WASHINGTON, D.C. (TSU News Service) – The ringing of a historic bell from Virginia, donated as a symbol of freedom, heralded the opening of the Smithsonian’s new National Museum of African-American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 24.
Thousands from all walks of life, including statesmen, Freedom Riders, Tuskegee Airmen, ordinary citizens and a 99-year-old woman whose father was born a slave and died a doctor, assembled on the National Mall to see the grand opening of a museum 100 years in the making.
The 400,000-square-foot building, sitting next to the Washington Monument, contains artifacts and collections donated by families, individuals, and institutions, including Tennessee State University. TSU donated gold medals, championship trophies and track cleats, as well as photographs and portraits of TSU trailblazers and coaches from the university’s rich athletic history, including legendary TSU Track and Field Coach Ed Temple who died on Sept. 22 at the age of 89.
TSU President Glenda Glover, who led a delegation to the weeklong ceremonies marking the dedication, expressed thanks and appreciation to the museum’s curators for including items from TSU.
“These are treasured collections from our institution’s history and we are grateful for the exposure they will receive,” Glover said. “Now, the whole world and visitors to this magnificent museum will get to see some of Tennessee State University’s past and our strive to uphold the American history through our contribution to the collections here.”
The museum, observers said, chronicles one of the most profound narratives in America’s identity by exploring the country’s history, its present, its greatest shame – slavery – and its people’s greatest triumphs.
President Obama said the museum provides a context for the “debate of our time and our history.”
“African-American history is not somehow separate from the American story,” he said. “It is not the underside of the American story. It is central to the American story. It was a narrative that was messy and full of contradictions as all great stories are.”
While only a limited number were able to access the museum’s sold-out grand opening, officials estimate the inauguration ceremony unfolded before 7,000 official guests and thousands more spectators. Speakers included Congressman John Lewis, who advocated for an African American history museum for years, and former President George W. Bush, who signed the 2003 law authorizing the construction of the museum.
TSU Associate Professor of African American and Public History, Dr. Learotha Williams, Jr., said the museum represents a grand effort to tell a more complete story of the American Experience through the eyes of a people who were an integral, yet underappreciated and marginalized part of the narrative.
“As I looked at the beautiful structure with its golden hue, I thought about the passage from Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man that referenced the ‘Black Dope,’ the invisible but key ingredient in the company’s Optic White Paint. Without it, the paint would not have its allure, its beauty,” Williams said. “For me, this is what this museum represents.”
He called the museum the “most important of all the spaces” on the National Mall.
Chandra Cheeseborough-Guice, a former two-time TSU Olympian and current director of track and field, donated memorabilia that’s part of the TSU collection in the museum.
“It is such an honor to be a part of the Smithsonian museum,” Cheeseborough-Guice said. “I am still elated and in awe about the honor. I just want to thank God for allowing me to really follow coach Temple’s footsteps as a history maker.”
In addition to the TSU collection, the museum’s nine floors contain three history galleries covering slavery through present day, including the #BlackLivesMatter movement; a theater named for donor Oprah Winfrey, a TSU graduate; culture galleries featuring African-American icons of music, theater, film and television; and a Contemplative Court, where visitors can reflect on what they’ve seen.
“Hopefully this grand occasion allows the rest of the nation to come out and see a building that’s not just for African Americans, it’s for all of America,” said Master Sgt. Donald Sparks of Houston, who just finished a yearlong deployment in Iraq. “I’m just elated and can’t express how much joy and gratitude I have to be here today and witness history.”
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About Tennessee State University
With more than 9,000 students, Tennessee State University is Nashville’s only public university, and is a comprehensive, urban, co-educational, land-grant university offering 38 undergraduate, 25 graduate and seven doctoral programs. TSU has earned a top 20 ranking for Historically Black Colleges and Universities according to U.S. News and World Report, and rated as one of the top universities in the country by Washington Monthly for social mobility, research and community service. Founded in 1912, Tennessee State University celebrated 100 years in Nashville during 2012. Visit the University online at tnstate.edu.