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A dream come true

African American history museum
A new home for African American treasures 09:10

Two weeks from now, we’ll see A DREAM COME TRUE: The dedication of a new museum in Washington that will tell a story that’s never fully been told before. Our Cover Story is reported now by Lee Cowan:

High in the Hollywood Hills, on one of those California evenings that those who don’t live here wonder why they don’t, Quincy Jones was at the piano trying to calm his nerves.

At 83 it’s hard to imagine what could possibly un-settle such a music legend. After all, he’s worked with the likes of Michael Jackson, and has 27 Grammys to his name, as well as an Oscar. But Jones’ latest task is pretty daunting.

“The big challenge,” Jones chuckled, “is the ‘what, who, why,’ because there’s a big story to tell there.”

The story he has to tell is nothing short of the tale of black America. He’s producing the dedication ceremony for the opening of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.

As many as 20,000 people are expected to descend on the Mall to watch President Obama cut the ribbon himself.

Jones is on the museum’s council, and has been working closely with founding director Lonnie Bunch to help collect items of both musical and cultural significance.

“There’s not a future without a good past, a good knowledge of the past,” Bunch said. “So that’s what we’re trying to do.”

The museum’s 11 massive galleries display, in total, more than 30,000 priceless artifacts.

“He’s had his fingers on sort of American culture for 60 years,” Bunch said. “I find myself pinching myself saying I’m sitting here with Quincy Jones -- oh, my goodness!”

Bunch showed Jones a few of his “favorite little things,” including Sammy Davis Jr.’s tap shoes, “from when we was a baby.”

“I worked with him when I was 12!” Jones added.

The museum’s 11 massive galleries display, in total, more than 30,000 priceless artifacts.

There’s a lot of space to fill -- the museum is 400,000 square feet, 60 percent of which is underground.

The lower floors present a darker tale -- a segregated rail car; shackles used to enslave a child; and the casket of Emmett Till, the young boy whose lynching in 1955 helped spark the civil rights movement. 

And there are the stools from a Woolworth’s lunch counter where black students were refused service, and so refused to leave. 

But make no mistake, Bunch says: This is not (nor was it ever intended to be) the National Museum of Discrimination.

“For me, the African American experience is an experience not of tragedy, but of unbelievable belief -- belief in themselves, belief in an America that often didn’t believe in them,” he said.

Few items better represent that sentiment than a P.T. Stearman bi-plane flown by the pioneering Tuskegee Airmen in World War II.

“If you could in essence fly as high and as fast as white pilots, then surely racial equality would follow on the ground,” Bunch said.

There’s also Chuck Berry’s ‘73 Cadillac, Carl Lewis’ Olympic medals, and Muhammad Ali’s boxing gloves.

“We had to say, let’s tell the story and find the balance between the stories that are going to make you cry, and the stories that are going to make you smile,” Bunch said.

Which is why Quincy Jones makes such a valuable resource for Bunch. He, like so many others, have succeeded in the face of enormous obstacles. 

“When you come from the bottom, you never forget it. Never,” Jones said.

He was born in Chicago in what he calls one of the biggest black ghettos in America. He lived for a time with his grandmother, a former slave, and -- while touring the South with jazz great Lionel Hampton -- experienced first-hand the sting of racism.

“We get to the biggest church in town, from the steeples of one of the big churches there, they had a rope and an effigy of a black dummy hanging off the top of the steeples,” Jones said.

“You remember that to this day?” Cowan asked.

“Hell, how you gonna forget that?”

By the 1950s he watched some of the greatest entertainers on the Las Vegas Strip being cheered on stage, but scorned off it: “Belafonte, Lena Horne, Sammy, they couldn’t even go into the casino. They had to eat in the kitchen. Getting $17,000 to star in a show, and go back to a black hotel on the other side of town.”

Given the struggle for equality, it’s perhaps not surprising that even in the museum world, the African American piece to the nation’s historic puzzle was often missing.

Few pushed and pulled harder to legislate a home for the museum than civil rights icon John Lewis. At the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta (where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was pastor), Lewis said, “If you believe in something, you have to stand up and fight and push and pull.”

Lewis introduced a bill for the museum every year for almost 15 years, met with continued opposition. “There was just some feeling on the part of one or two,” Lewis said. “But there was one particular member, the late Senator Jesse Helms, each time the bill would come up in the Senate, he would put a hold on it. Every single time.”

It wasn’t until 2003 that President George W. Bush finally signed bipartisan legislation getting the ball rolling. But it would be another nine years before construction on the museum began -- erecting the bones of what years later would support a bronze-colored structure that purposely stands out against its all-white neighbors.

Cowan asked Lewis, “What’s it going to be like for you walking through those doors the first time?”

“I don’t know,” he replied. “I’m going to try to hold it. But I’ll probably cry.  It is my hope that it will make America a better country, and make our people a better people.”

Perhaps it already has.

Maurice and Mark Person’s ancestors were slaveowners in Virginia, and came into possession of what is one of the centerpieces of the new museum: A well-worn Bible belonging to Nat Turner, who in 1831 led a bloody slave revolts that left 55 white Virginians, all in a single night.

“We had ancestors that were slain who didn’t make it, so it’s close to home,” Mark said. “And nothing, no animosity against Nat Turner, I think it’s a time for reconciliation.”

Fact is, it was actually two slaves who saved Mark Person’s great-great-grandmother by hiding her from the angry mob.

“The compassion of the slaves saved our ancestor,” Mark said, “so I think about it, if it hadn’t been for the slaves, I wouldn’t be able to tell the story. They could have easily said, ‘Here she is!’ and didn’t.”

As family heirlooms go, Nat Turner’s Bible was so significant experts say it could have gone for millions at auction.  But the Persons didn’t ask for a cent.

In fact, Bunch says as much as 80 percent of the museum’s artifacts were donated by ordinary people who pulled them out of their basements, their attics or their churches.

Each item in the museum’s collection tells a story -- some of a tortured racial past, others of resiliency and optimism.

But they are all threads woven into the same tapestry, depicting not only how we as a nation got here, but how we as a nation are still struggling to make it better.

Jones said, “We still haven’t figured it out. As we speak right now, we’re trying to figure it out, you know? And it’s a dilemma, isn’t it? It’s a long time, man.”

“So, what’s the solution?” Cowan asked.

“The solution is to unite or fight, that’s all. And I think it’s time we unite. It’s the only way we’re going to make it.”

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