The first ideas for a museum honoring the contributions of African-Americans to American culture and history came from humble beginnings. African-American veterans of the Union Army gathered at the Nineteenth Street Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. in 1915. They put together a committee to discuss a memorial. In 1929, President Herbert Hoover heard the call and appointed a 12 person commission to study the creation of a “National Memorial Building” to commemorate the achievements of African-Americans in the arts and sciences.
That first meeting in 1915 was the beginning of a 100-year effort, one that was undermined by budget woes, squabbles between interested parties, and racial tensions; for example, in 1994, North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms opposed a bill sponsoring the creation of the museum on “philosophical” terms. Legislation sponsoring the study of an African-American museum, championed by civil rights legend Rep. John Lewis, finally passed in 2001. It took until 2005 for the site for the museum on the National Mall to be selected.
Eleven years later, the National Museum of African-American History and Culture finally opened its doors, one hundred and one years after that first meeting of Black veterans. President Barack Obama was at the dedication, and marked it with these words on September 26, 2016:
And so this national museum helps to tell a richer and fuller story of who we are. 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. It binds us together. It reaffirms that all of us are America — that African-American history is not somehow separate from our larger American story, it’s not the underside of the American story, it is central to the American story. That our glory derives not just from our most obvious triumphs, but how we’ve wrested triumph from tragedy, and how we’ve been able to remake ourselves, again and again and again, in accordance with our highest ideals.
I, too, am America.
These words, the contents of the NMAAHC, the stories they tell and the history they represent, are why I am so proud to be a part of it myself. Working with my incredible friends Rosí and Brian Amador, their daughter Sonia, fellow Charlotte voice artist Iesha Nyree, and Jada Hunt are the voices of the companion app for the National Museum of African-American Culture and History in English and Spanish. I can say without question, this is the most moving, most important project I have ever worked on.
During my recording session for the project, I was struck particularly hard by the entry for artist David Driskell’s “Behold Thy Son,” a painting created in 1956 in response to the murder of 15-year-old Emmett Till in Money, Mississippi in 1955. You can see the entry from the companion app in this video:
Take a few minutes and read the story of Emmett Till, This is a story that most Americans don’t know. And it is exactly the kind of story that the NMAAHC is here to show to everyone. It is my absolute pleasure and honor to be a part of this incredible facility. You can download the app for iPhone and Android here.