Tears streamed down the face of several black journalists while their white counterparts appeared almost numb by the emotion that would be nearly impossible not to experience.
On Wednesday, Sept. 14, curators and other personnel provided a daylong media tour of the new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture which sits on the National Mall in the nation’s capital.
The media’s tour was followed by an unannounced private tour by President Barack Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama and the first couple’s two daughters.
It wasn’t immediately known what the Obamas took from their 80-minute tour, but it’s likely a safe bet to suggest that they were – to say the least – touched.
The tour began in the Oprah Winfrey Auditorium. The television magnate reportedly has donated more than $25 million to the museum.
Smithsonian Secretary David Skorton and the museum’s director, Lonnie Bunch, told a slew of reporters who crammed into the auditorium that it would be an eye-opening experience for all.
“The museum is open for every American and the world to better understand the African-American journey and how it shaped America,” Bunch said. “If we’ve done our job right, I trust the museum will be a place for all Americans to ponder, reflect, learn, rejoice, collaborate and, ultimately, draw sustenance and inspiration from the lessons of history to make America better.”
The museum honors black heroes such as Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks and Rep. John Lewis (D-Georgia), a civil rights leader who worked for decades in Congress trying to gather support for the museum.
President George W. Bush signed the legislation in 2003, and Bunch and a staff of just three began shaping the vision of what’s now a 400,000-square-foot, $540 million building with exhibits, sculptures, paintings, artifacts and other historic treasures.
Media members were encouraged to start their tour from the bottom level because the museum is ordered chronologically. It begins with a statue of President Thomas Jefferson in front of 609 bricks, which represents the number of slaves he owned.
Indeed, the galleries below the Winfrey Auditorium are dedicated to some of the darkest chapters in American history and the worst injustice ever faced by African-Americans.
Ramps connect small galleries that reveal the evils of the Atlantic slave trade and the Colonial era up through the Civil War.
Materials and photographs show lynchings and items include a shawl worn by Harriet Tubman, the escaped slave and abolitionist who created the Underground Railroad.
There’s also the coffin of Emmett Till, the black Chicago teenager who was killed in 1955 in Mississippi, for looking at a white woman. Till’s death sparked the civil rights movement.
“It blows my mind,” said Vincent Penn, a supervising engineer with Kensington Glass, the company contracted by the museum to perform glass work. “Down here is the worst period the world has ever known and I have tears every time.”
Penn, a white man, said the reactions of everyone strike him.
“Whether you’re black or white or whatever, you cannot come through here and not cry,” he said. “I was here when Oprah Winfrey came and visited and she stood up there [on a walkway above her auditorium] and her expression said it all. She could hardly contain herself, [either].”
But the museum isn’t all about the dark history and the evils of slavery. African-American businesses are celebrated and so are black media. Ebony magazine and the Freedom Journal, the first African-American newspaper, are featured in exhibits.
Entertainers and sports figures such as Redd Foxx, Michael Jackson, Ella Fitzgerald, Michael Jordan, Jackie Robinson and many others are also highlighted with exhibits, artifacts and donated items.
Jackson’s famous fedora that he wore during his 1984 “Victory” concert tour is on display, as is Chuck Berry’s cherry red El Dorado. A special section is dedicated to Muhammad Ali.
“Our country will gain a further understanding of what it means to be an American,” Skorton said. “It’s a beacon that reminds us of what we were, what challenges we still face and what we can become.”
The museum opens Saturday, Sept. 24 with Obama, Bush, Winfrey, Lewis, Colin Powell, Michael Jordan and many other celebrities, politicians and dignitaries scheduled to attend.
Because demand to visit the museum is so great, a timed pass system is being used for all those wishing to secure a pass. To reserve a free timed pass, visit https://nmaahc.si.edu/visit/passes