The National Museum of African American History and Culture will open its doors on the Mall in 2015. That’s a promise founding director Lonnie G. Bunch III has made to himself, the Smithsonian and the American people.
“We will open in 2015 no matter what. If the building is finished a year ahead of time and we get a year to move in, fine. If the building is finished 18 months ahead of time, and we have 18 months to move in, fine,” Bunch explained.
The date is especially significant because 2015 marks important dates in history that a museum about the American black experience cannot overlook: The 150th anniversary of the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery, and the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. “The 13th Amendment is the proclamation that basically changed America, and the Voting Rights Act allowed America to fulfill its promise,” said Bunch, a historian and former president of the Chicago Historical Society.
The museum, signed into law by President George W. Bush, will sit on a five-acre parcel between 14th and 15th Streets on Constitution Ave. NW, across the street from the Washington Monument.
There’s a fence around the location now and some activity. “They are relocating gas pipes, those necessities. We will break ground early in 2012,” Bunch said.
Congress has pledged $250 million for construction, out of the total cost of $500 million. “One of the joys is we are starting to get a lot of individuals who usually don’t give to places like the Smithsonian. And they are giving six-figure gifts,” Bunch said. He declined to name any recent, large donors.
“There are hurdles, sure — there are always fund-raising hurdles, conceptual hurdles. But there is nothing we can’t overcome,” Bunch said.
To promote its subject matter, the museum has a dedicated gallery in the National Museum of American History. In January, the staff is joining with the Monticello Foundation on an exhibit called “Jefferson and Slavery at Monticello; Paradox of Liberty.”
The museum staff has made great strides with its collection. For example, it reaped Harriet Tubman items from a Philadelphia collector and Emmett Till’s original coffin from his family.
The owner of a PT-13 Stearman plane used by Tuskegee Airmen during World War II donated the craft. Lena Horne’s daughter gave the museum the dress her mother wore in “Stormy Weather.”
And sometimes the artifacts come from unexpected sources. “An African American woman reached out to us. Her grandfather was in World War I. She came into the office and dumped a bag of medals and other things on the desk. Well, her grandfather had been one of the 369th Infantry, Harlem Hellfighters,” said Bunch pleased to have items connected to the first all-black U.S. combat unit to fight in Europe. “For a part of the time, they fought in French uniforms under the authority of the French. Her grandfather had received the Croix de guerre. And there it was. And she gave it to us.”