- A Place of Our OwnThe National Museum of African American History and Culture
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The most significant African American artistic statement that will be made in Washington, DC, over the next decade will not be a painting, a sculpture, a dance, a theatrical production, or a monument. It will be the official opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) scheduled to take place in 2016—before the end of Barack Obama’s second term as President of the United States.
The NMAAHC will likely be one of the last, if not the last, museum constructed on the National Mall. This first Smithsonian Institution museum on the National Mall dedicated to documenting and interpreting the centrality of the African American experience in the making of America and Americans promises to substantially change the national conversation about America, its history, and its cultural identity. As much a venture into revealing the depth, breadth, and complexity of African American’s cultural and artistic imprint on America as it is into interrogating the relationship of Black people to the economic, political, social, and cultural development of these yet-to-be United States, the National Museum of African American History and Culture will shed new light on both what America has been and what it still has the potential to become. It has been a long time in the making.
Almost a hundred years ago, black Civil War veterans and their supporters started black Americans’ quest to establish such an institution to commemorate African Americans’ role in the making of America. These veterans of the United States Colored Troops (USCT) were simply seeking to have the nation acknowledge, recognize, and honor them for the part they had played in the Union victory. Fifty years earlier, they had not been so honored. They were not even invited to march in the Grand Review Parade for the victorious Union armies which took place in Washington, DC, in May of 1865. Veterans of three white Union armies marched down Pennsylvania Ave. to the applause and cheers of President Andrew Johnson and thousands of grateful citizens. But there was, apparently, no place for the regiments of the USCT in the victory parade. No place, no honor for the more than 180,000 African Americans who had served in the Union army. USCT veterans—and African American citizens—were committed to participating fully in the 50th Anniversary of the Grand Review slated to take place in Washington, DC, in May of 1915.
To support this effort, they formed a Committee of Colored Citizens of the Grand Army of the Republic. The official organizing committee for the anniversary parade had made no [End Page 730] provisions for black participation. The Committee of Colored Citizens provided such support, raising money to cover housing, food, and logistical costs for USCT Veterans. Significantly, after the parade, they used leftover funds to form the National Memorial Association to create a more permanent memorial to African Americans’ military contributions. Within a year, this germinal idea had evolved into a proposal to create a memorial building to house a comprehensive National African American Museum. The fully articulated vision of the proposed museum included the following:
It is the purpose of the National Memorial Association to erect a beautiful building suitable to depict the Negro’s [sic] contribution to America in the military service, in art, literature, invention, science, industry, etc.—a fitting tribute to the negro’s contributions and achievements, and which would serve as an educational center giving inspiration and pride to the present and future generations that they be inspired to follow the example of those who have aided in the advancement of the race and Nation.(qtd. in Wilkins 8)1
Though no specific site was identified for the construction of this memorial building, the unarticulated expectation was that it would be built on the National Mall in Washington, DC. This was because by 1915, the Mall had become generally recognized as the place that most exemplified the nation’s sense of honor and dignity. As home to the...