opening, last fall, of the National Museum of African American History and Culture—which is represented on the posters around us. Our nation needed a museum that acknowledged both the sufferings and the true heroism of African Americans—their patriotism, and the remarkable contributions they have made to the United States, often against very great odds. To paraphrase the poet Langston Hughes, “We, too, sing America.”
Of course, the necessity of such a museum was recognized a century before it finally became reality. It was first proposed by a group of African American Civil War Veterans who had gathered in Washington, DC in 1915, to celebrate the 50th anniversary if the end of the Civil War. Dismayed by the segregation they experienced in Washington fifty years after the end of the Civil War in which they had fought so bravely—they formed a commission to consider a monument to the contributions of African Americans. But it did not lead to a museum.
President Herbert Hoover appointed another such commission in the unfavorable year of 1929, the start of the Great Depression. Despite the fact that the commission included two very dynamic, powerful African American women, N.A.A.C.P. founding member Mary Church Terrell, and the great African American educator Mary McLeod Bethune, it did not have sufficient funds, or receive sufficient attention, to accomplish its aims.
What the idea of a museum devoted to the history, culture, and heroism of African Americans truly needed was the arrival in the Congress of U.S. Representative John Lewis of the 5th District of Georgia in 1987.
John Lewis was just 21 years old, a student leader in Nashville, in 1961, when he joined the first Freedom Rides—trips taken on public buses in the South, by those who intended to spur the federal government into enforcing Supreme Court rulings against segregation in interstate travel. When the first two buses were met with violence, a budding movement seemed to be in danger of collapse. But a group of Nashville college students, John Lewis among them—the same age as many of you here today—would press on. A number of them wrote out their wills before stepping onto the public buses, and John Lewis was, indeed, beaten in Montgomery, Alabama. The Freedom Rides continued, over the summer of 1961, drawing young people of all races from around the nation—lending the Civil Rights movement a momentum that could not be stopped.
John Lewis also played a key role in the struggle for voting rights for African Americans. At the famous 1965 march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama—protesting opposition to the voter registration of African American voters—John Lewis’s skull was fractured by Alabama state troopers confronting the peaceful protesters. Nonetheless, he managed to stand up, and publically challenge President Lyndon Johnson to protect people who simply wanted to vote. The moral and physical courage of John Lewis, and many like him, helped to inspire the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Clearly, John Lewis is not a man who gives up on anything he thinks is right! So, too, was he persistent in the Congress.
After introducing legislation year after year, beginning in 1988, to create a museum of African American history, finally—in 2003—Congressman Lewis succeeded, with legislation co-sponsored by Senator Sam Brownback, now Governor Brownback of Kansas—and signed into law by President George W. Bush.
As a member of the new Museum’s Council, First Lady Laura Bush took the baton from her husband, and saw the project through to its finish under President Barack Obama. In 2005, Lonnie G. Bunch III, the President of the Chicago Historical Society was appointed as founding director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture—and imaginer-in-chief.
In 2006, the Regents of the Smithsonian wisely chose a wonderful site for the museum on the National Mall—near the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial. I was proud to be a part of that decision. As a Regent, I spoke strongly in support of building the new museum on the Mall. That placement announced, firmly, the centrality of African American history and culture to our national history and culture.
But the museum faced other challenges: It was the only museum in the Smithsonian to begin life without a collection.
Director Lonnie Bunch addressed the problem of the missing collection with Antiques Roadshow-style meetings all over the country, that coaxed treasures out of attics—and that built a sense of pride at the grassroots level in the objects that tell the stories of African Americans. You see some of that collection depicted on the posters here today.
Indeed, so many Americans clamored to donate their family heirlooms to the museum, that the staff was ultimately overwhelmed—and had to call a temporary halt to this generosity as they worked to open the museum, and curate the artifacts. Today, there are 37,000 artifacts and pieces of art in the collection.
The National Museum of African American History and Culture displays objects that suggest heartbreaking stories, such a pair of child-sized shackles used to keep young slaves from running away. However, it also is full of artifacts that underscore a deep-felt national pride—including, marvelously, a PT-13 Stearman biplane used to train many of the Tuskegee Airmen, which is the nickname given to the first African American military pilots, as well as the service men and women who supported those pilots during World War II.
