WASHINGTON— Hundreds of people gathered at an inaugural event for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture Monday night here to celebrate the completion of the museum’s exterior in a year that marks three significant moments in American history.
This year marks the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War and the ratification of the 13th Amendment that abolished slavery, as well as the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act—events that greatly shifted the trajectory of African Americans.
The museum’s founding director, Lonnie Bunch, launched the night of celebration, which included music, a dramatic visual arts display, remembrances and congratulations.
“Tonight we commemorate the meaning of freedom, a term that was never abstract to African Americans,” Bunch said.
African Americans’ triumphs through centuries of harsh discrimination were honored and remembered during the celebration, including the premiere of a seven-minute projection depicting over 150 years of African American progress, from Harriet Tubman to the Black Lives Matter movement.
The visual piece, “Commemorate and Celebrate Freedom” by filmmaker Stanley Nelson, bounced 3-D images of the nation’s black heroes—Frederick Douglass, Ida B. Wells, the Rev. Martin Luther King, and Malcolm X—off the New Orleans-inspired ironwork exterior, tipping a hat to black craftsmen of another time.
The projection will run Tuesday and Wednesday evening from 5:30 p.m. to 9 p.m.
“This building is homage to the fact that so much of our history is hidden in plain sight,” Bunch said.
When the building opens officially in the fall of 2016, it will include a wide array of black memorabilia and history, including Harriet Tubman’s hymnal, a lace shaw give to her by Queen Victoria and family photographs of her funeral; a Jim Crow railroad car, Chuck Berry’s red Cadillac convertible, remnants from a slave ship found off the coast of South Africa, works of celebrated black artist and a Tuskegee Airmen training plan, a slave cabin, Emmett Till’s casket and Muhammad Ali’s protective boxing gear.
Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser linked the history of black Washingtonians to the history of African Americans, citing cultural contributors like composer, pianist and band leader Duke Ellington, singer and composer Marvin Gaye and actress and singer Pearl Bailey, all of whom were born and raised in the nation’s capital.
Washington Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton called the District of Columbia, “a crucible of African American history.”
After a reading of Margaret Walker’s “For My People,” scored by Darin Atwater and performed by the Soulful Symphony, gospel singer Be Be Winans sang “America America” and “Stand” alongside the symphony and a gospel choir.
Winans said seeing the exterior of the museum was a special moment for him. “As I stood in front, I felt like I was standing in the middle of my past and my future,” he said.
Longtime activist and national radio personality Joe Madison said the museum has significance far beyond Washington. “The message is very clear,” he said. “This is not just a museum for African Americans, but for the world, and we are part of the world.”