19 CEOs Named To Black History Museum Council

Roundup: Talking About History

Jacqueline Trescott, The Washington Post, 12/08/04

The Smithsonian Institution has selected a roster of high-profile corporate leaders, including media empress Oprah Winfrey and the chairmen of American Express, Merrill Lynch, IBM and Time Warner, to lead the effort to establish the country's first comprehensive museum on African American life.

The Smithsonian Board of Regents yesterday appointed 19 executives to the founding Council of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which is scheduled to open in 2013. They also named a group of scholars to an advisory committee that will oversee the content of the White House-backed museum.

In the early stages of planning, the council will be involved in"every aspect of development," said Sheila Burke, the Smithsonian deputy secretary and chief operating officer. Yet the expertise of the members indicates that fundraising will be a primary concentration.

The museum is expected to cost between $300 million and $400 million. The legislation that gave the Smithsonian responsibility for the effort calls for the final cost to be equally shared by the government and private sources.

"The museum is a major statement, both physical and intellectual, of the African American experience in the United States. It should be on the Mall for everyone to experience, learn from and reflect on, just like the Holocaust Museum and the Indian Museum," said Robert Johnson, one of the new council members and the founder of Black Entertainment Television. Fundraising is key, he admits."You know what they say -- give, get or get off."

That is only the beginning. The Smithsonian regents and the new council have to select a location for the museum.

The legislation pinpointed several choices: the historic Arts and Industries Building on the Mall; the open land near the National Museum of American History at the corner of Constitution Avenue and 14th Street NW; a site on 14th Street SW just at the entrance of the 14th Street Bridge; and the Banneker Overlook site on 10th Street SW south of L'Enfant Plaza. Burke said yesterday that decision would probably be made by regents in the next nine months.

The museum does not start with a vast collection of artifacts, as did the National Museum of the American Indian. The planned African American museum, first championed by Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) and others 15 years ago, does have a starting point: The vaults of other Smithsonian museums house an extensive collection of African American artifacts in history, music and art.

What stories of African American history will be emphasized also must be decided, though it is already clear the place will be a hybrid history and art museum.

The council"will be very active as we define the mission of the museum," said Burke, who is currently interviewing candidates for the director's position. The caliber of the members, she explained," clearly indicates how serious this effort is. This is a board that is used to making decisions and doing strategic planning. This is a working board."

Homer A. Neal, a physicist at the University of Michigan and a former Smithsonian regent, said the time ahead is a challenge but a worthwhile one."To have a site on the Mall dedicated to African American history is in itself a very powerful statement by the nation," Neal said.

Many of the new members are front-page names in the business world. They include chief executives: Kenneth I. Chenault, of American Express; E. Stanley O'Neal, of Merrill Lynch; Samuel J. Palmisano, of IBM; Richard D. Parsons, of Time Warner; Ann M. Fudge, of Young & Rubicam Brands and Franklin D. Raines, of Fannie Mae.

Fudge, who grew up in Washington, said the board is a way to help write the Smithsonian's future.

"I look forward to the day the National Museum opens and I can take my children and grandchildren to not only see history but be part of it," she said, in a statement.

Few, however, have the household recognition of Winfrey, the uber-successful talk-show host, philanthropist and president of Harpo Inc. Fortune magazine has estimated her worth at $1 billion.

In a conversation with Smithsonian Secretary Lawrence M. Small, also on the council, Winfrey said she had turned down all requests to serve on boards outside her company. But"she had tremendous enthusiasm about getting involved with this new museum," Small said.

This is the second African American museum effort Winfrey and Johnson have been involved in. Both were major donors to the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati, which opened this summer.

In addition to Johnson and Raines, other Washington power brokers on the committee are James A. Johnson, the former chairman of Fannie Mae and the Kennedy Center board; Anthony Welters, the president of AmeriChoice; Ann D. Jordan, a former University of Chicago administrator; and H. Patrick Swygert, the president of Howard University. Small and Wesley S. Williams Jr., a Washington attorney who is chairman of the Smithsonian regents executive committee, represent the Smithsonian.

Beside Winfrey, the producer and composer Quincy Jones represents the entertainment world. He is also involved with the Washington group that is trying to start a music museum. Linda Johnson Rice, the chief executive of Johnson Publishing Co., whose family company has published Ebony and Jet magazines -- themselves archives of black life -- is also on the board.

The other members of the council are James Ireland Cash, retired associate dean of the Harvard Business School, and Michael L. Lomax, the chief executive of the United Negro College Fund and former president of Dillard University.

The Smithsonian also appointed five people to a scholarly committee. The museum is expected to cover slavery, reconstruction, the Harlem Renaissance and the civil rights movement, among other topics.

The committee members are:

* John Hope Franklin, the dean of black historians, who wrote the standard"From Slavery to Freedom: A History of Negro Americans";
* Drew S. Days III, professor of law at Yale University, and former U.S. solicitor general and assistant attorney general for civil rights;
* Deborah L. Mack, a museum and academic consultant who has worked for the Field Museum of Natural History and the Underground Railroad Center;
* Alfred Moss, a professor at the University of Maryland, author of"The American Negro Academy: Voice of the Talented Tenth" and co-editor of"The Facts of Reconstruction: Essays in Honor of John Hope Franklin"; and
* Richard J. Powell, an art history professor at Duke University who has written extensively on art, race and representation.

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