The effort to build a museum centered on the history and achievements of African Americans dates back more than 90 years to the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the end of the Civil War.
In 1929, Congress passed legislation to create a national commission to build a memorial, but no seed money was included. Over the next four years, little was accomplished and the commissions’ duties were transferred to the Interior Department. Nothing of further importance occurred until 1968 when, in the midst of the civil rights movement and the wake of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., legislative initiatives resumed. In 1986, Congress passed a Joint Resolution “to encourage and support” private efforts to build what is now thought of as both a memorial and a museum in Washington, D.C.
In 1988 and 1989, bills were introduced to create a “National African American Heritage Museum and Memorial” within the Smithsonian Institution. In 1991, a blue-ribbon commission appointed by the Smithsonian recommended the creation of a national museum devoted to African Americans which collects, analyzes, researches, and organizes exhibitions on a scale and definition to those of the major museums devoted to other aspects of American life. The commission recommended that the museum be temporarily located in the Arts and Industries Building until a new, larger facility could be built, but controversy about funding and the appropriateness of the specified venue prevented passage of legislation.
In 2001, Representative John Lewis, Representative J.C. Watts, Jr., Senator Sam Brownback, and Senator Max Cleland led a new bipartisan coalition to establish a National Museum of African American History and Culture within the Smithsonian Institution. Renewed questions about funding and feasibility of using the Arts and Industries Building resulted in the formation of the NMAAHC Plan for Action Presidential Commission (Commission) on December 28, 2001 by P.L. 107-106 to develop a feasible plan to move forward with NMAAHC.
In April 2003, after a yearlong study and the convening of more than 50 national and local meetings, the Commission released its first report, The Time Has Come, Report to the President and Congress. This document included a siting study for several possible locations as well as a preliminary planning program that determined an area of 350,000 gross square feet represented a reasonable size for the museum and was neither too conservative nor unnecessarily generous. In September, 2003, the Commission issued its Final Site Report which presented detailed analysis of the possible sites for the NMAAHC and the Commission’s preference for the Capitol Grounds site and the Monument site as an alternative. In December 2003, Congress enacted The NMAAHC Act, Public Law (P.L.) 108-184, establishing a museum within the Smithsonian Institution to be known as the National Museum of African American History and Culture. The Act required the Smithsonian Institution Board of Regents to select a final site.
Location and Setting
The site selected for NMAAHC is a five-acre parcel that is part of the Washington Monument Grounds on the National Mall, bounded by Constitution Avenue on the north, Madison Drive on the south, 14th Street, NW on the east, and 15th Street, NW on the west.