By Duke Omara, Chicago Crusader
It was supposed to be the trip of a lifetime and the intense preparations that stretched over the course of a year were meant to reflect the solemnity of the occasion. Instead, a delegation from a local civic group is in a state of limbo.
Plans to attend the grand opening of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 24 were unexpectedly put on hold following the introduction of previously unannounced “timed entry passes” that set conditions for admission into the event.
Maureen Forte, head of the delegation for the Chicago-based N’ The Know With Moe for Social Justice group, said she had been in constant communication with the museum and up until March of this year, her group had been assured the trip would go ahead as scheduled.
Unless the passes are secured in time, she said, all the group’s planning for the event would have been in vain.
“These trips take planning and organizing in order to get hotels and transportation and most importantly, making sure the dates of events are correct and in order. This includes background checks for each delegate to tour the White House,” said Forte in a press statement.
Adding to the group’s disappointment and further jeopardizing their plans, the White House tour, which had been planned to happen in conjunction with the museum visit, was cancelled in July. Now the museum tour is in doubt after the Smithsonian Institute introduced a new system of timed passes designed “to facilitate entry and alleviate extended wait times for the public.”
According to the museum’s website, the timed passes, which became available on Aug. 27, are a mandatory condition for entry and will continue to be utilized for the foreseeable future. At the Chicago Crusader’s press time, it was not clear if tours that had been arranged before the implementation of the pass system would receive special consideration in obtaining the passes.
“We called, we went online, and no passes were able to be secured for my group of 47, which includes local elected officials, relatives of historians, and many active Senior Citizens who have always voted and had never been to Washington and wanted to participate in this historic event,” said Forte.
For groups such as Forte’s, the museum’s opening is the culmination of an effort that started shortly after the American Civil War and was formalized in 1915 when colored military veterans formed an organization to demand proper accommodations while visiting the then segregated nation’s capital.
According to the Smithsonian Institute, the museum, built at a cost of $540 million, is “one of the largest and most complex building projects underway in the country,” due in large part to “the challenges of constructing 60 percent of the structure below ground.”
The 400,000-square-foot building sits on a five-acre tract adjacent to the Washington Monument and will feature exhibition galleries, an education center, theater, auditorium, café, store and offices. In addition, the NMAAHC will have the distinction of being the only national site that is exclusively devoted to the documentation of African American life, art, history and culture.
The museum is slated to showcase some of the most iconic pieces of African American history from all eras, including a Harriet Tubman hymnal, and a lace shawl given to her by Queen Victoria in 1897. Other collections are a Tuskegee Airmen Trainer Plane used to prepare Tuskegee Airmen for World War II combat duty and Emmett Till’s glass-topped casket from 1955.
Till’s gruesome murder in Mississippi helped galvanize the civil rights movement and his death remains a seminal emblem of the African American experience during the Jim Crow period. Till is buried in Burr Oak Cemetery in Alsip, a village in Cook County.
Forte vowed that her delegation’s trip to Washington will go on, with or without the new pass requirements. The group also plans to visit the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, the U.S. Capitol Building and, she hoped, the opening ceremony of what she called the “historic event of waiting over 100 years” for the grand opening of the African American museum.
“The timed passes process has left us saddened due to the way things were handled, but we will be in attendance.”