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KPBS Midday Edition

Black History Finds Home On National Mall With New Museum

Last minute preparation are made for today's dedication ceremony at the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture on the National Mall in Washington, Saturday, Sept. 24, 2016, where President Barack Obama will speak.
AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais
Last minute preparation are made for today's dedication ceremony at the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture on the National Mall in Washington, Saturday, Sept. 24, 2016, where President Barack Obama will speak.

Black History Finds Home On National Mall With New Museum
Black History Finds Home On National Mall With New Museum GUESTS:Leon Williams, first African American San Diego City Councilman Rep. Susan Davis, (D-53) San Diego

You are listening to KPBS Midday Edition I am Allison St. John and for Maureen Cavanaugh. Over the weekend and the weekend open in Washington DC. The Museum of African American history and culture. One of those invited to attend the grand opening was an icon of San Diego politics Leon Williams the first African-American to be elected to San Diego city Council in 1969. He served on the County Board of Supervisors and was essentially an one-man force for cultural change. He had a signature fedora hat. We are pleased that he was able to join us today. He is back in San Diego to tell us what the opening of this museum means to him. Thank you for joining us. It's a great pleasure. We also have Congresswoman Susan Davis was the person who invited Leon together. Thank you for being with us. Great to be with you. Leon do you think that the timing of the opening is particularly welcome in view of the way that so many communities have been out on the street protesting police treatment of African-Americans. How could this museum help. I was extremely impressed with the Museum. It tells the story of African-American participation in the United States. I think if anybody with any normal human sentiment an intelligence sees and appreciates they will now that the contributions of African-Americans commenced in this country and that in the claim of superiority of anybody of any color is moved by the examples of this museum even if he did not know it before. How does this change the whole landscape there? So many people want to see it I know for me that's why it was so meaningful to be there with Leon and with his daughter Penny because Leon especially has lived it and lived so much of it. It's really an extraordinary experience. Like Congresswoman Davises saying you have lived so much of it apart from your political experience in San Diego how would you say you have seen things change on a personal level. There was a time in my long -- young life even after I became a political office holder whenever be humiliated easily by being ignored or by being put on the side and official meetings when things were important for they had a potential to change society and improve things I would be putting them on the site. And having to overcome that and make things happen in spite of it was quite an experience for me. Can you give us specific examples of things that would not happen anymore. Will the recreation of downtown San Diego. They look down on me and some of them expressed hostility to me that they cannot be too much against it because people were in favor like the League of Women Voters who saw the wisdom of what was being proposed so it was quite an experience. He did get a chance to see the Museum. What you remember from your visit? A lot of things were really hard. The impact of the murder and on his mother and there were a number of things that were very impressive and I don't remember them all. With -- in the end when you left it what sort of impression did it leave you with. I think the thing that hit me most as I said is that people who created that degree of injustice should be made a lot wiser by visiting or the knowledge of that museum for the achievement of the people who demonstrated their in spite of the humiliation and degradation they had to go through in order to do what they did. That should be an inspiration to anybody -- any human being. It should create respect for all human beings. Congresswoman Davis. To do go in there? It starts at the bottom dozen it with the history? It was so crowded they encourage us to start from the top and then descend. It's a different experience no matter how you do it but given the fact that it was so crowded I think we had a chance to really go through the civil rights movement and I think just as Leon has said it's a story about how people rose above the humiliation to create something so incredible in terms of family and community and the role that different people played and certainly women played a big role in that as well. One story that I would tell because Leon and I talked about this is that he was in World War II. He fought in World War II and of course the troops were not integrated at that time. Even with that people came back from the war and were not accepted. Even in San Diego you cannot go to a restaurant in those days. Looking at many of the cases and the stories that are told there was Leon at the same time it really made it so meaningful and so real. Thank you for bringing it to life for our listeners in San Diego. Thank you so much for joining us Leon Williams and Congresswoman Susan Davis. Thank you.

Black history officially has a new, prominent place in America's story.

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With hugs, tears and the ringing of church bells, the new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture opened its doors Saturday to help this nation understand, reconcile and celebrate African-Americans' often-ignored contributions toward making this country what it is today.

