Mall Site Is Chosen for Black History Museum

Carl Kinkade jogs along 14th Street near the site chosen yesterday for a museum of African American history.
Carl Kinkade jogs along 14th Street near the site chosen yesterday for a museum of African American history. (By Michel Ducille -- The Washington Post)
By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 31, 2006

The National Museum of African American History and Culture should be built on the Mall near the Washington Monument, the Smithsonian's Board of Regents decided yesterday.

Congress, which has had the museum under consideration since the 1980s, had instructed the Regents to pick among four sites, two on the Mall and two nearby. The location they selected, at the southwest corner of 14th Street and Constitution Avenue NW, had drawn widespread support.

"We believe we have picked the best possible site for this museum," said Roger W. Sant, chairman of the Regents executive committee. At an afternoon news conference announcing the selection, Sant said the location rose above the others because of its "cleanliness," beauty and iconic placement.

No permanent structure has ever been built on the land -- hence its "cleanliness" -- but the location is familiar as an assembly point for tourist groups, a shortcut for joggers and as the home of a temporary snack bar.

Backers of the museum hope it will open by 2016.

The five-acre plot has belonged to the government since 1791 and was endorsed as a suitable place for a building by both the major plans for downtown Washington, the L'Enfant Plan of 1791 and the McMillan Plan of 1901-02. The State Department planned to build there in the early 20th century and there was talk of putting the World War II Memorial there in 1995.

Many advocates for the museum -- including Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), who in 1988 introduced legislation to establish it -- argued that a central location was imperative.

"I am more than happy and pleased," Lewis said yesterday afternoon. "I'm gratified and thankful that the Board of Regents saw fit to name this site for the museum. The Mall is really the front door to America, the front door to our democracy. If you want to see America and know America, including the history of the struggles, the Mall is the place to be."

Lewis was driving on the Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail, which commemorates the famous 1965 civil rights march, when he got the news. Lewis, a civil rights worker in 1965, was beaten and almost died at the hands of police at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma on "Bloody Sunday" when blacks began the historic march.

Yesterday's announcement was a significant step in making the long-sought museum a reality. As early as 1916 supporters asked Congress to erect a monument for black veterans and other notable African Americans. Various plans simmered until the 1980s, when members of Congress, historians and others pushed to have a museum that would be part of the Smithsonian Institution.

Lewis and two other Democrats, Rep. Mickey Leland of Texas and Sen. Paul Simon of Illinois, advanced the plan by fits and starts. In 1994 a bill passed the House but Jesse Helms blocked it in the Senate. Undaunted, Lewis, along with Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), continued to push and in 2003 a bill authorizing the museum was signed by President Bush. Neither Leland nor Simon lived to see the bill signed.

Yesterday's Board of Regents vote was taken in a closed-door session. Chief Justice John Roberts is by custom chancellor of the Smithsonian and head of the Regents. Sant said the vote was not unanimous. Of the 17 regents, only Vice President Cheney was absent.

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