The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Celebrities describe the somber but celebratory mood ahead of the National Museum of African American History opening

President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama arrive at ABC’s “Taking the Stage: African American Music and Stories that Changed America” program at the Kennedy Center in Washington on Sept. 23, 2016. At center is Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.). (Zach Gibson/AFP/Getty Images)
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John Lewis almost cried.

“Tomorrow will be very difficult, almost impossible,” said the congressman from Georgia of the opening ceremony of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Lewis had been fighting for the museum’s existence since 1988. “It was a long struggle,” he explained, “but we got ‘er done.”

It was the images, some of himself, that got him.

“Seeing Fannie Lou Hamer from the Mississippi Delta speaking at the Democratic Convention in 1964. One image, that I’d never seen before, of Julian Bond and myself standing in front of 16th Street Baptist church just hours after it was bombed,” Lewis said.  “It will be very very emotional. ”

And that was the general mood Friday night as the weekend’s celebration kicked off: somber, yet celebratory. Fresh from a VIP reception at the White House, boldfacers streamed into the Kennedy Center for a special two-hour concert with their eyes on the future and the past while trying to revel in the present.

Former secretary of state Colin Powell, who was escorting his wife, Alma, into the Kennedy Center, also had the strange experience of seeing himself — or at least one of his military uniforms — in the museum. “Very weird,” he said, when we asked him whether it wasn’t just a little weird to see something that used to hang in his closet behind glass.

The retired four-star general said he is most looking forward to having people (including his grandchildren, whom he’s planning to take to the museum opening) see the exhibits depicting the history of African Americans in the military. “For 300 years, we were there for our country, even though our country wasn’t there for us,” Powell said. “Now it is.”

Oscar-winner Louis Gossett Jr. said the museum was a step in the right direction and that he would go home after the weekend with “more hope.”

“The timing is absolutely outstanding,” said Gossett, the third African American to win an Academy Award. “In God’s world, nothing happens just by accident.”

Actress Phylicia Rashad and her sister, actress and choreographer Debbie Allen, arrived, just behind the whooping members of the Howard gospel choir. Rashad said she is anxious to see the museum, whose groundbreaking she attended. “I want to see the whole of it,” she said. “This is the inauguration of a great American institution.”

“Everybody is very clear and conscious,” Allen said. “It’s hard. So we’re celebrating, and then there’s what’s going on in Charlotte and what’s going on in Tulsa. It just doesn’t seem to stop.”

With that she reached into her purse and pulled out a flier for her musical “Freeze Frame,” which deals with race relations and violence. The show will open at the Kennedy Center in October. “So we’re working,” she said, before adding, “This weekend is the culmination of so many decades of work and effort. As the Kennedy Center exists as it does for the world, now does our museum.”

Author Janet Langhart Cohen, too, was feeling that a special moment was happening, with the museum opening amid violence in North Carolina. The item she most remembered was the casket of Emmett Till, the black 14-year-old who was lynched in Mississippi in 1955 (he’s also the subject of the play she penned, “Anne and Emmett”). “I felt like I was at church,” she said.

Unsurprisingly, it was Jesse Jackson, who lingered at the Kennedy Center entrance and greeted attendees like a host, who summed up the weekend’s mix of festivity and gravitas: “It’s one small celebration, and one giant leap for America’s narrative.”

The National Museum of African American History and Culture opens its doors to the public on Sept. 24. (Video: claritza jimenez/The Washington Post, Photo: Susan Walsh/The Washington Post)