Black History Museum: Philanthropy’s Future

The newest Smithsonian museum's young ambassadors represent the next generation of African-American giving.

Philanthropists at the first ambassadors reception on June 20, 2012. (Michael Barnes/Smithsonian)
Philanthropists at the first ambassadors reception on June 20, 2012. (Michael Barnes/Smithsonian)

(The Root) — The National Museum of African American History and Culture, created by an act of Congress in 2003 and slated to open in 2015, is still under construction. But the 19th division of the Smithsonian Institution is already making an impact on the future that transcends its history-focused primary goal: The NMAAHC ‘s $250 million public capital campaign is attracting, inspiring and cultivating leadership among black professionals who the museum hopes could represent the next generation of major African-American philanthropists.

At the museum’s February groundbreaking, President Barack Obama delivered remarks, Phylicia Rashad was master of ceremonies and national media flocked to Washington, D.C.’s National Mall to cover the historic beginning of its construction. But Tasha Coleman, now the museum’s senior manager for donor and board relations, recalls that seven years ago, there was much less fanfare and just two employees: she and famed historian, and founding director, Lonnie G. Bunch III.

“I still remember when first we walked into the office … we didn’t even have furniture; we were just looking at each other,” Coleman, who was the museum’s council liaison in 2005, told The Root.

They had their work cut out for them. While congressional legislation authorized $250 million over a period of 10 years to the museum, the NMAAHC committed to matching that amount from private donors. That effort has been called “arguably the largest philanthropic effort driven by African Americans,” thanks to an advisory council that’s a who’s who of African-American success and influence. It’s notable for big names such as Oprah Winfrey, Colin Powell, Robert L. Johnson and American Express CEO Ken Chenault, as well as the even bigger, million-dollar-plus donations they’ve made or coordinated.

To Delphia Duckens, the museum’s associate director of external affairs, that interest makes sense. “They’re extremely excited about what the content of this museum is going to be, not just for African Americans but Americans in general,” she told The Root.

But here’s what Coleman, the NMAAHC’s first employee, now 37 years old, says she didn’t expect when she took on her role with the museum: an outpouring of support and interest from her own peers — younger, successful-but-not-even-close-to-Oprah-successful African Americans between the ages of 30 and 45. While the new museum was reaching out to donors across the nation, this group was reaching out to the museum, figuratively banging on its not-yet-constructed doors, its members ready to offer their time and money to support the NMAAHC.

Duckens remembers when the inquiries from these “young” black professionals — she says they’re actually better described as “emerging leaders” in their respective fields — started coming in. “About a year ago, we started to get requests: ‘I want to do something; I want to host a party for the museum.’ It became ad hoc. We realized we wanted to harness all that energy, so we came up with the name ‘ambassadors,’ ” she explains.