The Time Has Come

Freelon Adjaye Bond/SmithGroup Design for the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American Hist

The Smithsonian Institution Archives will be celebrating African American History Month throughout February with a series of related posts on THE BIGGER PICTURE.

Construction on the Smithsonian's newest museum, the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), will start next year, but the idea for the museum and the work to make it a reality are far from new. The mission of the Smithsonian Institution Archives (SIA) is to ensure that the Smithsonian’s history, and its newest museum, are preserved.

The NMAAHC's history starts well before it became affiliated with the Smithsonian. In 1915, a "Committee of Colored Citizens" of the Grand Army of the Republic, a Civil War veteran's organization, formed to support the "Colored Troops" visiting Washington to celebrate the 50th anniversary of a parade by Union soldiers down Pennsylvania Avenue following the end of the war. While black troops were excluded from the original parade,  the Committee collected funds to accommodate African American veterans visiting Washington, D.C., who marched with white soldiers on the anniversary. The Committee grew into a National Memorial Association, which advocated for a "Negro Memorial" and a national museum.

G.A.R. Post, Civil War Veterans, 1935, by Addison N. Scurlock, Silver gelatin on paper, Scurlock Stu

In 1929, Calvin Coolidge signed Public Law 107 authorizing a "National Memorial Commission" to construct a memorial building for public meetings, events, and exhibitions as “a tribute to the Negro’s contributions to the achievements of America,” but efforts stalled during the Depression. Decades later, after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968, new plans were formed to create a federal national museum for African American history and culture, but again without success.

In the 1980s, Congress introduced legislation to found a national museum in Washington, DC, that would be part of the Smithsonian Institution. Claudine Brown was hired in 1989 to head a Smithsonian Center for African American History and lead an "African American Institutional Study." This study and numerous task force reports concerning prospective museum programs and collections were developed, but in the end, controversy over recommendations for funding and the museum’s location prevented passage in Congress.

Cover of April 2003 Report to the President and Congress, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Accessio

Finally, in December 2001, George W. Bush signed Public Law 107-106, forming a Presidential Commission to develop an implementation plan for NMAAHC. The report, entitled The Time Has Come, resulted in 2003 legislation officially creating the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Certainly the greatest part, for me, of working at SIA is having the opportunity to go behind the scenes at every Smithsonian museum, research center and office; to meet staff experts in every discipline; and be part of an organization entrusted to preserve the history of all these places—from the ground up. SIA started collecting records documenting the beginnings of NMAAHC in the 1980s and 1990s, and when construction begins next year, we will literally be able to see the museum building taking shape every time we walk across the National Mall.

NMAAHC will be built at Constitution Avenue between 14th and 15th streets NW and is expected to be completed in 2015, one hundred years after the 50th anniversary parade commemorating the end of the Civil War.

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