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Preserving African American History and Culture

January 21, 2014

As we celebrate Martin Luther King Day this week, it's a good time to highlight two major efforts that American Express is making to help celebrate and preserve African American History and Culture - both of them in Washington, DC.

The National Museum of African American History and Culture, which is being built in the shadow of the Washington Monument across the street from the National Museum of American History on The National Mall, is 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.

Enacted through Congressional legislation in 2003, the museum represents a national initiative that will bridge a gap in our national memory by creating exhibitions and programs focusing on a wide arc of history - Slavery, Reconstruction, the Harlem Renaissance, the Great Migrations to the North and West, Segregation, the Civil Rights Movement and beyond, including issues of the 21st Century. It will also celebrate African American creativity and cultural expressions through art, dance, theater and literature.

Designed by David Adjaye (who was named the Wall Street Journal Magazine's Architecture Innovator of 2013), the museum will the first "green" museum to be built on The National Mall and it utilizes the last remaining space that is available for a structure that large. Planned for over 300,000 square feet, it is estimated that the museum will attract three to five million visitors a year after it opens in late 2015.

At the groundbreaking ceremony in February 2012, Lonnie Bunch, the museum's founding director, stated:

  • In many ways, there are few things as powerful and as important as a people -- as a nation -- that is steeped in its history. Often, America is celebrated as a place that forgets. This museum seeks to help all Americans remember, and by remembering, give voice to the anonymous and make visible those who are often omitted from history. Through its exhibitions and scholarship, it will stimulate a dialogue about race, help to foster a spirit of reconciliation and healing, and enhance our understanding of how African American history and culture are central to all of our histories.

The new museum will cost over $500 million to build; $250 million of this will be provided by the Federal Government. The rest must be raised from private sources. American Express has donated over $5 million toward this goal, and our CEO, Ken Chenault, is serving as chairman of the capital campaign.

Other companies and foundations that have pledged support include: the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Lilly Endowment, The Boeing Company, The Ford Foundation, The Rockefeller Foundation, Target, United Health Group, Wal-Mart (all at the $5 million and above level) as well as myriad other companies, foundations and individuals.

Another project that is receiving significant support from American Express is the preservation and restoration of the Decatur House Slave Quarters, one of the few remaining examples of slave quarters in an urban setting.

Built in 1818, the Decatur House was the first private residence in the White House neighborhood. Initially owned by Commodore Stephen Decatur, Jr., and his wife, Susan, the house went on to be occupied by private individuals as well as a variety of political figures, including secretaries of state, members of Congress, foreign and American dignitaries and a Vice President.

In 1956, the Decatur House was bequeathed to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which saved it from demolition, and in 2010, the National Trust and the White House Historical Association established the National Center for White House History at Decatur House.

The major emphasis of our $1 million grant is the preservation of the Decatur House Slave Quarters as well as evaluation and conservation of two historically related extant domestic spaces: a first floor room used as a kitchen and an adjacent pantry. The history of domestic service at Decatur House and the use of the workspaces in the Slave Quarters in connection with the main house are integral to the rich cultural and social history of the property.

In a ceremony last May, First Lady Michelle Obama said:

  • You aren't just teaching our young people about history, you're inspiring them to believe that they can make history as well. And, that's really what history is for - it's for the next generation, it's for us to continue to learn and grow.

Two projects, one common purpose. What more fitting way to remember the legacy of Martin Luther King and the many individuals who fought and died seeking freedom and justice for all?

What are your thoughts about the preservation of African American history and culture? Please share your comments with us here. Alternatively, follow me on Twitter at @timmcclimon and comment there. Thanks for reading and sharing this blog with others.

P.S. Did you know that the original legislation creating the National Museum of African American History and Culture was co-sponsored by John Lewis (D-GA) and Jack Kingston (R-GA) in the House of Representatives and by Sam Brownback (R-KS) in the Senate, and was signed into law by President George W. Bush on December 16, 2003?

Trust Across America Top 100 Thought Leaders P.P.S. I'm honored and humbled to have been included as one of 100 2014 Top Leaders in Trustworthy Business by Trust Across America - Trust Around the World. Congratulations to my fellow awardees, and thank you for the excellent work you do every day to build trust in businesses across the globe.


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