A Glimpse Of History, As Museun Of African-American History Opens

Sep 24, 2016
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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now to a major event in Washington, D.C., today - the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. It opened today on the National Mall. President Obama was just one of the thousands of people who attended the grand opening ceremony.

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BARACK OBAMA: ...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.

MARTIN: NPR's Sam Sanders was also there today. He walked the Mall and talked to many visitors. And he's made the short trip back to headquarters to tell us about it. Hi, Sam.

SAM SANDERS, BYLINE: Hey, Michel.

MARTIN: So what was the scene out there today?

SANDERS: So there were two scenes. There was a VIP section near the stage outside the museum full of celebrities and dignitaries - President Obama, former President George W. Bush and his wife Laura, Oprah, Colin Powell, Tuskegee Airmen. But then, there were thousands of more people who were on the Mall watching on Jumbotrons there on the grass. The folks that I talked to enjoyed the ceremony, but many noted that it comes at a kind of strange time for the country, given that this has been such a year full of racial unrest. I talked to one woman named Cynthia Kain.

CYNTHIA KAIN: Today felt like it was full of contradictions because all week we're bombarded with how black men are being killed in our country, and yet we're asked to celebrate our culture and our contributions on the Mall. So today felt a little bit strange.

SANDERS: So Kain said that she hopes the museum and its opening reminds the country that there is still work to be done to live up to its ideals.

MARTIN: You mentioned that there were thousands of people there today. But not a lot of them will actually get in to see the museum - at least not today.

SANDERS: That is very true. Most of them won't get in. There's a waitlist that is still months-long. There are some folks that have gotten tickets, but even they won't get in until November or December. The museum is trying to get everyone in at some point, though. They have extra-long hours for the opening.

You know, but lots of people that haven't gone inside today have been reading up on the museum. I talked with one woman named Barbara Fazio-McGrory. She came down from New York. She'll get in on Monday, and she's really looking forward to seeing the museum's unique layout. It starts underground and walks visitors up to the top floor kind of through black history.

BARBARA FAZIO-MCGRORY: The literal darkness of the ground floor, talking about slavery, pictures of people whipped, people hanging from trees, it just makes me very emotional to know that that's there. But then the uplifting of the Yoruba crown and the uplifting to the fifth floor is about the struggle down there and where we are now - not that it's over, it's never going to be over - but there's hope and light and life.

SANDERS: So she told me that the country kind of needs this right now, a bright spot in a year that's been really full of divisive politics in a very nasty election.

MARTIN: So now that the museum is officially open, what's next?

SANDERS: There's a music festival this weekend; it's got Public Enemy, The Roots and lots of others. And the museum is still being actively curated. There were over 30,000 artifacts submitted and only about 3,000 on display right now. So the museum that people see this weekend might not be the museum that you see a year from now. They're going to be cycling all that stuff throughout.

MARTIN: That's NPR's Sam Sanders. Sam, thank you.

SANDERS: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.