It’s been one year since bells rang out throughout the nation to welcome the National Museum of African American History and Culture to the National Mall.
In the 12 months that followed, nearly 3 million visitors have meandered through the museum’s halls, discovering untold stories of the African-American experience and learning more than many history books have to offer.
Visitors are often moved to tears as they read the names of slave ships or gaze upon the shackles that once bound the enslaved. Others smile broadly in front of exhibits that tell stories of happier times.
The experience is often summed up in one word: life-changing.
“I’m sorry I didn’t come down here sooner. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience for a black man [or] black woman, and I’m going back to tell all those young people they have to come down here and see what their history is about,” visitor Omar Jones said Thursday. He visited D.C. from New York just to see the museum.
Edith Wron and her granddaughter Tayonna Smith called the experience of visiting the museum “exciting” and “amazing.”
“You can go back and see where you’re from and the culture — stuff that the books don’t always tell you,” Smith said.
Lonnie Bunch, founding director of the museum, says the museum is grateful for its success and invites the public to help celebrate the inaugural year this weekend.
“This first anniversary gives us at the Smithsonian the opportunity to thank everyone for this incredible gift and for making it possible to continue our mission to help America grapple with history by seeing their past through an African American lens – and ultimately help Americans find healing and reconciliation,” Bunch said.
Like other Smithsonian facilities, entry to the museum is free, but its popularity has forced it to continue a timed-pass system to control crowds and alleviate wait times. Those tickets remain a hot commodity and often sell out in minutes.
Passes for January 2018 will become available Oct. 4.
Many visitors say the museum has inspired them to start some important conversations.
First-time visitor Judith Carlsson said she witnessed a father and son talk about activism after they saw an exhibit about how Muhammad Ali was jailed for his refusal to be drafted.
“It was just such a sweet moment, and I could see how the little boy was just learning and learning and learning. I just wanted to follow them around,” Carlsson said.
Visitor Elaine Robnett-Moore said she had a conversation about race with a complete stranger while sitting down for a meal in the Sweet Home Cafe.
“We were sitting at lunch and we were joined by another woman that we didn’t know, and it gave us the opportunity to have an exchange about racial issues and what needs to be done or what we hope to be able to do,” Robnett-Moore said.
On Sept. 23 and 24, the museum will celebrate everything it has accomplished in its inaugural year. The two-day festival on the museum’s outdoor grounds will feature music, garden tours and numerous activities.
Guests lucky enough to have a reserved pass during that time will get to see a puppet show, step performances and activities designed to reveal the stories behind objects displayed at the museum.
The anniversary celebration will conclude Sept. 26 with a panel discussion featuring members of the Little Rock Nine. Six of the nine students who integrated the Arkansas high school in 1957 are set to speak on the panel.
The push for the museum began in 1915 with African-American Civil War veterans looking for a way to commemorate America’s black experience. Then, former President George W. Bush signed a law authorizing the construction in 2003.
After more than 100 years, the dream of having a place African-American history could call home became a reality on Sept. 24, 2016, when then-President Barack Obama rang the historic Freedom Bell, officially dedicating the museum.
The Freedom Bell, which was cast in 1886, belongs to the First Baptist Church of Williamsburg, Virginia, a church historians believe was the first Baptist church organized by and entirely for African Americans.
As the Freedom Bell rang, bells all over the country rang with it. According to The Smithsonian Magazine, at least 17 churches around the nation planned to ring their bells.
After the museum opened, the Freedom Bell was on display inside the museum for a month before it was returned to its home.
No matter their duration, every exhibit inside the museum serves as a moving tribute to the generations who came before us, and it leaves many visitors longing for just a few more hours to take in everything.
Visitor Carl Emanuel traveled from New York to see the museum and said he made a vow to himself to return.
“It’s heart-wrenching on one hand; it’s uplifting on the other hand,” he said.