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One Step Closer

One Step Closer

Selection of Black history museum director and museum site expected in 2005

By Ronald Roach

The appointment in December of the high-profile 19-member advisory council of the National Museum of African American History and Culture marked the newest chapter in the long effort to establish a national African American history museum in Washington. Named by the Smithsonian Institution Board of Regents, the council, which is comprised of luminaries such as media mogul Oprah Winfrey, music and multimedia producer Quincy Jones and Time Warner CEO Richard Parsons has brought fresh attention to the museum effort, whose planning has been underway since President Bush signed legislation in 2003 authorizing the museum.

“I’m very pleased…to finally see the appointment of such a distinguished group of professionals who will serve on the Advisory Council of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Under the leadership of the Smithsonian Institution, I believe the hopes and dreams symbolized by this national museum are closer to being realized,” said U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., the museum’s leading proponent in the U.S. Congress.

According to the Smithsonian, the “Council will advise the Regents on the planning and design of the museum; the acquisition and display of objects; and the administration, operation, maintenance and preservation of the museum.” It’s expected that the group, made up of some of the most influential and financially successful African Americans in the United States, will take a lead role in the fund raising required on private financing of the museum. The project will require an estimated $250 million in private funding, which is to be equally matched by public funding, according to officials.

“Our role, I think, is really as the advocates for the program. We’re really going to be significantly responsible for both encouraging donations to the collections. We will be responsible for assisting the Smithsonian in raising half of the construction funds for this museum and that’s clearly going to be an effort in the hundreds of millions of dollars,” says council member Dr. Michael P. Lomax, the president and CEO of the United Negro College Fund.

The effort to develop a national African American history museum goes back to early in the 20th century after an effort to honor Black Civil War veterans in 1915 inspired a movement dedicated to establishing such a museum. By the 1980s, the idea gained renewed support in Congress after Lewis, an icon of the American civil rights movement, became the museum’s chief advocate on Capitol Hill.

“One of the things that is apparent is that in spite of the extraordinary contributions African Americans have made to the building of this nation (is that) we are really not included in the narrative of the Republic, particularly in institutional settings,” Lomax says.

Despite gathering momentum in the early 1990s, the legislation authorizing the museum fell victim to the efforts of former North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms, an archconservative Republican, who contended that the museum would motivate interest groups to demand a similar institution on or near the National Mall, which some believe is too crowded with museums and monuments.

By 2001, the museum idea found favor among a newer cohort of Republican and Democratic lawmakers. In November 2003, Congress approved the museum as part of the Smithsonian Institution, which oversees the museums on the Mall. The legislation, signed by President Bush in December 2003, authorized $17 million in federal funds for initial planning and another $15 million to begin educational programs. Officials would like to see the museum developed in five to seven years.

Duke University professor Dr. Richard Powell, an art historian who’s been named to a scholar’s advisory committee for the museum, says that among the challenges in developing the facility will be overcoming the lack of a core collection to anchor the facility, making effective use of multimedia technology in exhibits, and including all “the possible elements that go into telling a historical narrative and examining cultural contributions. 

“With a museum of African American history and culture, one has literally several hundred years of not only a historical narrative but various forms of cultural expression, which include not just popular culture, but what people would term ‘high art’ or ‘fine art’ as cultural contributions,” Powell says.

Yale law school professor Drew S. Days III says he’s honored to have been asked by the Smithsonian to serve on the scholar’s advisory committee that was established in addition to the 19-member council. A scholar of constitutional law, a civil rights attorney and former top Justice department official under Presidents Carter and Clinton, Days says he expects to advise Smithsonian officials about the wisdom of making constitutional and civil rights law history a significant part of the museum.
“A museum of African American history can go a long way towards educating all Americans. We need an institution like this as a means to help inform public debates,” Days says.

While the 19-person council is expected to meet in the next few months, Smithsonian officials are reportedly close to making an announcement of the selection of a museum director. Howard University president H. Patrick Swygert says that the search committee on which he has served since it was established last summer has recently submitted a list of candidates to Smithsonian secretary Lawrence M. Small.

“My sense is that (Small) will conduct his interviews and consult with the board of regents sometime quite soon. I’m very optimistic that the Smithsonian will be able to announce the name of the founding director of the museum shortly,” Swygert says.  

In addition to naming a director, Smithsonian officials are expected this year to decide on the museum’s location. Lewis and other supporters have long sought a site on the National Mall, which would symbolically represent the central role African Americans have had in American culture. Two sites under consideration are on or near the Mall and two others are a few blocks away from the Mall.

With the recent opening of the National Museum of the American Indian at a prominent site on the Mall, African American history museum supporters can be expected to insist on a Mall location.

“I think its location has a great deal of symbolic importance and in that regard the National Mall is just that. It is the nation’s Main Street; its centrality, its importance and symbolism…can’t be overstated,” says Swygert, who serves on the newly-appointed council in addition to the founding director search committee.

Washington attorney Robert Wilkins, a member of the presidential commission that advised Congress on the museum prior to the passage of the 2003 legislation, says that among committee members there was strong support for a Mall site between 14th and 15th streets at Constitution Avenue, N.W. The committee’s first choice, however, had been a site on the U.S. Capitol grounds near the U.S. Botanic Garden, but it was not included as one of the possible sites in the 2003 legislation.

“I would think that if (council members) have strong views about the site, the Smithsonian regents will consider that because those are the folks who will be out there actually working to raise the money,” Wilkins says.

For readers interested in following the progress of and contributing to the museum’s development, please see

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