Reflecting on the first National Museum of African American History and Culture | St. Louis Public Radio

Reflecting on the first National Museum of African American History and Culture

Oct 25, 2016

Earlier this month, the first national museum devoted exclusively to African-American history and culture opened in Washington D.C.: The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.

On Tuesday’s St. Louis on the Air, we heard a personal reflection from U.S. Circuit Court Judge Robert L. Wilkins, who was part of the presidential commission that advised President George W. Bush on the establishment of the museum. Wilkins is a U.S. Court of Appeals judge for the District of Columbia circuit.

In September, Wilkins published “Long Road to Hard Truth: The 100 Year Mission to Create the National Museum of African American History and Culture,” which tells the story of how the museum came to be. It took nearly a century for the museum to become a reality.

“James Baldwin said back in March of 1968: ‘My history contains the truth about America. It will be hard to teach it,’” Wilkins said. “I think, as in many cases, Baldwin put his finger right on it: it is a hard subject to tackle. It portrays some of the perceived and actual hypocrisy of the founders with their talk of life, liberty and pursuit of happiness while they are enslaving other human beings. It is a hard subject to tackle and I think it took a long time for the country to be mature enough for this museum.”

The museum, which takes the visitor chronologically through the history of African Americans in the United States — from slavery through the Civil Rights movement to the modern era — is sold out through March 2017, although a limited number of same-day tickets are available to those willing to wait in line.

Judge Robert F. Wilkins was instrumental in the creation of the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Credit Kelly Moffitt | St. Louis Public Radio

To get an idea of what is inside the museum, we suggest reading this New York Times interactive, which details the construction of the museum and profiles the people who donated objects to it. One of the most unusual aspects of the museum is that it started from scratch without a typical “collection.” In 15 cities across the country, the museum “ran an ‘Antiques Roadshow’-style project that encouraged people to give heirlooms from their closets and attics, and yielded some of the 40,000 objects the museum now holds,” the New York Times reports.

Wilkins said that what is held inside the museum, like slave shackles for toddlers and an overseer’s whip, are emotional and poignant but that the architects had accounted for that with quiet reflection rooms with water features where people could contemplate what they’d observed.

The turning point for the museum came in 2000, when bi-partisan support coalesced behind the museum. President George W. Bush was firmly behind the project and signed the legislation that created the museum.

“I wanted to write about this project because we like to criticize when things aren’t working, but let’s give credit where credit is due,” Wilkins said. “People put principle about party politics aside and came together to do what they all believed was the right thing. They weren’t fighting over who would speak first or whose name would be first on the bill. They really worked together.”

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary Edwards, Alex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.