The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Throughout a packed weekend of celebrating the African American Museum, the A-list crowd kept the parties in perspective

The scene in Washington on the African American Museum’s opening weekend

WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 25: Crowds make their way toward the newly opened African American Musuem on September, 25, 2016 in Washington, DC. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

It was a weekend unlike any other. The phrase “mini-inauguration” was used a lot, as a sort of shorthand for the extraordinary mix of star power, political swagger and public fervor. But it was more than that.

For the A-listers who flocked to Washington for the historic opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, there was a dichotomy: the weight of the moment juxtaposed with the fizz of a packed schedule of glittering parties.

The reflective revelry kicked off Friday at a VIP White House reception held to commemorate the museum’s opening. And because this was 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., even the glitteriest of guests couldn’t just waltz in.

A long security line included some of the biggest names: media queen and friend-of-the-Obamas Oprah Winfrey; her longtime partner, Stedman Graham; Winfrey’s bestie, CBS anchor Gayle King; actress Phylicia Rashad; choreographer/actress Debbie Allen; and actor Samuel L. Jackson.

After cooling his heels for a bit, Jackson (who maybe didn’t notice the august company he was in?) asked, “Where’s the VIP line?” From her place a few spots ahead, Winfrey turned around and said, “This is it.”

Inside, President Obama joked, “There are just so many friends here that it feels like one of our house parties. But there’s no dancing this afternoon.” He added that the museum wasn’t just about famous names, that the institution also framed “our current circumstances in a historical context.”

At the three-hour Kennedy Center concert immediately after the White House reception, featuring Mary J. Blige, Usher and Dave Chappelle, the A-list crowd echoed the president’s sentiments. The mood was celebratory yet somber.

Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), who had been fighting for the museum’s existence since 1988, almost cried.

“Tomorrow will be very difficult, almost impossible,” said the congressman of the impending opening ceremony. “It was a long struggle, but we got ‘er done.”

Former secretary of state Colin Powell, who was escorting wife Alma to the show, said he was 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.”

Sisters Rashad and Allen, both Howard Univesity alums, arrived just behind the whooping members of the Howard gospel choir. Rashad said she was anxious to see the museum, whose groundbreaking she attended. “This is the inauguration of a great American institution,” she said.

But, Allen noted, “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.”

Unsurprisingly, it was the Rev. 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.”

But the celebrating was hardly done. Really, it was just getting started.

Later Friday night, the glitterati made their way to BET chief executive Debra Lee’s stunning Kalorama home for the after-party.

Lee, who grew up in Greensboro, N.C., once worked at the Belk department store downtown. For lunch, she would go across the street to Woolworth’s and eat at the counter — the same place four college students held a six-month sit-in in 1960. A piece of that famous counter now sits in the museum.

“I sat there last night,” she said as the party swirled around her. “It gave me chills.”

Because of the concert’s delay, guests trickled in late as music poured through Lee’s art-filled mansion and waiters passed champagne. The party was just heating up at midnight when it was supposed to be over.

“Grey’s Anatomy” actor Jesse Williams, who gave an impassioned speech on racism at the BET Awards this year, was surrounded by selfie-seeking fans as he mingled on the patio with American Express CEO Ken Chenault, journalist Gwen Ifill, and David Adjaye, the architect who designed the museum. “It’s a dream come true,” Williams said.

It was also a long day and a late night. Everyone was running on adrenaline and pride; no one wanted to miss a thing. “It’s one of those weekends where you just keep going,” said Lee, who had changed from heels to flats.

Then Saturday, it was on to the main event, the opening ceremony on the Mall, punctuated by an emotional speech by Obama.

But the chauffered ones kept going well after the sun had set — on to an evening black-tie gala for a few hundred of the big donors and stars at the Smithsonian’s Arts and Industries Building. Oscar-winning actress Lupita Nyong’o brushed by, her sequinned dress shimmering, alongside her “Queen of Katwe” co-star David Oyelowo. “No questions tonight,” she murmured as she made her way to the party’s gates. Also whizzing by were director George Lucas and his wife, businesswoman Mellody Hobson, in a show-stopping yellow gown. Autograph seekers were disappointed.
Winfrey, of course, was inside, having been whisked through some secret passage.

Others arrived in a slightly chattier mood, eager to reflect on the museum and the moment. There was Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Donna Brazile, wearing a black cocktail dress and accompanied by her aunt and uncle, describing how she couldn’t make it all the way through the exhibits in one visit. “By the time I got to Reconstruction, I had to stop,” she said.

Still, she said, the experience wasn’t all painful.

“I did selfies with Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth,” she said. “I read aloud with Maya Angelou and Langston Hughes. I left feeling uplifted.”

The Rev. Al Sharpton, who would be leaving next morning for Tulsa, where an unarmed black man was shot by police last week, said the museum “put into perspective what we’re fighting now.”

But he hadn’t been inside yet. Sharpton opted out of the private tour for the opening ceremony’s 7,000 invited guests because he “didn’t want to go with the crowd.” He planned to go early Sunday to have the space and time to sit with his own “private thoughts.”

Like Sharpton, Samuel L. Jackson and his wife, LaTanya Richardson Jackson, planned to come back for a closer look. But Saturday’s opening ceremony was more than enough to move them.

Samuel Jackson said, “As we were waiting to get into our car  [the energy] of all those people to get inside to be the first ones to see it–”

“It was bursting,” said Richardson Jackson, finishing her husband’s sentence.

“It made it all seem like, hey, this was more than worth it. This is going to be greater than we thought,” her husband said.

Also flowing into the famous crowd were actress Angela Bassett, civil rights activist Vernon Jordan and wife Ann, billionaire Robert L. Johnson, Radio One founder Cathy Hughes and Henry Louis Gates.

After mingling with other boldfacers, some would eventually make their way up the Mall back to the museum for the after party. There would be dancing. Stevie Wonder would perform as a surprise guest. Chappelle would led the crowd in an impromptu sing-a-long of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” with fists raised.

But the be-gowned and black-tie-clad guests knew that, eventually, the party would be over.

Retired NBA-er Earvin “Magic” Johnson, wearing a fitted navy tux jacket that could easily have doubled as a small tent, and his wife, Cookie, strolled up to the gala.

The weekend feels like celebration, Johnson says, though it comes at a hard time, amid news of “senseless killings” and strife.

“We needed this right now… It will take our minds off it all for one or two days. And then, we’ll start all over again on Monday morning,”  he says, shaking his head.