On Saturday, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture will open to the public. But it’s taken a century for that to happen, and the journey has not been easy.
Here & Now‘s Meghna Chakrabarti speaks with U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Robert Wilkins, author of “Long Road to Hard Truth: The 100 Year Mission to Create the National Museum of African American History and Culture,” about how the museum became a reality.
Interview Highlights: Robert Wilkins
On the origins of the museum
“The year before the 50th anniversary of the end of the Civil War, there was a reenactment of the victory parade for Union soldiers. There had been the original victory parade, in 1865, and 200,000 soldiers marched from the Capitol past the White House over the course of two days, and not a single one of them was an African-American combat soldier. Fifty years later in this reenactment by the Union veterans, lots of African Americans came to Washington so that they could participate, but the event was segregated, as everything was during that time, and a group of prominent black Washingtonians put together a Colored Citizens Committee so that this group of black veterans would have entertainment, and transportation, and places to stay while they were in Washington. And then afterwards they said, ‘You know, we need a permanent memorial to honor African-American soldiers.’ And then it grew to recognizing that there should be a memorial to all African-American achievement. A museum.”
On the decades-long struggle to fund the museum
“On [President Calvin Coolidge’s] very last day in office, March 4, 1929, he signed a legislation into law that would create a commission to plan and build this national memorial building to Negro achievement. The problem is is that the only way that they could get it passed over the opposition of the southern Democratic Congressmen was to take all of the funding out of it. So it passed without federal funding. They could get $50,000 in federal funding, but only if they raised $500,000 first. So, President Hoover then takes over and the timing couldn’t be worse because in October of 1929, we have the stock market crash and the beginning of the Great Depression. And the effort essentially dies off.
“It remains dormant until the mid-1960s, concurrent with the Black Arts and the Black Studies movements that are beginning in the mid-1960s. There was a great debate in Congress about whether it should be called a Negro museum or an Afro-American museum or African-American or black history, similar to the debate going on in America at that time. And James Baldwin and Jackie Robinson and Roy Innis, they all testified in Congress in support of this, but nothing passed.”
On his reactions while writing and researching
“You know, I have been frustrated and angry and had a range of emotions over the past 20 years that I’ve worked on this project, and that’s the reason why I chose the title, ‘Long Road to Hard Truth.’ Because James Baldwin testified at that 1968 hearing: ‘My history tells the truth about America. It’s going to be hard to teach it.’ It’s very hard to celebrate African American achievement or recognize talent within the African American community if you’re subjugating that community, which is what was happening in 1916. And, it’s also hard to talk about slavery and segregation and lynching when we all want to think of this as a great nation and the Founding Fathers as great leaders and great thinkers, but yet, the ideals that were espoused in the Declaration of Independence and in the Constitution were far from being fulfilled for all Americans. And so, I think it took a lot of political will and courage and vision for the leaders in Congress and President Bush to come together to do this. And I think that they’re to be commended for it.”
On the museum’s role
“Now don’t get me wrong: the museum isn’t a panacea. No one institution, just like no one person, can solve an important problem facing the country, and certainly not the race issue or race problem in America. But, having said that, I think that the museum can help all of us understand better the complicated history, the alliances that have been formed, the progress that we’ve made, all of the different nonviolent methods that have been used to overcome that history. I think anytime people become more educated about an issue, they have a better ability to discuss it and forge solutions and understanding.”
On how personal experience influenced his endeavors
“Some of my experiences really propelled me to get involved in the movement to try to create this museum. In 1992, I was with family members when we were stopped by the Maryland State Police on the highway as we were returning from my grandfather’s funeral in Chicago and driving back to Washington, D.C. And, they got us out of the car and told us that unless we agreed to let them search the car, they would make us wait there for a drug-sniffing dog to be brought to the scene. And there was no reason for them to think that we had drugs. And I explained to them that I was an attorney and that there was a 1985 U.S. Supreme Court case called ‘United States v. Sharpe’ that they were violating, but my Harvard law degree and citation to authority didn’t really do much good for me there on the side of the road.
“… But in the midst of all of that, I really felt like I wanted to be a part of something positive, of something that would hopefully help educate people about these issues, that would help bring the country together, and that’s what really helped to drive me to work on this museum.”