Here was Willie Brown, bouncing his son on his lap, as he waited in the National Museum of African American History and Culture for a literary film celebrating black culture to begin.
He and his family were up at dawn and drove three hours from Southern Maryland to be in the new museum on its first full day open to the public. All around them, thousands of visitors filled every floor of the place.
They came from rural Georgia, New York City, Silicon Valley and other parts of the nation. Most were African American. Mothers pushing their babies in strollers lined up at an elevator leading to the history gallery behind seniors leaning on their canes.
Brown’s family was among the many who entered the museum with early-morning tickets but hung around past lunch. It was crowded, but they wanted to see everything.
“When they are older, they can come back,” Brown said, pointing to his 3-year-old son and 9-month-old daughter. “I wanted them to know that they were here when it opened.”
Now that dignitaries have had their turn, with an A-list soiree Saturday night and a series of receptions for donors, the museum belongs to the nation. On Sunday, when officials extended museum hours to meet intense interest, more everyday people had a chance to view the exhibits.
Like other Smithsonian outposts, entry is free — but passes though the end of the year are already gone, according to the museum’s website. A small number of day-of passes will be made available each day.
For the most part, they were people with a deep interest in black history and the resourcefulness to score a coveted ticket during the museum’s opening weekend. They sported opening-day pins handed out by museum volunteers and endured the long waits in lines — hundreds at the cafe, hundreds at the gift shop, so many trying to view the history galleries that museum officials had to divert crowds to the upper galleries. (By The Washington Post’s estimate, 2,000 people per hour were streaming in during peak times.)
Even still, complaints about the crowds were tempered by exultation over the museum’s very existence. The building was packed but maintained the feel of a family reunion, reminiscing on a community’s heritage and celebrating the bold validation of a Smithsonian museum focused on its culture and history.
“I’ll come back,” Brandi Stevenson, who lives in the District, told her father, Lawrence, who came down from New York to see the new museum. Brandi sped through the history galleries while her father slowed down to read every panel and contemplate every word.
“I am forever changed,” he said, reflecting on the experience of seeing his community’s history told on the Mall.
As they prepared for this weekend, the museum’s leaders often said their goal was “to make the ancestors smile.” Had they succeeded?
Sunday, the place had the feel of any other Smithsonian museum — with an extra patina of pride. There were teenagers charging their phones in wall sockets and strollers pushed to the side.
There was Nettie Hinton inching her walker up the sloping walkway in front of the museum. She paused to look up at the bronze-colored building.
“It seems my whole adult life was spent in this neck of the woods,” she said, waving her finger around in the air. She turned to point at a building across Constitution Avenue. There, she had spent 25 years working for the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency. She shifted around again, and pointed toward the Lincoln Memorial.
“And there, with Martin Luther King,” she said. At 24, she was part of the March on Washington.
Now the 77-year-old lives in San Antonio, but “there was no way I was going to let this museum open and not be here,” she said.
Later in the afternoon, Archie Stewart, 23, strode through the culture gallery, with a crown on her head. She’s a beauty queen with the Miss Black U.S. Ambassador pageant. “Oh, my gosh,” she giggled as she passed through an exhibit on African American style through the years. “I love all this ebony history.”
She had traveled to the museum from Birmingham., Ala., and was touring it along with a handful of other black beauty queens.
There were somber moments, too.
Tarneisha Peters photographed a passage from James Baldwin enshrined in the museum. It reads: “The great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do.”
It explained what compelled Peters to fly from Florida for the museum’s opening weekend and why she believes the nation needs the museum right now. “We are a part of our history and a product of our history,” she said.
Museum director Lonnie Bunch has projected the museum will draw 4 million visitors annually, placing it among the Smithsonian’s most popular stops behind the Air & Space, Natural History and American History museums.
So, what comes next?
The museum, which has already produced traveling exhibitions, held collecting events in 15 cities and published books about the African American experience, hopes to move quickly into its second phase: pleasing the public.
“We’ve got to pivot right away into being the new iteration of this museum that people love already,” Kinshasha Holman Conwill, the museum’s deputy director, said this summer. “We’ve already got 100,000 members. We’ve already got . . . scores of founding donors. A huge number of African American families and individuals. Every major corporation, a majority of the main foundations that support arts and culture. The opening, in a way, is a culmination, but in another way it’s a beginning.”
As if to underscore its role as a gathering place for African American cultural leaders, the museum has already rolled out a slate of public events. Monday, the museum will host a viewing and panel event for the WGN America television drama “Underground,” about a group of enslaved people and their journey to freedom. Soon after, author Heather Ann Thompson will discuss her upcoming book, “Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy.”
If it is able to operate successfully, attracting crowds and building on its momentum, the African American Museum may create a path forward for other museums now being sought. Already, there is a push for a National Museum of the American Latino by two members of Congress. The National Women’s History Museum started in 1996 — now existing online — and its leaders plan to build a physical museum with private funds. Backers of an effort to build a National Museum of the American People to “tell every American ethnic and minority group’s story about their journey to get here, and what they accomplished,” are calling for a presidential commission in 2017.
And, once curators of the African American Museum have time to catch their breath, curators have said they will dive back into expanding the museum’s already massive collection of artifacts. They have nearly 40,000 items and continue to be overwhelmed with calls and emails from people who have items to donate.
Dannie Royal of Houston is a distant relative of Bill Pickett, a famous cowboy and rodeo show performer in the early 1900s. Better known as “The Bull Dogger,” Pickett was known for his ability to wrestle a steer to the ground by grabbing it by its horns, a technique called “bulldogging.”
Royal, 67, whose great-grandmother was Pickett’s sister, still owns his home in Taylor, Tex., and has photos of him as a young boy. She says she wants to donate them to the museum one day. But she isn’t quite ready to part with her personal piece of black history.