For The Record

The Honorable Robert Wilkins is the author of Long Road to Hard Truth about opening the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. As the 2017 Emanuel Emroch Speaker, he detailed the 100-year journey to making the museum a reality. The following is an edited excerpt of his speech.

To understand how this museum came to be, you have to go back to May 23–24, 1865, the end of the Civil War. There was a grand review of the armies, and 200,000 Union soldiers marched from the Capitol to the White House. No black troops were part of the assemblage.

Fifty years later, the Grand Army of the Republic held a re-enactment of the grand review. Black veterans were invited but had to make separate arrangements for balls and banquets. African-American citizens in Washington, D.C., formed the Colored Citizens Committee to raise money to organize everything. With the money that was left over, they formed a nonprofit, the National Memorial Association, to construct a permanent memorial to honor Negro soldiers and sailors.

The NMA later said, “We’ve done more than contribute by serving in the military. We’ve contributed in the arts, sciences, education, music, business, inventions. We should have a memorial building that has exhibits about those achievements and contributions.” A bill passed to create this memorial, but the funding was stripped out. Then the stock market crashed, and it was the worst possible time to be engaging and embarking on a venture like this.

Museums were being formed around the country to encourage the study of African-American history. There was a movement to create a national museum. There was a hearing on a bill to do this in March 1968. The bill didn’t pass.

Congress passed legislation for a museum, and President George W. Bush signed it into law. It took another couple of years to get a site because we wanted the museum on the National Mall, and that was very controversial. But that decision was approved.

The soldiers who inspired the movement to create this museum were treated as second-class citizens. When the museum opened, an African-American man was commander in chief. The fight to create this museum shows the perseverance, the grit, the determination, and the passion for justice, for recognition, and for equality that the African-American community has always fought for and striven for in this country.