Who Axed the African American Museum on the Mall?

By Dennis, Raoul | The New Crisis, February/March 1998 | Go to article overview
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Who Axed the African American Museum on the Mall?

Dennis, Raoul, The New Crisis

Unless you were well-versed in political intrigue, you might believe that culturally-specific museums are the rave in the nation's capital. The National Mall in Washington, D.C., houses the Smithsonian Institution's Museum of African Art and its Sackler Museum of Asian Art. Nearby, the new Holocaust Museum stands as a witness to the Jews who perished in Hitler's madness.

The Institution also maintains another museum of Asian Art, the Freer Gallery, and plans to construct a National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI). In addition, the United States Mint recently authorized a commemorative coin to help finance the construction of a memorial on the Mall to commemorate the AfricanAmerican patriots of the Revolutionary War.

This evidence suggests that ethnically-focused museums and monuments are growing in Washington. Therefore, the big mystery: Why does the plan to build a National African-American Museum (NAAM) remain a dream deferred?

The answer is a political detective story that spans nearly 15 years and has a fascinating cast of characters.


The True Believer

Tom Mack is a successful African-American businessman who fell in love with the idea of building a black museum on the Mall to document the horrors of slavery. Unfortunately, love is blind, and Mack, who invested at least $10,000 of his own money in the idea, knew little about the management or political realities of building a museum.

The Martyr Mickey Leland, the well-liked Congressman (DTexas) tried to move Mack's vision forward. Unfortunately, Leland was killed in a 1989 plane crash.

The Hero

Civil Rights veteran, Congressman Tohn Lewis (D-. Georgia), aided by Senator Paul Simon (D-Illinois) and Congressman Bill Clay (D-Missouri), put together a plan to get the black museum through Congress. But at the last minute, Lewis' idea was brutally sabotaged.

The Villains

Senator Jesse Helms (R-North Carolina ), is a logical suspect. He is a notorious repeat offender when it comes to shooting down progressive legislation. Believed to be angry that the NMAI became law, he sandbagged the African-American museum.

Gus Savage (D-Illinois) was a Congressman who lost his seat in wake of a sexual harassment scandal. On Capitol Hill, he had a reputation as a hard-drinking loose cannon. After becoming Mack's ally, Savage snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.

The Expert Witnesses

Many members of the African-American Museums Association (AAMA) had the know-how Mack lacked, but had practical and ideological reasons to want Mack's plan to fail.

Our Story Unfolds...

Tom Mack is president of Washington's Tourmobile tour buses. For the better part of 20 years, he eyeballed the National Mall with the sense that something was missing. He was frustrated that there were not any African-American sites on the Mall that were comparable to the major Smithsonian museums.

"I wanted to build a black museum because blacks are not equitably, reasonably or fairly represented on the Mall," Mack said. "In fact, we are hardly represented by the Smithsonian Institution at all. The Smithsonian charter calls for them to equitably represent everyone in the country, but they don't."

Mack decided to do it himself. In 1984, he formed the National Council for Education and Economic Development (NCEED) as a base from which to develop the National African-American Museum and sent his proposal to potential supporters.

"We tried to bring the Smithsonian on board. We went to Congress, the NAACP and the United Negro College Fund," Mack said. "With the exception of particular officers within the Urban League, they all said about the same thing, `We support you. We'll be in touch,' but nothing came forward. No resources, no money, no volunteers." However, he later found an ally in Leland, who, in 1986, managed to pass a unanimous, but non-binding and unfunded,

congressional resolution supporting the creation of a black museum on the Mall.

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