- The Washington Times - Friday, February 20, 2004

The celebration of Black History Month is a time for the nation to highlight the contributions of African-Americans to the rich tapestry of American history.

While it is excellent that we take this time collectively to pay special tribute, one month does not provide adequate time to recognize the magnitude of these contributions. However, in the not-so-distant future, thanks to the work of a committed group of individuals and the president, the nation’s capital will house a more permanent tribute befitting the scope of the African-American experience — the National Museum for African-American History and Culture.

In 2003, President Bush signed legislation commissioning the construction of the National Museum for African-American History and Culture in D.C. The museum, once completed, will join the Smithsonian Institution, taking its place among other national treasures including the National Air and Space Museum, the National Museum of American History, and the soon-to-be-opened National Museum of the American Indian.

The National Museum of African-American History and Culture will house a collection of exhibits, artifacts and other historic items chronicling the breadth of the African-American experience over the past four centuries.

Once built, the museum will allow parents the opportunity to take their children on a historic journey; it will allow the stories of great African-American heroes to come alive in the minds of students from across the nation; and it will allow others the opportunity to reminisce on the contributions made by friends and loved ones to this country.

The process by which this living tribute to African-American history and culture has come to fruition has taken nearly two decades. Each year since 1988, Rep. John Lewis, Georgia Democrat, introduced legislation calling for a national museum dedicated to the contributions of African-Americans in the United States. Other members of Congress including former Rep. J.C. Watts, Oklahoma Republican, and Sen. Sam Brownback, Kansas Republican, added their voices to the call for the museum in recent years. Under the Bush administration, in 2001 a bipartisan Presidential Commission was appointed to study the establishment of a National Museum of African American History and Culture.

As a result of their findings and the leadership of a bipartisan group of House and Senate members last December, the president signed legislation to create the new museum within the Smithsonian museum.

Now, in addition to site selection, design decisions and other matters, the daunting task begins in earnest to determine how best to exhibit the items that will chronicle the African American experience over centuries. This museum has the opportunity to truly portray the wide-ranging scope of our history, serving as a home not only for history-making accomplishments and events but also for historical and cultural developments yet to unfold.

Americans await construction of this museum as we speculate on the potential exhibits and presentations. There is an excellent opportunity to educate future generations on the African-American experience, and the museum will serve as a national compliment to similar museums currently operating in Detroit, Memphis, New York and other cities and museums being developed in Maryland and Virginia.

One hopes the museum will depict the issue of slavery, presenting the atrocities in a manner that illustrates how far we have progressed while simultaneously honoring the many heroes who collectively fought to end this heinous practice. Such a display can also provide a valuable social lesson to future generations as to what happens when racial inequality is the law of the land. This aspect of the museum could draw design and presentation inspiration from the poignant displays of the Holocaust Museum, which is widely toured and renowned for its sobering portrayal of this dark portion of history.

The museum will also be an ideal venue to chronicle African-Americans’ contribution to arts and entertainment. For young generations, whose historic context for music begins and ends with the lifespan of hip-hop culture, the museum can provide a history lesson. They will learn that today’s popular music has roots in the music of the past, including classic spirituals, American classica (jazz), gospel and the blues.

In the museum, the classic works of African-American artists of past centuries will now mingle with the striking contrasts of today’s contemporary artists. The museum will also be able to chronicle the evolution of African-American literary works from the days of slavery in which written communication and expression among African-Americans was limited to the present, where there are great African-American authors at the center of multiple genres.

As we continue to celebrate Black History Month, let’s celebrate the pending construction of the National Museum of African American History and Culture — a permanent home for our story and contributions.

Alvin Williams is president and chief executive officer of Black America’s Political Action Committee (BAMPAC), a nonpartisan federal PAC that supports African-American candidates for public office.

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