Before the National Museum of African American History & Culture opened its doors in Washington, D.C., four women helped bring the project to fruition.
Tammy Boyd, Kerry Speight Watson, Donnice Turner and La Rochelle Young. This is four black women‘s little-known story of power, politics and persistence. Prayer too.
From points near and far, four women have journeyed to the nation’s capital on a collective pilgrimage, one that’s taken more than a decade to fulfill. La Rochelle Young has flown in from Kansas. Kerri Speight Watson traveled from Oklahoma. Donnice Turner made her way from Maryland, while Tammy Boyd, a D.C. resident, zipped across town in an Uber, as being told by the Essence.
These friends have arrived at the National Museum of African American History & Culture, which was gloriously unveiled on the National Mall back in September. The structure, with its copper penny color and slanted tiers that stream sunlight, has an architectural design that evokes an intricate African crown. That symbolism is fitting because the $540 million museum represents a crowning achievement — a fulfillment of an idea first proposed by Black Civil War veterans more than a century ago.
“It’s exciting, thrilling in a sense, to be here.” says Turner, an Atlanta-raised attorney who is a nationally recognized policy adviser. “I’m glad that I’m seeing it for the first time with these ladies. We were told none of this would happen. It’s beautiful.”
Back in 2000. they were all young, idealistic congressional aides who had embarked on a seemingly uphill battle to enact legislation that would establish the museum.
“My boss. Senator Sam Brownback, loved to run past all the beautiful monuments and museums along the National Mall,” recalls Young, now a deputy director at the Kansas Department of Children and Families. “He wondered why there wasn’t anything special to commemorate African-Americans.”
Civil rights icon Congressman John Lewis of Georgia had repeatedly introduced museum bills since the eighties, having worked with the late Texas representative Mickey Leland on the issue. (Leland was the first to introduce the bill in 1986: unfortunately. he perished in a 1989 plane crash.)
Once Lewis met with Brownback. a White conservative, the men agreed to join forces. Soon after, they enlisted key support from Representative J.C. Watts. Jr., a dynamic Black Republican hailing from Oklahoma, and Senator Max Cleland. a White disabled Vietnam veteran, also from Georgia.
This unlikely bipartisan, biracial coalition pledged their political capital, tirelessly seeking to drum up support on both sides of the aisle for the bill they had cosponsored.
As the legislative lions pressed their case, the women weren’t just loyal foot soldiers but warriors in their own right.
In the new book Long Road to Hard Truth: The 100-Year Mission to Create the National Museum of African American History and Culture (Proud Legacy Publishers), author Robert L. Wilkins, a federal judge, dubbed the congressmen the “Four Musketeers.” praising them and the savvy sisters who proved to be veritable secret weapons.
“Four African-American women led the corresponding efforts behind the scenes.” writes Wilkins, who was a part of 2001’s 23-member presidential commission that studied the museum’s feasibility and crafted a road map for its formation. “They performed the vitally important, but publicly unnoticed, work of talking with the staffs of the key congressional committees. the Smithsonian, interest groups and constituents to build support for the museum as well as to beat back any opposition and craft detailed legislative language to achieve the objective and garner the votes to pass it. This was no mean feat.”
To wit: Wilkins recounts the bureaucratic plodding, clashing federal agencies, competing special interests and more. Location was a thorny issue, as there were preservationists who insisted that nothing new be built on the National Mall. Meanwhile some smaller Black museums around the country were concerned about how a national site would impact them.
The book notes that even the venerable Smithsonian Institution wasn’t on board initially, although top officials eventually came around. “It was complicated.” says Wilkins in our interview. “Yes. they came to the party late, but have since done a fine job.” he continues, noting key hires such as museum director Lonnie Bunch.
What made this legislative effort different from previous ones to get a museum bill over the finish line? “We developed and executed a winning ground game strategy.” notes Boyd, a Mississippi-born attorney who served as Lewis’s legislative director and today heads her own lobbying firm.
That strategy meant bringing in the U.S. House of Representatives, the Senate, liberals, conservatives, the White House, the Congressional Black Caucus, the NAACR the National Urban League and regional African- American museums. “It was a complex and nuanced endeavor,” Boyd says. “We didn’t take no for an answer, and we kept pushing and pushing.”
Still there were unforeseeable setbacks. The tragedy of 9/11 in 2001 shifted national priorities and halted plans. The following year came news that half of the Four Musketeers were leaving Congress: Cleland lost reelection in 2002. while Watts declined to run again.
Lewis and Brownback, however, forged ahead, as did the women. “I stayed on my knees praying about this.” says Young. Finally the compatriots achieved their goal. In 2003. when the bill was signed into law by President George W. Bush, an early advocate, there were tears and cheers.
“Of all the legislation I’ve worked on. this was the highlight of my career,” says Watson, a former White House staffer who now heads the nonprofit Politics and Pastries. “As an African- American. I believe this is a part of our legacy.”
Four women were responsible for creating a place to preserve Black history. It’s a sign that even in small numbers black people are capable to achieve everything we want.