How the Fight to Build a National African-American Museum Was Won

From left, Lonnie G. Bunch, the Rev. Dr. Howard-John Wesley, Patricia Johnson and James McNeil at Alfred Street Baptist Church in Alexandria, Va. (PHOTO CREDIT: Alfred Street Baptist Church)
From left, Lonnie G. Bunch, the Rev. Dr. Howard-John Wesley, Patricia Johnson and James McNeil at Alfred Street Baptist Church in Alexandria, Va. (PHOTO CREDIT: Alfred Street Baptist Church)

Eleven years ago, Lonnie G. Bunch III was a museum director with no museum.

No land. No building. Not even a collection.

He had been appointed to lead the nascent National Museum of African American History and Culture. The concept had survived a bruising, racially charged congressional battle that stretched back decades and finally ended in 2003 when President George W. Bush authorized a national museum dedicated to the African-American experience.

Now all Mr. Bunch and a team of colleagues had to do was find an unprecedented number of private donors willing to finance a public museum. They had to secure hundreds of millions of additional dollars from a Congress, Republican controlled, that had long fought the project.

And they had to counter efforts to locate the museum not at the center of Washington’s cultural landscape on the National Mall, but several blocks offstage.

“I knew it was going to be hard, but not how hard it was going to be,” Mr. Bunch, 63, said in an interview last month.

In less than three weeks, though, with President Obama presiding, the new museum, a project that once thirsted for money, land and political support, is scheduled to open on the Mall.

Visitors to the $540 million building, designed to resemble a three-tiered crown, will encounter the sweeping history of black America from the Middle Passage of slavery to the achievements and complexities of modern black life.

But also compelling is the story of how the museum itself came to be through a combination of negotiation, diplomacy, persistence and cunning political instincts.

The strategy included an approach that framed the museum as an institution for all Americans, one that depicted the black experience, as Mr. Bunch often puts it, as “the quintessential American story” of measured progress and remarkable achievement after an ugly period of painful oppression.

The tactics included the appointment of Republicans like Laura Bush and Colin L. Powell to the museum’s board to broaden bipartisan support beyond Democratic constituencies, and there were critical efforts to shape the thinking of essential political leaders.

Long before its building was complete, for example, the museum staged exhibitions off-site, some on the fraught topics it would confront, such as Thomas Jefferson’s deep involvement with slavery. A Virginia delegation of congressional members was brought through for an early tour of the Jefferson exhibition, which featured a statue of him in front of a semicircular wall marked with 612 names of people he had owned.

“I remember being very impacted,” said Eric Cantor, then the House Republican leader, who was part of the delegation.

Mr. Bunch said that he hoped the Jefferson exhibition pre-empted criticism by establishing the museum’s bold but balanced approach to difficult material. “Some people were like, ‘How dare you equate Jefferson with slavery,’” he recalled. “But it means that people are going to say, ‘Of course, that is what they have to do.’”

And the museum began an exceptional effort to raise money from black donors, not only celebrities, like Michael Jordan ($5 million) and Oprah Winfrey ($21 million), but also churches, sororities and fraternities, which, Mr. Bunch said, had never been asked for big donations before.

Nearly three-quarters of the gifts from individuals were from African-Americans. An unusually high amount — $4 million — came from average people in gifts of less than $1,000.

“We were able to raise a level of awareness that really galvanized people to make small contributions,” said Kenneth I. Chenault, the chief executive of American Express, who led the capital campaign. “Based on their income level, some of them on a percentage basis were significant.”

The Alfred Street Baptist Church, in Alexandria, Va., donated $1 million to the museum, while three couples who belong to the church gave individual contributions totaling an additional $4 million.

“There is no doubt that we knew you couldn’t build this with African-American money alone,” Mr. Bunch said, “but we also know that there was much more money in this community than most cultural institutions had ever tapped.”

The idea of a national African-American museum had been hatched more than a century ago by black Civil War veterans. It picked up a bit of steam in Congress in the 1980s, led by Representative John Lewis, Democrat of Georgia, who joined the efforts of Mickey Leland, the Texas Democrat.

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SOURCE: NY Times, Graham Bowley