Until World War II, the U.S. Army Air Forces had rejected all African American pilots who volunteered for military service. Under pressure to reverse course, in 1941, the Army reluctantly awarded a contract to operate a military flight school to the Tuskegee Institute—an historically black college, now a university—which had been a leader in training civilian African American pilots. Many Army leaders expected the trainees to fail miserably. Instead, the Tuskegee Airmen went on to tremendous success, flying fifteen thousand combat sorties over Europe during World War II—and earning three Distinguished Unit Citations, eight Purple Hearts, fourteen Bronze Stars, and 96 Distinguished Flying Crosses.
I am proud that my father, also, served in World War II, in a segregated Army unit. He was part of the Normandy invasion that took thousands upon thousands of U.S. troops into Europe through France—to finally defeat Hitler’s forces and end the war in Europe. During the Normandy invasion, my father devised a way to fix the rudders of the amphibious landing vehicles (which kept failing), with a special mechanical splice—and for that, he received a Bronze Star. In fact, his repair technique was taught throughout the war theater in France, and back in the United States. My father nurtured my interest in science, and urged and supported me to attend M.I.T. My mother ensured my language arts skills were strong.
Stories such as my father’s deserve to be told, to inspire new generations. Moreover, the Museum also serves as a place of collaboration that reaches beyond Washington, DC, to engage new audiences and to work with the myriad of museums and educational institutions that have explored and preserved the important history well before the museum was created.
The collection also includes objects that underscore the remarkable contributions of African Americans to our arts and culture, such as Chuck Berry’s electric guitar, which he nicknamed “Maybellene,” after the song “Maybellene,” which he wrote and performed. This was one of the very first rock ‘n roll songs—an enormous hit with American audiences of all races. The arts truly do bring us all together.
Of course, a museum requires more than a site and a collection—it needs a building to house them. The building envisioned by lead designer David Adjaye and lead architect Philip Freelon is, indeed, beautiful. I am proud that I also had the chance to be part of the approval of the museum’s beautiful design. On the very spot where slave markets once operated in Washington, we now have a structure inspired by the crowns used in Yoruban art from West Africa, and wrapped in lacy lattice that echoes the beautiful ironwork produced by slaves.
The museum was opened in a remarkable dedication ceremony on September 24, 2016, which included so many people involved in creating the museum.
That ceremony was marvelous for the way it brought together towering figures in business, the media, the arts, and government—including then-United State President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama, former President George W. Bush and former First Lady Laura Bush, former President Bill Clinton, members of the Congress, and the Chief Justice of the United States. As the Vice Chair of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian, I had the great privilege of speaking at the ceremony. My remarks were very personal, and intended to be inspirational—focusing on how much the Smithsonian had meant to me as a child, in setting me on a path to the remarkable life and career I have had—and my hopes that the new museum will uplift generations of children in future.
Chief Justice of the United States, John Roberts, who also is Chancellor of the Smithsonian, did a wonderful job at the ceremony, of explained how the museum illuminates the human stories behind the great court decisions that shaped the lives of African Americans—including Brown v. Board of Education—which was a defining influence in my life, in allowing me to attend a diverse school with excellent teachers, right in my own neighborhood, instead of taking public buses to a segregated school miles away, or depending upon a neighborhood carpool of fathers on their way to work—in order to get there.
At the ceremony, Congressman John Lewis spoke of the fact that to become reality, the museum required many people who “pushed and pulled together.” It is not easy to “push and pull” in sync when the journey requires years, and when the destination cannot be seen because it does not yet exist, but, rather, is only imagined. But, as we know very well at Rensselaer—where we bring a multiplicity of perspectives to bear on great global challenges—such pushing and pulling together can change the world.
I have told you much about the history of the effort to create a National Museum of African American History and Culture.
The most important measure of its success, in my view, is whether it truly advances the Smithsonian’s founding mission to increase and diffuse knowledge—especially to children offered a door, by the museum, into new avenues of understanding and empathy. We certainly see the excitement and anticipation with which the American people have greeted the museum. Before it even opened, more than 700,000 people had claimed timed passes to see it. In fact, all timed passes have already been claimed until June of 2017.
Without question, the National Museum of African American History and Culture already has expanded and deepened our national story, and in the process, made this a greater nation. It explores what it means to be an American and share how American values like resiliency, optimism, and spirituality are reflected in African American history and culture. I am both proud and humbled to have been a part of its creation. I would urge all of you to travel to Washington, DC and to see for yourselves how utterly remarkable it is.
And now I would be very glad to answer any questions you might have…