A couple listens to President Barack Obama at Freedom Sounds.
Crowds lined the streets, thronging the statues and demonstrators in Lafayette Park across from the White House to the steps of the Washington Monument. Performers, buskers, and living statues took up positions across from the site of the old Wormley Hotel, where President Hayes once negotiated the end of southern Reconstruction. The faces of Biggie, Tupac, King, Malcolm X, Mandela, and Obama stared out from t-shirts and posters as vendors sold their wares from Farragut to Federal Center; #BlackLivesMatter shirts sold by the hundreds.
Traffic stood at a standstill between Federal Triangle and the Lincoln Memorial, much to the delight of D.C.’s many megaphone-toting street prophets and protesters. Police in neon vests struggled to manage the hordes of visitors to the Freedom Sounds Festival celebrating the opening weekend of the Smithsonian’s long-awaited National Museum of African-American History and Culture.
Billed as “A project 100 years in the making,” black Union veterans threw the first proposals for an African-American cultural center on a city councilman’s desk in 1915. The city of Washington D.C. treated their proposal with exactly the amount of respect and racial sensitivity one would expect from the time period. President Hoover finally caved to a cultural memorial in 1929, but funding never materialized. The project languished until 2003, when the younger President Bush finally greenlighted the project. A ten-year build from the time the site was chosen, President Obama finally opened its doors to a select few on September 24th. The opening ceremonies and Freedom Sounds showcase raged for the entire weekend as enormous, flocking crowds completely shut down the National Mall. Sharp, dark suits and Southern church dresses mingled with traditional African clothing in the crowd. Vibrant shades of black, red, and green mixed with white hoodies and blue jeans. Though D.C.’s African-American community represented possibly the largest contingent of the crowd, they were not alone; visitors to the Freedom Sounds Festival showcased every part of D.C.’s formidable diversity. Office workers, ties loose around their necks, and camera-clutching tourists were swept along in their curiosity, driven towards the stages and giant screens sitting in the austere shadow of the Washington Monument.
Speeches, blues, and gospel could be heard echoing all across the Mall, and the crowds reached all the way back to the World War II memorial. Music legend Stevie Wonder performed on stage after expressing his amazement that the museum had finally been completed. “I still haven’t seen it yet,” he joked with the crowd. Chief Justice John Roberts also came onstage to discuss the complicated role the Supreme Court has played in African-American history. “Thank you,” he told organizers, “for booking me right after Stevie Wonder.”
Then came actor Will Smith and daytime TV personality Oprah Winfrey in a double act, trading poetry quotes from Maya Angelou, Langston Hughes, and Zora Neale Hurston. Other guest speakers included former first couple, Laura and George W. Bush, former president Bill Clinton, Public Enemy, the Roots, museum Director Lonnie Bunch, and museum council chairs Kenneth Chenault and Linda Johnson Rice, all presided over by President and First Lady Barack and Michelle Obama. But the main event of the festivities was President Obama’s restrained speech about the often-untold and underrepresented story of African-American history, in which he officially opened the museum to the first public visitors.
Visitors to the museum have plenty of time to plan their trip in advance. In order to control traffic, the museum has limited entry to visitors with “Timed Passes”, which have already sold out into 2017. Passes can be obtained on the museum’s website, or, once the clamor dies down, in person at the museum. School groups and education organizations can expect to be given priority, according to the museum’s online resources. As is the case with all Smithsonian museums, passes are free to the public, but available on a first-come, first-served basis.
Seen by some as a project too long overdue, the National Museum of African-American History and Culture is certain to become a staple of the National Mall experience, just like the many venerated museums, gardens, and federal offices with which it shares its streets. Interested visitors should watch the news in the near future for pictures, updates, and coming attractions at the newest member of the Smithsonian family.
PC: Austin Stollhaus