At last: President Obama dedicates new black history museum on the National Mall

— The idea of erecting a museum that would highlight the contributions of African Americans first received public attention more than a century ago after Black veterans of the Civil War proposed the idea. But the real push occurred when Georgia Congressman John Lewis took up the mantle, securing the support of several of his colleagues. Finally, in 2003, then-President George W. Bush signed legislation that allowed the project to begin.

On Saturday, Sept. 24, with the ringing of a bell borrowed from the First Baptist Church of Williamsburg, one of the nation’s oldest Black churches founded in 1776, President Barack Obama officially dedicated the newest addition to the family of Smithsonian institutions located on the National Mall – the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC).

In his address, the president said that the museum was an essential part of America’s story.

“What we can see of this beautiful building tells us that it is truly a sight to behold. But what makes it special are the stories contained inside,” Obama said. “It is this national museum that will help tell a fuller story of who we are. The African-American story is not a sidebar or a secondary tale. No, it is central to the American story – a glorious story that illustrates how African Americans have been able to rise again and again from tragedy to triumph.”

Still, given the recent outbursts of civil unrest that have taken place in Charlotte, N.C. and Tulsa, Okla., following the shooting deaths unarmed Black men by police officers, the president also commented on what the museum cannot do.

“This museum won’t end job discrimination, violence in our cities or so many other ills and examples of injustice that we face – those things are up to us to change – by speaking out, protesting and voting,” he said. “Hopefully it will help us begin to talk to one another, really see one another and listen to one another.”

The president’s remarks served as the finale to a program attended by several hundred guests, many of whom were donors in a remarkably long fundraising initiative, led by Lonnie G. Bunch III, the founding director of the NMAAHC.

Meanwhile, as far as the eye could see, hundreds and hundreds of men, women and children lined the grounds surrounding the museum, watching the program on Jumbotrons, periodically shouting their affirmations throughout as participants including Stevie Wonder, Will Smith, Oprah Winfrey, Robert De Niro, Angela Bassett, Patti LaBelle and an acapella jazz choir from Howard University mounted the stage.

President George W. Bush and his wife, Laura, also joined the special guests on stage.

Bush, passionate in his remarks, shared one statement that elicited a roar of agreement from the crowd and which Obama would reiterate during his address.

“A great nation does not shy away from the truth,” Bush said, referring to the countless lessons that he believes the new museum, through its many artifacts and exhibits, could provide to all Americans.

Ken Chenault, one of the NMAAHC advisory council members and the CEO and chairman of American Express, commented on the willingness of so many to answer the clarion call to raise the millions of dollars that were needed to start the museum project.

“I look at this building with a great sense of pride,” said Chenault. “Donors came from all across the planet – large donations and small donations – because so many people believed in the importance of building this museum. It will always remind us that what brings us together is stronger than what tears us apart.”

Bunch, overwhelmed with emotion, began his remarks by saying, “Today, a dream too long deferred is a dream no longer.”

Bunch continued: “This is not just about telling the story of a people, but a nation’s story and it will forever show how the lives of all Americans have been and will continue to be enriched, because of the contributions of African Americans.”

D.C. native’s legacy: Promoting the best of Black music

Last week, as the Washington Informer began its coverage of African-American Music Appreciation Month, we featured veteran disc jockey Russ Parr who recently returned to the Greater Washington Area, bringing his unique style and long-recognized brand to the DMV as part of the weekly lineup on Radio One DC’s popular station, WKYS 93.9 FM.

Now we turn our attention to the eternally-young and District-born Darryll E. Brooks – an entrepreneur and longtime promoter of live events whose penchant for recognizing talent and commitment to improving the lives of Black youth and the D.C. community have benefited District residents and others worldwide for over four decades.

Brooks recalls the early years of the 1970s when a surge in civil disturbances in the city then known as “Chocolate City” led him and several others to develop and promote programs that would honor local musicians, provide training for youth interested in the arts and offer family-friendly concerts in his beloved Southeast community where he spent his formative year.

“A group of concerned citizens wanted a program that would honor local musicians like Roberta Flack [who stands as one of the youngest students to ever enroll and graduate from Howard University where she majored in voice, served as an assistant conductor of the university choir and went on to establish a successful musical career],” he said.

“I co-created ‘Compared to What, Inc., a nonprofit that worked to broaden opportunities for D.C.’s Black businesses and creative arts entities,” he said. “We had great support including the mayor’s office, the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Parks Service and were able to secure a program held in Anacostia Park, ‘The Summer Hut,’ that provided arts education programs and events as a means of giving youth an alternative to the significantly less safe activities on the streets,” said Brooks who now splits his time in Clinton, Maryland and New York City.

Brooks would change the name of his company as time went on but not its focus. In fact, they would branch out first as “G Street Express, Inc.,” then as “CD Enterprises,” presenting the first R&B concert ever at the White House, proving that rap was more than just a musical preference for inner city youth but rather a genre rapidly establishing itself as the preference of American youth and taking on the challenge of talent management after signing folks like hip-hop duo Salt-N-Pepa, while also making inroads for D.C.’s go-go performers including Chuck Brown & the Soul Searchers, Little Benny and the Masters and others.

“I have always been proud of our work behind ‘Human Kindness Day,’ which we held each May between 1972 and 1976,” he said. “We honored celebrities who made positive contributions to our youth and attracted hundreds of thousands to the Washington Monument grounds. And we never had police officers maintain safety – the men who came out with their families and friends kept things safe both on the Monument grounds and at events in Anacostia Park. The drug dealers and thugs knew they weren’t welcome if they were going to bring trouble with them.”