President Barack Obama, the nation's first black president, wiped away a tear as he formally opened the Smithsonian's 19th museum with an impassioned 31-minute speech on the National Mall. His audience included two former presidents, leaders from all branches of the federal government, and first lady Michelle Obama, whose lineage has been traced back to slaves in the South. She too shed a tear as her husband spoke.

Obama noted one artifact in the museum: a stone marker from a slave block where Andrew Jackson and Henry Clay spoke in 1830. This item, Obama said, chronicles not just the fact that two powerful men spoke, but also that multitudes of slaves were "bought and sold, and bid like cattle."

"This national museum helps to tell a richer and fuller story of who we are," Obama said. "It helps us better understand the lives, yes, of the president, but also the slave. The industrialist, but also the porter; the keeper of the status quo, but also of the activist seeking to overthrow that status quo; the teacher or the cook, alongside the statesman. And by knowing this other story, we better understand ourselves and each other."

Ground for the $540 million museum was broken in 2012 on a five-acre tract near the Washington Monument, and construction was completed earlier this year. Millions of donors, known and unknown, contributed $315 million in private funds ahead of the opening.

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"It's like walking across the desert and finally getting to a fountain of water to quench your thirst. It's absolutely breathtaking for me," said Verna Eggleston, 61, of New York City.

The names of some big donors are on prominent spaces inside: the Oprah Winfrey Theater; the Michael Jordan Hall: Game Changers; and the Robert F. Smith Explore Your Family History Center, named for the CEO of investment firm Vista Equity Partners after a $20 million gift announced Monday.

With exhibits ranging from the glass-topped casket used to bury lynching victim Emmett Till to a fedora owned by late pop superstar Michael Jackson, the museum helps to complete the American tale by incorporating highs and lows, triumph and trauma experienced by black Americans since the first African slaves arrived on this continent almost 400 years ago.

"We're not a burden on America, or a stain on America, or an object of pity or charity for America. We're America," Obama said. "And that's what this museum explains, the fact that our stories have shaped every corner of our culture."

Obama was joined on stage by his predecessor, former President George W. Bush, who in 2003 signed legislation establishing the museum, and John Lewis, a veteran civil rights activist and longtime Democratic congressman from Georgia who co-sponsored the bill.

Bush, accompanied by his wife, Laura, said the museum tells the unvarnished truth, that a country founded on the promise of liberty once held millions of people in chains.

"A great nation does not hide its history," Bush said. "It faces its flaws and corrects them."

Lewis, who is featured in the museum, said he could feel the weight of history around the museum, with slave voices whispering of escape and church choirs singing of freedom.

"All their voices, roaming for centuries, have finally found their home here, in this great monument to our pain, our suffering and our victory," Lewis said. After the speech, Obama hugged the congressman as he returned to his seat.

Also on hand were former President Bill Clinton, Chief Justice John Roberts and House Speaker Paul Ryan; celebrities including Oprah Winfrey, Robert De Niro, Will Smith, and Angela Bassett; and thousands of Americans who just wanted to witness the museum's opening firsthand.

"I'm just elated and can't express how much joy and gratitude I have to be here today and witness history," said Master Sgt. Donald Sparks of Houston, who just finished a yearlong deployment in Iraq.

The honor of helping Obama open the doors went to Ruth Bonner, 99, daughter of a Mississippi slave who escaped to freedom. The president and first lady joined Bonner and her family in ringing a bell from the historic First Baptist Church of Williamsburg, Virginia, to signal that the museum was officially open.

The church, believed to be among the first Baptist churches organized entirely by black people, acquired its Freedom Bell in 1886. It will be returned to the church for its 240th anniversary later this year.

The 400,000-square-foot museum, designed by British-Ghanaian architect David Adjaye, strikes a unique shape on the Mall with its three-tiered bronze exterior panels inspired by an African wooden column. The exterior tiles are inspired by 19th century ironwork created by slaves in the South, and allow sunlight into the museum through patterned openings.

Inside, museum officials say they have nearly 3,000 items occupying 85,000 square feet of exhibition space.

The museum's opening "finally marks the place and time where we're finally recognized ... and it's about time," said Shenise Foster of Alexandria, Virginia.

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