Off Again, on Again, African American Museum Still a Dream: Jesse Helms Derails Official Opening, but Exhibitions Go On

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Off Again, On Again,. African American Museum Still a Dream: Jesse Helms Derails Official Opening, But Exhibitions Go On

by Malik Shabazz

WASHINGTON, DC -- During the closing session of the 103rd Congress last year, supporters of the planned National African American Museum saw their hopes momentarily derailed as Sen. Jesse Helms (R-NC) was able to sabotage the bill establishing the museum, scheduled to open in January of this year.

Helms' maneuvering, coupled with the recent decision of Museum Project Director Claudine Brown to leave the Smithsonian and join the Nathan Cummings Foundation in New York, leaves the museum project on critically shaky ground. However, during February Georgia Rep. John Lewis (D) reintroduced legislation to establish the museum in the House, and most recently Illinois' Sen. Paul Simon (D) reintroduced similar legislation in the Senate.

Lewis and Simon teamed up to push this legislation through the Congress last year, only to see it meet defeat in the closing session through the objections of Helms, who promised to fight the bill in whatever form it takes. Simon, with Illinois colleague Carol Mosely Braun (D) and Arizona's John McCain (R), had sought Senate approval in an end-of-session authorization bill. Now Simon is seeking to reestablish a bi-partisan coalition of support. Last session's bill had 30 sponsors and 20 co-sponsors.

Meanwhile, Lewis has submitted the legislation to both the House Oversight and the Transportation & Infrastructure committees, with the eventual attempt to bring it to the House floor, as he was able to accomplish without a hitch during last session.

According to Shireen Dodson, assistant director for planning and administration, the museum project, still operating out of the Smithsonian Institution, will continue with exhibitions in the hopes of educating Congress and others of the need for a national museum for African Americans.

"Education," says Dodson "is still going to be a big thrust; hopefully it'll get easier." The project's first exhibition, at the Arts and Industries Building, slated to house the museum, was "extremely successful, and it was actually recognized in the Colliers Encyclopedia -- their supplement of exhibitions worth noticing. Under the photography area they mentioned 'Imagining Families,' so we though that was quite an accomplishment."

The museum project is to open its second exhibition on April 21, showcasing the collection of Harmon and Harriet Kelly of San Antonio, TX, which is to include more than 120 paintings and a sculpture "Equal Rights and Justice." An exhibit commemorating the 30th anniversary of the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is scheduled to follow.

"We're moving in terms of exhibitions and public programs, and hopefully those in Congress as well as others will get a glimpse of the kind of good work we can do," said Dodson. …