Brooks and his partners achieved attendance at the Anacostia Park event in 1972 with close to 2000, which leaped to over 400,000 by their fourth year with an estimated 30,000 to 40,000 attendees each night. Honorees included Flack, Dick Gregory, Nina Simone and Stevie Wonder.

“It was amazing. We helped expose young musicians and bands and gave them an audience of supportive Blacks. People even came on their bicycles from across the city. But we struggled with funding even as the event rapidly grew after the focus of many funders and supporting agencies changed to the nation’s bicentennial in 1976.”

“Back then the concerts served as a means of communication. The artists were vested in bringing a kind of soulfulness and spoke to Black life in a positive way. Blacks wanted to see artists like Bobby Womack, Curtis Mayfield, Otis Redding and Marvin Gaye and they were able to live vicariously through their positive lyrics. I still believe that there’s an audience for conscious-raising music in America even though the economics behind promoting the kinds of concerts that we featured has long changed,” Brooks said.

Brooks and company continue to promote some of the nation’s most popular events including the Summer Spirit Festival 2016, which will be held at Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia, Maryland, marking the Festival’s 11th anniversary (August 6 – 7) with headliners that include Erykah Badu, Janelle Monae, Jill Scott, The Roots, The Chuck Brown Band and Kindred the Family Soul.

And of course, there will be several local groups who will get their chance to showcase their skills, Brooks said.

He noted some of the concerts that he and his partners have promoted that he believes really made a difference in the lives of the Black community, particularly the incarcerated.

“I’ve had so many highlights in my life. But I look to the free Prince concert we held at Gallaudet University that brought music to the hearing impaired, the show we held at the women’s detention center on Riker’s Island and another free concert for the men at the Lorton Reformatory here in the District. It was always about reaching out to and supporting local talent too – musicians, artisans, you name it.”

“Music can have a positive effect on people. It makes the daily grind, the daily disappointments and the day-to-day struggles a little more bearable,” he said. “We did it back then because we loved the music and we loved our people. That’s why we still do it today,” Brooks added.

Baltimore mayor shares words of wisdom

Special to the NNPA from The Washington Informer

When Baltimore native and Mayor Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake, 45, stepped to the podium at D.C.’s historical National Press Club in Northwest, she looked poised, prepared and polished.

But make no mistake. She’s a lot more than just a “pretty face.”

In her own words, she’s been attending to the needs of her community, including being the youngest person ever elected to the Baltimore City Council (in 1995), and preparing herself as an attorney admitted to both the Maryland and federal bars, for as long as she can remember. She follows in the footsteps of her father, Howard “Pete” Rawlings, a former member of the Maryland House of Delegates.

The second woman to hold the office of mayor in Baltimore, Rawlings-Blake also serves as secretary of the Democratic National Committee [DNC] as well as president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

She spoke to members of the press and leaders of the District on Wednesday, Oct. 7 about the challenges facing her city, our nation and the DNC as America prepares to elect its next president.

“The country’s current view of Baltimore has been shaped by a few things: the excellent writing and acting in the HBO series ‘The Wire” and the two weeks in April following the death of Freddie Gray and the subsequent demonstrations and unrest,” she said. “[But] Baltimore is much more than just what was shown on the endless loops on some of our national media.”

Rawlings-Blake, who ran for and won as City Council president in 2007, found herself ascending to the mayor’s post for the balance of the former chief’s term when then-Mayor Sheila Dixon, following her conviction for embezzlement, resigned from office in February 2010.

Rawlings-Blake went on to seek and secure a full term as mayor in 2011. Now, with another election on the horizon, she has decided that she will not seek re-election.

“I wanted to stay focused on the work at hand. But we’re not on vacation. With great examples like Boehner and Obama, you can go down the history of people who have been where I am – leaders who served until the end of their term – who have been unfiltered, unchained and unrestricted,” she said.

“I have the benefit of every single thing I do not being viewed through the lens of campaigning or politics,” added Rawlings-Blake who said resolutely that she would not let politics stand in the way of progress. “There’s more than a year left on my term and every single day we will be pushing for progress for Baltimore’s families.”

The mayor addressed topics that included: police-community relations; her decision to hold public safety forums throughout the city in order to hear from the citizens of Baltimore; the invitation that she extended to the Department of Justice COPS program so that they could conduct a collaborative review of the City’s police department; and the unrest that has long plagued the city in which she was born and raised.

“When I’ve spoken to mayors across the country, virtually all of them have the sobering sense that what happened in Baltimore could have happened in their city as well,” she said. “[We] were not as prepared as we should have been and certainly could have been for the unrest.”

“The unrest in Baltimore and the aftermath points to deeper underlying issues: lack of jobs; challenges with housing and education; and disparities in opportunity. If we are to succeed in preventing future unrest, we must attack these underlying issues. None of this was created overnight and it won’t be solved overnight.”

“We know that far too many people have been left out of the recovery since the great recession. Gridlock strangles Washington and the consequences of that gridlock – they’re passed on to cities, that’s passed on to mayors,” she said.

Rawlings-Blake recently met with other mayors in Baltimore in order to define their priorities that they will soon pass on to presidential candidates, Republican and Democrat alike.

The “Mayors Compact for a Better America, she noted, now under final editing for the “exact wording of the document,” will present critical areas that the mayors, after reaching consensus, have identified and want to see included as both part of the national campaign and the national conversation.

She added that while she’s often asked what she intends to do after her term ends, she really doesn’t have an answer yet.

“There’s hope now that something better is coming for those neighborhoods long ignored and abandoned,” she said. “It is important work to bring hope to our communities. When we do that we focus on making sure that government does what it’s supposed to do for the citizens that we serve.”