For now, the National African-American Museum and Cultural Center is little more than a heartfelt idea and a flat yellow dot on an aerial map of Washington. It is a whisper that wants to be a shout.
There are museums galore in the nation's capital, and there are African American museums in abundance across the country. But, as the aspiring founders see it, there is no institution in Washington or anywhere else that does justice to the history and culture of African Americans.
"It's as if there's a member of the family that no one really talks about," said Robert L. Wilkins, a leading D.C. public defender and the project's chief organizer. "By not highlighting and teaching and preserving this historical and cultural material, you are saying that it's not as important, it's not as valued. And that's just not right."
Wilkins's plans are nothing if not ambitious. He envisions an eye-catching 400,000-square-foot complex on the waterfront in Anacostia, across the river from the Washington Navy Yard.
He anticipates a price tag numbered in the tens of millions, and he recognizes that the effort to establish such a history museum is dogged by, well, history.
Nearly 10 years ago, the Smithsonian's Board of Regents endorsed an African American history museum on the Mall after an advisory committee backed the creation of a large, visible and permanent institution. The regents approved the renovation of the Arts and Industries Building, and the House of Representatives authorized $5 million in seed money.
But the Senate, led by Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), scotched the plan in 1994.
Some critics questioned the need, the timing, the politics, the expense. Others worried that a big-time federal project would suck the air from scores of smaller black history museums across the country. Still others warned along the way that the Smithsonian's uneven record on minority affairs and its dependence on Congress would limit any new museum's potential.
Since then, Detroit has spent $38.4 million to open a 120,000-square-foot Museum of African-American History. In Cincinnati, plans are underway to construct a $90 million, 157,000-square-foot National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.
Steven Newsome, director of the Anacostia Museum, part of a Smithsonian program in black history and culture, said there is certainly a need. But he took a respectfully skeptical view of Wilkins's project, suggesting it could be 10 years in the making--if it succeeds at all.
"I think they've got a long way to go before they even figure out what they're talking about," Newsome explained. "What I'm trying to say is it's hard work. When people think about these sorts of things, they have to realize these are long-term commitments and require lots of planning and lots of operational capital."
The fledgling organization, according to more than one historian and curator, needs to explain why people should support a new museum, why existing institutions are insufficient, what the institution would accomplish, and who would pay the huge tab.
Building national memorials, monuments and museums in Washington on federal land is usually a 10-year process for getting the approval of Congress and several commissions for a site and a design. And not all those who make it through those hoops are then able to raise the money to build and then sustain the memorial. Although the land Wilkins is considering belongs to the District, the process could be quite similar because of the overarching influence of the federal government upon the District.
It is "not likely at this stage" that Congress would underwrite a national African American museum, said Spencer Crew, director of the National Museum of American History. He admires the Wilkins group's desire "to step forward and make things happen," yet warns that any such project would require serious cash and elbow grease.
"To build the Indian museum is more than $100 million. And part of the challenge is to create an endowment. You cannot expect that if you charge a fee that the gate's going to cover your costs," Crew said.
Freedom Center Director John Fleming is a gung-ho supporter of the group's ambitions, despite the inevitable competition for dollars.
"I think it fills a void," said Fleming, past president of the African American Museums Association. "And I think it's quite evident as the Native American museum begins to take shape that we have a major segment of the population that's been here since the very founding whose history is not dealt with in any meaningful fashion."
Wilkins knows of the difficulties his plan faces, but he is a determined man. After introducing the project last month at a $30-a-plate fund-raiser, he is now aiming toward a more formal February launch to coincide with Black History Month.
Treading carefully, acknowledging the need for expertise and consensus, he envisions a civic project backed largely by private money and "an army of volunteers."
Organizers can definitely build a fine museum without seeking money from Congress, asserted Wilkins, who intends to work with community groups and establish a national board of notables. "I think once we have a good site and a vision that makes sense, it will be very easy to sell."
Open to partnerships and needing approval for an eventual site and design, Wilkins has begun to meet with D.C. development officials and players in the federal government. He consulted Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), a longtime national museum advocate, and D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D).
"We're just a core group here, trying to be a catalyst for action," Wilkins said of a handful of associates, all lawyers, mostly friends from Harvard Law School. "We'll bring in a wide range of experts that are going to be needed to get this project done. People with finance and real estate backgrounds. People with museum backgrounds. People with collection-building backgrounds."
Wilkins, 36, began researching the project three years ago after a mourning visit to a church elder's family evolved into a session of storytelling about black life. He studied the 1991 Smithsonian experts' report endorsing the museum concept and what happened later.
From 1991 to 1994, the staff of the embryonic museum contacted 8,000 people who had collections to offer, or even a single item. Workers visited hundreds of sites, from archives to church basements to family attics. They saw slave passes, manumission documents and rare photographs. Two families had preserved their ancestors' chains.
Wilkins and his allies muse about using every medium, emphasizing the positive along with the pain. Ideas under discussion include a genealogy center, a civil rights exhibition, a study of African American contributions to economic development and a lively exposition of African American musical influences.
How this would be housed remains an open question, and much would depend on the museum's location and its funding. A notion advanced by architect Marshall E. Purnell is a series of pavilions surrounding an outdoor amphitheater that could be used for concerts and dramatic performances.
Scouting sites, Wilkins and his colleagues came to favor Poplar Point, an undeveloped 40-acre slice of mostly public land close to the Anacostia Metro station. The size of the parcel would make possible outdoor exhibits, including perhaps a waterborne replica of a slave ship. The proximity to Anacostia could help a struggling part of town, Wilkins said.
To turn the hint of promise into something tangible, Wilkins recently cut his public defender work to three days a week. He arranged for a private Fairfax collector to bring several enticements to last month's reception. Among them, a letter from Malcolm X to Alex Haley, a letter from Frederick Douglass about the death of Sojourner Truth, and an original Billie Holiday recording contract.
The objects were on display that night, Wilkins pointed out, but the next day they would be back behind closed doors, out of sight. But, he suggested, perhaps not out of reach.
Staff writer Linda Wheeler contributed to this report.
CAPTION: One possibility for a museum of African American history and culture would be a waterfront site.