Detroiters who made the trip for the opening weekend of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington describe a transcendent experience, from unexpectedly gorgeous weather to the spirit of fellowship that, at least momentarily, graced the often fractious capital.
“It really was a great moment for the country,” says Juanita Moore, president and CEO of Detroit’s Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, who was invited to Friday’s festivities.
“And having the new museum at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. — where millions come to see the country’s history,” she adds, “is critically important.”
Naturally, it was a star-studded affair. Moore says she spotted President Bill Clinton, Colin Powell, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan and Oprah Winfrey among the assembled throng.
What particularly struck Detroiter Lisa Wilmore was the century that it took to get the $540 million museum built.
“The museum uses ‘A Century in the Making’ as a tagline,” she says, noting that congressional opposition dogged the project for years. “That’s a very long time — 100 years — from concept to implementation.”
Still, the public-relations professional couldn’t help but connect that to the larger African-American saga.
“It reminded me of my ancestors,” Wilmore says. “We all struggled to get where we are, and the journey is never short.”
Reached Monday afternoon while at the museum, photographer and lifelong Detroiter Monica Morgan says she couldn’t get over the crowds, which wrapped around the huge building and disappeared down the Mall.
“People are so excited,” she says, “and all different races and cultures. They’ve been lined up for hours. I was here yesterday taking night shots,” she adds, “and people were laughing and telling stories about the horrors of slavery and segregation — but also talking about what a beautiful day it was.”
Detroiters, she says, were well-represented — including, among many others, U.S. Appeals Court Judge Damon J. Keith.
Morgan also says she was moved by the number of individuals she’s photographed over the years who are represented in the exhibits, from Rosa Parks to the mother of slain teenager Emmett Till.
She also finds it fitting that the museum opened at this moment of sharpened racial discord.
“The museum opening now is timely because of all the things that are happening regarding the Black Lives Movement,” Morgan says. “I’m hoping this might help people understand the struggle.”
Still, asked whether the museum was principally an African-American or American experience, Morgan says emphatically, “It’s American.”
For her part, Wilmore recalls the “walls and walls” of data on slave ships that crossed the Atlantic, including a curious fraction next to each ship’s name.
“The top number equaled the number of slaves on the ship when it set out,” she says. “The bottom number, which was always smaller, was how many survived the journey. Seeing those numbers — it does something to you.”
Small wonder then, at least in the displays devoted to slavery and segregation, that Wilmore reports the vast crowds were remarkably quiet.
“It was emotional,” she says. “There was a lot of silence in the building. Silence and amazement.”
Washington’s cabbies, however, were not silent on the subject, Moore says. The museum director says she took three cabs. One driver was Middle Eastern, another was Moroccan, and the third originally from Ethiopia.
Every one, she says, asked if she’d visited the new museum. But the Ethiopian driver seemed to have given the most thought to what the museum’s presence meant to him.
When he picks up customers nowadays, he told Moore, “I first take them by the White House, and then I take them by the museum to show them how close it is. I tell them it’s in a VIP spot — right close to the White House.”