A Sacred Space
By Artis Hampshire-Cowan, board member of The Community Foundation for the National Capital Region.
I recently engaged in a conversation with Bruce McNamer (President & CEO of The Community Foundation for the National Capital Region) about the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC). I thought about this conversation later, and upon reflection, I was taken by the emotions I felt just talking about the Museum, let alone visiting it. I suspect this is true for all of us who are descendants of slaves and of the African Diaspora. I am filled with joy, pride, gratitude, and relief that there is now a sacred space in the nation’s capital to memorialize four hundred years of African American contributions to the collective history and culture of the U.S. A home for the legacy of sacrifice, creativity, determination, suffering, ingenuity, love, and perseverance that describe the African American journey. And it is such a beautiful home – with architecture inspired by Yoruba royalty and the work of freemen in New Orleans and Charleston. Appropriately positioned in a place of honor between the Washington Monument and the U.S. Capitol on the National Mall, the NMAAHC is a celebration of my people and our legacy, and a testament to the greatness of these United States of America. It strikes me that few countries would support the exhibition of a reprehensible past.
Like most Black Americans, I had hoped there would one day be a national museum dedicated to our history and culture, but I thought it would never happen. After all, legislation to establish the museum was signed into law by President Bush in 2003 only after Congressman John Lewis introduced the bill in every session of Congress over the previous 15 years. Moreover, the congregation of the historic Nineteenth Street Baptist Church conceptualized “a beautiful building” on the Mall that would be devoted “to commemorate the deeds of American Negroes wrought for the perpetuation and advancement of the Nation”… in 1916! I was hopeful, but realistic.
Similar to the campaign launched in 1968 to establish a national holiday to commemorate Dr. Martin Luther King that took over 30 years for all 50 states to enact, leaders shepherding the NMAAHC moved forward with inexorable determination, fully aware of their tremendous responsibility in this undertaking. I recall the brittle January days when thousands of us gathered from across the country each year and stood on the Mall, singing with Stevie Wonder, seeking the action of Congress to adopt the MLK federal holiday. The end result was a mixture of euphoria, pride, and validation. In fact, the level of excitement surrounding the opening of the NMAAHC is similar to my experience in 2008 when President Obama was elected to office. This week, family and friends from around the country are making a pilgrimage to be here for the Museum’s opening. This is a truly national event. And as I did for the annual MLK Day demonstrations on the Mall and the Obama inaugurations, I am hosting a soul food dinner party for out-of-town guests where we will rejoice together and bask in the glory of it all.
Over the course of my life – from my early years in Mobile, Alabama, to my tenure at Howard University, and now in my work to improve the governance of colleges and universities across the country – I have witnessed a journey that has been largely ignored in American history books and distorted by movies and popular media. Many Americans, including Black Americans, know so very little about the complex history of this nation and the profound contributions made by African Americans over hundreds of years that shape the America we live in today. This is a shame – but one that can be overcome in time.
As James Baldwin said, “Know from whence you came. If you know whence you came, there are absolutely no limitations to where you can go.” My personal story is a testament to this: growing up in the segregated south, my siblings and I were inculcated from an early age with a love for our people, a sense of pride, an understanding of our family, and knowledge of African American history. This gave us a firm foundation upon which to build our future lives. As we anticipate the dedication of the Museum by the first African American U.S. President, I imagine the expressions on the faces of my grandparents and parents and wonder what they would say about the establishment of a national museum in Washington, DC dedicated to telling their stories? Devout Christians, I know they would say, “Praise God! Thank you Jesus!” And I imagine they would be so very proud.
It is my hope that everyone, particularly young people, will use the NMAAHC as a place to become educated about American history, both the good and the bad, and move forward with a clearer vision of themselves and their futures. I cannot help but believe that current racial issues and unrest will improve if the history and culture of African American people is known and acknowledged.
The Museum is envisioned as a catalyst for change and social progress through knowledge and understanding. The building’s interior and exhibits were designed to foster communication among people. As a board member of The Community Foundation for the National Capital Region, I view our mission as parallel to the Museum. I urge you and those in your sphere of influence to visit the Museum. I also ask that we all work to ensure that every educator, student, and parent visit the NMAAHC and participate fully in the experience. I am certain that this region will be better for it.
Artis Hampshire-Cowan is founder and principal of Leveraged Leadership Group, LLC. She recently completed a 24-year tenure at Howard University, which included serving as senior vice president and secretary, interim chief operating officer, and acting president. Formerly a prosecutor in Philadelphia, Artis relocated to Washington, D.C. to join the first Barry Administration and rapidly advanced in leadership roles. As General Counsel of RFK stadium, she led the District’s negotiations with the Washington Redskins and thereafter joined Howard University while concurrently serving as Special Counsel to then County Executive Wayne Curry in his successful bid to relocate the Redskins to Prince George’s County, Maryland.
She is a founding board member of Bright Beginnings (a daycare center for homeless children), a founder of the Howard University-based Girls, Inc. DC, and a board member of The Community Foundation for the National Capital Region. She has served on the board of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) and the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission (WSSC). She was appointed by Governor Glendening to chair the Prince George’s Public School Management Oversight panel; served as county executive appointees to superintendent selection committees; chaired education transition for County Executive Curry; and served as co- chair of County Executive Baker’s transition.
Artis has been named to the 2010 Most Influential African Americans in Washington, DC and the 2010 and 2012 Prince George’s Suite Top 100 Who’s Who in Prince George’s County. She was featured in Washingtonian Magazine’s Interesting Dinner Guests (2012), 100 Most Powerful Women (2009) and Power 150—People Who Make Things Happen (2007). In 2008, she received the Women Who Mean Business award from the Washington Business Journal. She is the recipient of the 2013 Wiley Branton Award of the National Bar Association and a 2014 Washington Women’s Area Foundation Honoree. Artis is a graduate of Temple University Law Center and Morris Brown College (honors).