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Groundbreaking for the National Museum of African American History and Culture

February 27, 2012

Last week, I had the honor and privilege (and joy) of representing American Express at an historic event: the groundbreaking ceremony for the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC.

The National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), to be built in the shadow of the Washington Monument and directly across the street from the National Museum of American History on The Mall, will be the 19th museum of the Smithsonian Institution.

Its mission is to provide for the collection, study, and establishment of programs and exhibitions relating to African American life, art, history, and culture. Or as its founding director, Lonnie Bunch, has stated, "to tell the unvarnished truth" about African American history by "humanizing these big stories: slavery, migration, the civil rights movement."

The groundbreaking ceremony was a moving and inspirational mixture of speeches and musical performances. Setting the stage, Dr. Calvin Butts from the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, quoted from several African American poets including Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen on the theme, "What is America to me?" (a take-off on Cullen's "What is Africa to me?"). He received the first of what would be many standing ovations during the day.

Congressman and civil rights veteran, John Lewis, who first proposed building an African American museum 25 years ago, spoke emotionally of the struggles of the African American people and the challenges of getting the Museum approved by Congress, but he said that he was looking forward to the day "when I can amble through the exhibit, search through the archives, participate in a program, and rest my tired feet in the café," eliciting laughter and applause.

Laura Bush, who is a member of the Museum's Advisory Council, spoke of her husband's commitment to building the Museum on The Mall, and she also spoke eloquently about the role of Washington, DC in the civil rights movement – mentioning President Lyndon Johnson's push for the Civil Rights Act and Martin Luther King's march on Washington.

The ceremony was dotted with uplifting musical performances from mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves, baritone Thomas Hampson, jazz pianist Jason Moran, the Heritage Signature Chorale and others. Phylicia Rashad, who served as the mistress of ceremony, referred to Moran as "the keeper of the keys" in Duke Ellington's legacy.

One of the most touching moments came when two four year olds from the Stuyvesant Heights Montessori school in Brooklyn presented Lonnie Bunch with $600 that they had collected for the Museum in a campaign called, "Change for Change." While the kids were obviously a bit nervous on stage, it didn't keep them from shaking hands with the President and receiving hugs from Mrs. Obama.

President Obama closed out the ceremony by talking about what he wants the Museum to be to his daughters, Malia and Sasha. "I want my daughters to see the shackles that bound slaves in their voyage across the ocean, and the shards of glass that flew from the 16th Street Baptist Church, and understand that injustice and evil exist in the world, but I also want them to hear Louis Armstrong's horn and learn about the Negro League and read the poems of Phillis Wheatley." The Museum, the President said, will serve "not just as a record of tragedy, but as a celebration of life."

With that, members of the delegation, including the Secretary of the Smithsonian, Dr. Wayne Clough, and the Chair of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian, France Cordova, dug shovels into a ceremonial box of dirt and thus began the three-year construction project.

American Express has donated $5 million toward the $250 million private fundraising goal in support of the Museum's Cultural Heritage Galleries. Other companies who are major donors include Boeing, Caterpillar, Coca-Cola, IBM, McDonald's, Prudential, Target, United Health Group and Walmart. At groundbreaking, approximately $100 million of the $250 million has been raised.

For more information, visit the Museum's web site at

If you have a comment or question, let me know by clicking here.

P.S. Did you know that today, February 27, is International Corporate Philanthropy Day? Sponsored by the Committee Encouraging Corporate Philanthropy, there will be a number of activities, including a special Twitter chat at 2:00 p.m. EST (#philchat) hosted by CECP. Hug a corporate philanthropist today!


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