- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 21, 2003

In 2001, President Bush signed Public Law 107-106, authorizing the National Museum of African American History and Culture. The purpose of the museum would be to research, preserve, assimilate and celebrate the history of black America. Discussions about such a museum first began at the turn of the last century, when Congress seriously pondered legislation. The final report of the Bush panel concluded, among other things, that there is broadbased and bipartisan support for such a museum, and it recommended four sites, including two on the National Mall — which is the only fitting place for the museum. For its part, Congress seemingly is moving with, as they say, all deliberate speed to make the museum a reality.

Do not, however, think that things are moving right along. There are organizations and individual Americans who do not want the museum built at all, and groups that certainly object to the ideal location — on the Mall. The National Coalition to Save Our Mall, for example, objects to a Mall site. If it had its way, the new American museum would be situated near the Holocaust Museum — as if there is any comparison between the two — or another off-the-Mall site.

You know the saying, “Out of sight, out of mind.”

In addition, Ben Forgey, architecture critic for Washington’s other daily, wants Congress to slow down for more public discussion. Translation: Gin up heavy hitters to push this new and necessary museum off the Mall.

Excuse me. On this particular subject we have talked enough. In fact, we have been talking since 1916, when the idea for a black American museum was first proposed. Then, while we were talking in the late 1920s, the Depression (and rightly so) overwhelmed all discussions and financing options. The Hoover and Roosevelt administrations (as well as the height of the Vietnam War and civil rights movement) proved to be times of deafening silence on a new museum.

By the 1970s, much of America seemed resigned to building a museum in Wilberforce, Ohio. While that small Christian community played a critical role for black America, the Interior Department’s National Park Service opposed legislation designating Wilberforce as home to a “national” African American museum. The national museum, the Park Service said, should be in Washington and part of the Smithsonian Institution.

Then, in the 1980s, Congress started playing its usual games. In 1980, it established the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council and allocated $800,000 for planning and operations. In 1989, it established the National Museum of the American Indian, with necessary appropriations, of course. By 1991, appropriations for the Holocaust Council had increased to $7.5 million — rising to $34 million in fiscal 2001. All the while, Congress played shell games with legislation and funding for the African American museum.

It was not until Dec. 28, 2001, that the proposal won solid footing. That is the day that President Bush signed legislation establishing a blue-ribbon panel on a museum dedicated to the history of African Americans. The panel recommended sites and funding. Both the House (HR 2205) and Senate (S 1157) bills propose initial funding of $17 million. The Senate approved its measure before summer recess, and the House held a hearing that drew interesting criticism.

The chief concern of some critics is that placing a new memorial on the Mall would disrupt the historical vision of the Mall. No more buildings on the Mall, they say. It was intended and must remain open space.

Well, the National Mall is not sacred space. The National Mall is the people’s space — for protesters and lovers, Americans and foreigners, believers and non-believers. It is a place where America preserves and showcases its history. Not the history of Europe, or Africa, or Asia or South America, or even North America. But the United States of America.

That there is no place on that glorious welcome mat devoted to the inescapable history of black America is downright profane.

Indeed, the history of the National Mall’s very existence is no more accidental than the Aug. 28, 1963, March on Washington.

Congress will begin discussing the National African American Museum anew when it returns next month. The voices who don’t want the museum in its rightful place, on the Mall, are speaking in earnest.

If we need to remind Congress and the Bush White House that the museum belongs on the National Mall because the National Mall embodies America’s cultural, democratic ideals and achievement, then so be it.

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