Oprah leads black celebrities in drive to set up African-American museum on Washington Mall

Click to follow
The Independent US

Clothes worn by protesters in the March on Washington in 1963, chains from the slave ships that came from Africa, and photographs of lynchings in the Deep South are among the items to be displayed in a national American museum dedicated to black history.

The chat-show host Oprah Winfrey, the music producer Quincy Jones and Bob Johnson, founder of the Black Entertainment Channel, are among a group of high-profile black Americans leading efforts to raise funds for the museum, which is likely to find a home on Washington's Mall.

Plans to build such a museum have long been hampered by lack of money, lack of interest and an undercurrent of racism. But decades after the plan was first proposed, Congress has finally given its approval and the group of black celebrities is poised to launch a drive to raise $250m (£133m) to help fund the project. The remaining $500m will come from federal funds.

Brenda Jones, a spokeswoman for a Georgia Congressman, John Lewis, who has led the effort to establish the museum, said that the time it had taken "speaks to the dynamics of politics in America and a lack of understanding of African-American history and the width and the breadth of their contribution to American society". She said opponents of the scheme eventually felt that "there was just no reason not to recognise the contribution".

Mr Lewis, a civil rights leader in the 1960s who helped to organise the 1963 march, when hundreds of thousands travelled to Washington in support of voting rights and heard Dr Martin Luther King deliver his "I Have ADream" speech, began campaigning for a museum when he was elected to Congress in 1986. He became aware of a previous effort made by African-American veterans of the US Civil War, and took up the campaign. In every session of Congress between 1988 to 2003 he introduced legislation to fund such a museum. In November 2003, Congress voted to do so. The National Museum of African-American History and Culture will be part of the extensive Smithsonian Institution, which oversees and co-ordinates many leading museums in Washington, including its most recent addition, the National Museum of the American Indian. Officials from the institution are currently deciding where the new museum should be established. Mr Lewis wants it to be on the Mall, its central location symbolic of the integral role of black Americans. Mr Lewis is also adamant that it should be as extensive as possible, covering everything from the slave ships that left Senegal right up to last November's election to the Senate of the black Chicagoan Barack Obama.

The move comes at a time of growing interest in black history. The Chicago-based HistoryMakers project was established three years ago to build a video archive of oral black history. Researchers and producers are aiming to interview more than 5,000 black Americans. Some of those who have been interviewed, such as the singer Harry Belafonte and the actor Danny Glover, are well known. Others, such as Henry Presswood, who played professional baseball when blacks were banned from the major leagues, are known only to specialists.

"I don't know why it has taken so long," said Larry Crowe, one of the HistoryMakers' producers, of the museums project. "It's been a slow process. Around 1991-92 I started to notice there was more about black history appearing in the media, on TV and in movies. But there is still not enough. We have so many good stories to tell, so many lessons to learn."

Patrick Swygert, president of Washington's Howard University, a traditionally black college, said he believed the museum must take a different approach to most. He told USA Today: "When you walk in, it should be a sense of the sweep of American history and the African-American role in the sweep of that history. It should not simply be a history of 'firsts'. When we think of museums we tend to think in the past tense. This, to me, should be a living, breathing place."