In 1916, the National Memorial Association, an organization made up of Black leaders, pushed for a proposal to open a museum in the District to honor the service of Black soldiers and sailors.
More than 50 years later, the late writer James Baldwin testified before Congressional officials to support a museum for African American history.
And in 2003, President George W. Bush signed a law for an African-American museum to open on the National Mall in Northwest. However, it was another 13 years before the $540 million museum finally opened Sept. 24, 2016.
These and other stories are compiled into a book, “Long Road to Hard Truth: The 100-year Missions to Create the National Museum of African American History and Culture.” The author, Robert L. Wilkins, a judge for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, told nearly four dozen people last month at Second Baptist Church in northwest D.C. it took him 15 years to complete the book.
Wilkins said a filmmaker plans to turn his book into a documentary.
“The museum is also a memorial … to the people of African descent,” he said. “Their fuel was the impetus to get this story told. The museum is part of an example when you put people before country.”
Wilkins said his “obsession” for the book grew after visiting family and friends of the late Lewis Fraction, a friend of Wilkins who died in 1996.
In the book, Wilkins said some of the elders at Fraction’s home talked about how they never saw a whole piece of chalk and used beaten-up textbooks from the White schools.
Lewis decided to quit his job as a public defender in 2000 and, with his wife’s approval, put in full-time research on military and civil rights history.
Wilkins’ book notes how the late Rep. Thaddeus Carraway (D-Arkansas) spoke out on the House floor against Blacks in the military in July 1916.
“When you arm a Negro and especially when you vest him with federal authority, you bring out the evil that is in him,” Carraway said, according to the book. “He becomes a dangerous, swaggering, terrorizing bully.”
That’s one of the many reasons Wilkins said Saturday that African-American history is “hard truth,” words spoken by Baldwin before Congress that inspired Wilkins’ book title.
Wilkins, a native of Muncie, Indiana, grew up with a single mother and graduated in 1986 with a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering at the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Terre Haute. He decided to attend Harvard Law School, where he received his juris doctorate in 1989.
Wilkins’ passion for Black history became engrained while at Harvard, where he chaired a group of Black law students who wore black and gold T-shirts reading, “Every month is Black History Month.”
Wilkins, a father of two boys ages 19 and 17, was appointed in 2013 to the Court of Appeals by former President Barack Obama, who attended law school with Wilkins.
The appearance at Second Baptist Church reinstituted the church’s lyceum, or series of lectures to discuss civil rights, education and other topics.
The church, established in 1848, first began the lyceum in 1885. Mary Terrell, a retired judge of the Superior Court of the District of Columbia and wife of the church’s pastor, the Rev. James E. Terrell, said members will research when the last session took place.
Willie Dunham of Northeast said the event may have been one the most unique he’s attended at the church.
“I’m a member of this church and to hear that history from Judge Wilkins was really impressive,” said Dunham, the first person in line to pay for a copy of Wilkins’ book. “I can see something coming from this. Really good stuff.”