The $250,000,000 Mission to Preserve Black History

Political activist and engineer Sinclair Skinner, who raised more than $225,000 at a fundraiser with Howard University alums says,“The payments are structured in a way that is achievable and, on top of that, they’re tax-deductible. For example, I committed $25,000, which I pay $1,000 at a time.”

Such efforts are also critical to obtaining government funding. “What we ended up doing for many years is having our private fundraising surpass the public money,” says Bunch. “Every year we’d say to Congress, ‘We just raised another $40 million and you need to do your fair share.’ That’s worked very well.” So far, Congress has approved $119.9 million of the $250 million pledge with $85 million pending in the 2013 budget request.

The campaign for dollars is not just targeted at members of the 1%. NMAAHC has developed a grassroots effort as well, pitching charter memberships for as little as $25, a strategy suggested by Earl Stafford to NMAAHC’s development team. “All of us have equity in this museum. Whether someone can give $100 or $1,000, we should not limit contributions by size of wallets.” As a result, the group has received gifts of $5 from senior citizens, and about $600 in coins from the Brooklyn Heights Montessori School. Now they’re adding social media outreach to the mix. “We want as many African Americans as possible to play a role in the development of this museum,” says Johnson Rice. “Getting small contributions is just as important as large corporate donations in reaching our goal.”

For Bunch, that campaign extends to acquiring artifacts. He and Associate Director for Curatorial Affairs Rex M. Ellis have traveled domestically and internationally to find historical objects and meet with collectors who have spent years identifying and authenticating relics of interest. He also encourages people to scour their attics, basements, and family albums for items that fully capture the trials and triumphs of people of African descent. To connect with community members, Bunch’s team came up with an innovative program called Saving African American Treasures, in which staff members traverse the country to help people preserve heirlooms ranging from old shawls to 19th-century photographs. “The big challenge of history museums is that they often fail to humanize it so people care,” says Bunch. “I wanted to start from the human perspective. So we began by collecting 8,000 oral interviews in the first two years and tens of thousands since then. This gives people not only a sense of ownership, but a chance to shape this museum.”

Parsons buttresses Bunch’s point: “It is often said that history is written by the winners, and to me the reality of this museum puts an exclamation mark at the end of the sentence that after 400 years, after all the struggle and triumph and tragedy and turbulence, we won.”

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