The United States’ first African American president was center stage at the opening ceremony of the National Museum of African American History and Culture on Saturday. He was a symbol of the country’s progress, but he wanted to remind the audience of the nation’s not-so-distant past.
“Routine discrimination and Jim Crow aren’t ancient history,” Obama said. “It’s just a blink in the eye of history. It was just yesterday.”
And then, onto the stage came living proof of his words:
Ruth Odom Bonner, a 99-year-old woman in a magenta pantsuit. She and four generations of her family, down to her 7-year-old great-granddaughter Christine, were chosen to officially open the museum by ringing a bell from the first Baptist church organized by and for African Americans.
“Ruth’s father, Elijah Odom, was born into servitude in Mississippi,” Obama told the audience. “He was born a slave.”
The story the president told was the one Ruth has been telling her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren all of her life.
“We would sit in the kitchen, cook and watch ‘The Price Is Right,’ and she would tell her story,” Ruth’s granddaughter Rukiya Bonner said the morning after the ceremony.
Growing up, it just seemed a normal part of their family’s history that Ruth’s father had been a slave. But on Saturday, as they looked out onto a crowd of 7,000 official guests and thousands more across the Mall, the family realized how significant their ancestry was to the story of America.
“We are that reminder that everything wasn’t so long ago,” Rukiya said. “Just one generation more, and the person standing there would have actually been a slave.”
That slave, Elijah, was born in 1859, in Mississippi. The family thinks that even after Emancipation in 1863, Elijah was kept enslaved, forced to pick berries. Then — the family is not sure exactly when — he and his brothers escaped.
“The story goes that they had to swim across a narrow part of the Mississippi River,” Rukiya said.
Elijah went on to Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tenn., and became the only black doctor in Biscoe, Ark. He owned a store and a pharmacy, where he would serve the entire black community, since most white doctors at the time would not care for non-whites.
“Knowing where we came from, knowing the challenges that my great-grandfather had to overcome, that was just fuel for us,” said Michael Bonner, another of Elijah’s great-grandchildren.
Elijah had eight children, so today, the family is quite expansive. Ruth is the only living daughter, meaning she’s “the queen,” her grandchildren said. She worked as a teaching assistant and a homemaker; her creative talents were the envy of the family. She made beaded jewelry, as well as savory dishes that all had a signature ingredient.
“Pound cake, collard greens — she put sugar in everything,” Rukiya said.
Ruth now lives in a assisted-living facility in Washington, where she still tells her family’s story during episodes of “The Price Is Right.” Those stories found their way to a woman who attended the same church as the Bonners. She happened to be a member of the museum’s program committee.
The Bonners didn’t know for sure they were going to ring the historic bell with the president until last week. And Michael said he was unaware that theirs was the only family chosen until he was walking onstage. He also had no idea the president would name his 7-year-old daughter, Christine, in his speech.
“I don’t think she really understood the totality of that moment,” Michael said. “When she gets a chance to hang with her friends and they start asking questions, I think she’ll realize the experience that she truly had.”
Of all the memories the family will take from the experience — from their giddiness when they met the president to the sound of the bells ringing out over the Mall — it was watching the way people reacted to their grandmother that elated them most.
Bill Clinton kissed her hand. Joe Biden knelt on the concrete just to lean in close to her. Everyone, Rukiya said, was “basking in her light.” After all the years of appreciating Ruth’s stories for themselves, they watched her share them with the world.