“African American history is not somehow separate than the American story. It is not the underside of the American story. It is central to the American story,” Obama said.
Behind him, the 400,000 square-foot museum stood as a testament to that notion. Serving as home to more than 36,000 artifacts, the museum exists to both memorialize and educate, sharing the “unvarnished truth” of America’s past and celebrating the triumphs of its present. It opens in the midst of a heated conversation about race, after two fatal police shootings of black men dominated the news this week.
The African American story, Obama said, “perhaps needs to be told now more than ever.”
This long-awaited moment is being heralded by a weekend of celebrations across the city, in what the museum director Lonnie Bunch has called a “mini inauguration.” The most anticipated event was the opening ceremony, which included speeches from Oprah Winfrey, Will Smith, Supreme Court Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and former president George W. Bush, who signed the 2003 bill that authorized the museum.
Bush called the finished product “fabulous,” saying: “It shows our commitment to truth. A great nation does not hide its history. It faces its flaws and corrects them.”
He gave credit to Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), who spent 15 years fighting in Congress to make the museum a reality. When Lewis, a veteran of the civil rights struggles of the 1960s, took the stage Saturday, he had to take long pauses to contain his emotion.
“There were some who said it couldn’t happen, who said ‘you can’t do it,’ but we did it,” Lewis said. “This place is more than a building. It is a dream come true.”
The building itself is striking: its bronze-hued exterior and unusual shape stand in stark contrast to the buildings surrounding it, and purposefully so. Inside, visitors walk the path from slavery to civil rights to the Black Lives Matter movement, and everything in between. The familiar and the untold stories of history are shared through meaningful objects: from the shawl of Harriet Tubman to a candy-red Cadillac driven by Chuck Berry, to the uneven-bar grips used by Gabby Douglas in the 2012 Olympics.
The objects, the museum’s director told the audience, are “a clarion call to remember.”
“Not just the well known,” Bunch said, “but also those famous only to their families, whose lives in quiet ways shaped this nation.”
People traveled to the grounds of the Washington Monument from around the country to see the festivities — or at least watch them on the Jumbotrons nearby. The Mall filled with tour groups, church congregations, fraternities and the occasional celebrities, including Samuel L. Jackson, Dave Chappelle and Rashida Jones. Black Civil War reenactors came as reminders of history; parents brought their children to witness the historic moment.
The day was especially emotional for Beulah Stowe Cary, 92, who recalled how her parents sent her to live with relatives when she was just three weeks old, because they feared the South was not a safe place for a biracial baby. David Hudson, 63, spoke of the time he was chased out of a restaurant when he was just 8 years old.
Now, black children like him were in the crowd, listening to a black president say: “We’re not a burden on America, or a stain on America, or an object of pity or charity for America. We are America.”
Only a limited number of people were able to gain entry to the museum on its first day; pre-reserved timed tickets are currently required to enter the museum. They are sold out through the end of the year. (For those who want to visit in 2016, individuals can obtain up to four same-day passes from the visitor services staff each day at 9:15 a.m., starting Monday. Tickets for 2017 have not yet been made available.)
Once visitors with the coveted first-day tickets navigated the long lines and sometimes-confused crowds, they had the chance to experience the power of the museum that the opening day speakers had been trying to put into words.
In a back room on the museum’s second floor, Samuel L. Wright Sr. muttered to himself, “Jesus. Oh, man.” There was the casket of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old boy who was murdered in 1955 for reportedly whistling at a white woman while visiting relatives in Mississippi.
Wright sang along to the old gospel song playing nearby: “Precious Lord, take my hand.” He looked at the bronze-colored casket and stood still as if he were paying his last respects. When he bent forward, he saw that behind the glass in the coffin lay a picture of Till’s disfigured face.
“That was something terrible,” he said, thinking of his own two children, and of the decision that Till’s mother made to have an open-casket funeral for her son, to show the brutality that had been inflicted.
The funds for the Till exhibit were provided by the family foundation of philanthropist Peter Kovler, who was in the audience at the opening ceremony.
“How can you fail to see the links between current events – Charlotte, Tulsa, Black Lives Matter – and the brutal death of Emmett Till all those years ago?” asked Kovler, who is white and Jewish. “You have to be deliberately not looking at things to not see that there are things from that era that apply to our era.”
Inside, two visitors were discussing that very connection, near an exhibit that showcases the famous 1960 lunch counter sit-in in Greensboro, N.C.
“It was dangerous for them,” an older woman said of the young people who were protesting.
“Unfortunately,” the woman next to her said, “It still is.”
As visitors made their way from the lower floors – which showcase slavery and segregation – to the upper galleries, the mood began to shift, just as the museum planners had hoped. There, moments of pride and progress are displayed in every corner. Visitors snapped photos of themselves next to a statue of Michael Jordan and Berry’s cadillac.
Meanwhile, a few pieces of living history were milling around the rooms.
“You’re George Clinton? Get out of here!” a woman squealed as she grabbed her phone to take a picture with the musician.
“I feel like a child in a candy factory,” Clinton said. “It took so long, but I’m glad it happened in my lifetime.”
He stood in front of the Mothership, arguably the most iconic stage prop in all of American music, an object that added to the legend of Clinton’s otherworldly concerts as leader of Parliament-Funkadelic.
“As President Obama said, this country is our country too. We’re Americans. If this doesn’t uplift you, nothing will,” he said. “This should uplift everyone, not just African Americans but all Americans. To get to the heights we have, with a black president. I’m so proud.”
The celebrations will roll on through Saturday evening, with an invite-only gala at the Smithsonian’s Arts and Industries building and a free, public concert featuring Living Colour, Public Enemy and the Roots on the Mall. On Sunday, the cultural festival outside the museum will continue until 9 p.m., with music, spoken word performances and food tents. In an effort to fit in more visitors, the museum’s hours are extended from 7 a.m. to midnight, for those with timed tickets.
Stephanie Hall, a 39-year-old teacher who scored Saturday tickets, felt that even if she could come back on Sunday, it wouldn’t be enough. She wishes she could stay for a week, to spend a day on each level of the complex museum.
“I wish every curriculum writer in this country could take a tour of this museum to understand that you don’t have to wait until Black History Month to talk about the contributions of African Americans,” Hall said.
Until then, she’ll be taking back what she learned to her own classroom in Stamford, Conn.: “All of the struggle, all of the pain, all of the triumph, all of the joy — and all that we have yet to do.”
This story has been updated throughout the day.
Ellen McCarthy, Peggy McGlone, Michael Ruane and Krissah Thompson contributed to this report.