Saturday morning marked a monumental day for America, a day that many believed would never come: the opening day of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, the 19th museum of the Smithsonian Institution.
NMAAHC was established by an act of Congress in 2003 under the authorization of President George W. Bush. But that, of course, was not where the museum’s journey began. That act followed decades of efforts to highlight and display the contributions and incredible culture and history of African Americans.
As the sun rose Saturday morning and the minute-by-minute countdown to the start of the dedication ceremony began, thousands gathered on the National Mall to make sure they were present for an honorable moment in American history.
In the hour leading up to the event, the stars began to flood in, making up an audience of undeniable black power. Samuel L. Jackson, Colin Powell, Shonda Rhimes and many other VIPs entered the museum, to the rapt attention of those around them.
#BlackGirlMagic was also in full effect from the likes of Ava DuVernay, Octavia Spencer and Lupita Nyong’o. And Janelle Monáe was spotted sporting a black leather jacket with neon letters that spelled out “Black Girl Magic" on the back.
However, the real magic happened as the ceremony began and all heads turned to watch the first black president of the United States, Barack Obama, and first lady Michelle Obama take a seat onstage next to former President George W. Bush and Laura Bush.
The timeless words of greats such as Maya Angelou, Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston, read by the commanding voices of Robert De Niro, Angela Bassett, Will Smith and Oprah Winfrey, made for an insightful commingling of the past and the present.
As we know, music is just one of the many contributions African Americans have made to culture—and who better to represent that gift than the vocal powerhouses Stevie Wonder and Patti LaBelle?
Later, the Rev. Calvin Butts of Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church got everyone excited with the ever-so-famous chant, “Say it loud,” as the audience responded, “I’m black and I’m proud!”
President Obama then brought the crowd home with a powerful speech. He reminded us that “a clear-eyed view of history can make us uncomfortable.” However, he continued, “it is precisely because of that discomfort that we learn and grow.”
The history of African Americans in our country is complicated, frustrating and devastating. There is a long legacy of pain, racism and misrepresentation, and yet it is also a story of success, victory and power. The new Smithsonian museum, which is proudly located at the center of the National Mall, makes sure that this complex history is not only highlighted but also celebrated.
“We’re not a burden on America, or a stain on America, or an object of pity, or charity for America,” said Obama. “We’re America.”
Audience members watched in awe as the president and first lady helped Ruth Odom Bonner, the daughter of a man who was born a slave, and her family of four generations ring the bell that officially opened the doors to the new museum.
The bell, which dates back to the 1800s, was from the First Baptist Church in Williamsburg, Va., a church started by free and enslaved black Americans who would meet in secret. The ringing of the bell was an ideal way to close the ceremony for a museum chronicling the miraculous journey of a people who continue to contribute to and inspire a nation.
Editor’s note: Watch highlights from the dedication ceremony here.