Houstonians, public and private, featured in opening of National Museum of African American History and Culture

Melanie Lawson Image
Thursday, September 29, 2016
National Museum of African American History and Culture
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ABC13's Melanie Lawson reports from the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

HOUSTON (KTRK) -- Houstonians, both well known and others a bit more behind the scenes, will be featured in the new National Museum of African American History and Culture when it opens in Washington, D.C. on Saturday.

A Houston resident, Alison Leland has been a part of the making of the NMAAHC since her late husband, Congressman Mickey Leland began work on it in the 1980's.

"Mickey first introduced a bill in 1986 and then again in 1988 and 1989," Alison Leland said, recounting her husband's work.

Mickey Leland found a powerful ally in civil rights activist and Georgia Congressman John Lewis. After Mickey died, Lewis kept submitting the bill. It took 15 times before it finally passed with President George W. Bush's signature.

"It makes me very proud that after all these years following his death that his legacy lives on and that ideas and seeds that he planted are now coming to fruition in a really spectacular way," said Leland.

Floyd Newsum got to see the new museum last weekend, with one of his paintings hanging inside. He's one of two Houston artists featured. The other is his friend and mentor, the late muralist and Houstonian, John Biggers.

"To be a part of that group, to know that not only the nation will see my work, but the world -- the Smithsonian draws the world," Newsum said.

The museum will also include better known Houstonians like the first black female astronaut Mae Jemison and prima ballerina Lauren Anderson. Making history in 1991 as the first black dancer in a major company, Anderson's pointe shoes will be featured in the museum.

"America's treasures are in the Smithsonian and now there's a whole museum dedicated to African American history and culture -- and I'm part of that," said Anderson. "There aren't words to say how I really feel."

University of Houston graduate and Olympic runner Carl Lewis broke world records, winning 10 medals, nine of them gold. One of those medals is buried with his father but the rest are all going to NMAAHC.

For years, Lewis said he kept the medals in a safety deposit box, "Why should I worry about that when I can leave them somewhere that everyone can see them all the time," said Lewis.

Now, the medals will be on display with some 160 other items from his monumental career.

Still, not everyone in the new museum is a household name.

Nearly 40,000 artifacts came from people around the country. The museum's curators traveled to find treasures to help paint the portrait of black America.

Drucie Chase and her daughter Saundria offered up the papers of John Chase --Texas' first licensed black architect, Drucie's late husband.

"It just highlighted what we've always known -- he's a great architect and a great person and I'm so glad to share that with the world," said Chase.

Long time art collectors, Anita Smith and her husband Gerald given a $1 million gift along with two paintings from the late artist John Biggers to the museum, sharing his work with the nation.

"If God gives you the means, it's important to keep this dream going," Anita Smith said.

For the Houstonian, the NMAAHC is about a lot more than art -- or even race.

"It's going to be meaningful for the African American community, but for the Anglo community and all the communities of the US and the world to really see what the African American community has done for the United States of America," said Smith.

Her plans this weekend include exploring the 400,000 square foot museum in person, joining thousands of others eager to see history in the making.