National Museum of African American History & Culture (NMAAHC) Dedication Ceremony

Elissa Tenny and Walter E. Massey | October 11, 2016

Dear SAIC Community,

As you may have heard, last month the National Museum of African American History & Culture (NMAAHC) opened its doors in Washington, D.C. NMAAHC has nearly 37,000 objects in its collection, which traces the experiences and leadership of African Americans throughout the history of the United States, from its earliest days as a colony to the present.

Chancellor Walter Massey and his wife Shirley were in attendance at NMAAHC’s Dedication Ceremonies to represent SAIC, joining a long list of esteemed leaders from all walks of life. Walter’s invitation to the Dedication Ceremonies was a recognition of his continuing efforts to make ours a more just and inclusive society—one celebrating all backgrounds and perspectives.

I wanted to be sure to share Walter’s wonderful reflections on his experiences at the Dedication Ceremonies, which I’ve provided below. I hope they will spur you and your peers and colleagues to think about this important moment for our nation and how it can help us reckon with our complicated history of oppression and inequality.

Warm regards,
Elissa Tenny


Dear Elissa,

Shirley and I were very fortunate to be able to represent SAIC at the Dedication Ceremonies for the new National Museum of African American History & Culture. It was by every measure a grand, glorious, and historic occasion. The idea for such a museum, to celebrate and document the contributions of Blacks to American society, was first proposed by Black Civil War veterans in 1915, and the edifice has been seven years in the making. I was gratified to be on the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian and on the Advisory Committee for the planning of the Museum when the site was selected in 2006. To see it finally come to fruition is more meaningful than I can describe.

The Dedication Ceremonies, which took place on Saturday, September 23, were a grand mix of joyful celebration and poignant remembrances of the triumphs and travails of Blacks in America. Former President George W. Bush, who was responsible for authorizing the funding of the Museum and for having it sited on the Mall next to the Washington Monument, captured the feeling of the crowd of more than 10,000, saying, “A great Nation does not hide its history; it faces its flaws and corrects them.” Celebrities and dignitaries such as Oprah Winfrey, Robert de Niro, Will Smith, Representative John Lewis, Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, as well as Stevie Wonder and Patti LaBelle, spoke and sang in historic and personal terms about what the Museum will mean to Americans of all backgrounds and races.

President Obama capped off the ceremonies with eloquent and emotional remarks tying together the historical significance of the Museum and contemporary issues of race and justice in America.

SAIC and Chicago have significant connections to the new Museum. Sculptor Richard Hunt (BA 1957, HON 1979) has a magnificent piece in one of the atriums, and the Museum has purchased a piece by Sanford Biggers (MFA 1999), to be shown later. There are alumni in the collection, including: Archibald Motley, Jr. (SAIC 1918, HON 1980), William Edouard Scott (SAIC 1907), Charles White (SAIC 1936-41), Margaret Burroughs (BA 1942, MA 1948, HON 1987), Elizabeth Catlett (SAIC 1941), William McKnight Farrow (SAIC 1908-18), and William Harper (SAIC 1901).

As for Chicago, the founding director of the Museum, Lonnie Bunch, was formerly president of the Chicago Historical Society, and John McCarter, former president and CEO of the Field Museum, is chairman of the Smithsonian Board of Regents.

The Museum building is unique to the Mall, standing out from the traditional buildings and monuments. It was designed by David Adjaye, who recently had a show at the Art Institute, Making Place. It resembles a cross-section of an inverted pyramid, made of semi-reflective, bronze-like materials that change color as the light changes during the day. It is beautiful. We only had a chance to have a quick view of the exhibitions, given the crowd, and we will be going back for an extensive tour. People who have spent time viewing the exhibitions report being moved to tears, anger, and joyful exuberance all in one day.

Walter Massey