National Museum of African American History and Culture opens this weekend

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The grand opening for the Smithsonian Institute's National Museum of African American History and Culture is Saturday, Sept. 24. (WLS)

The grand opening for the Smithsonian Institute's National Museum of African American History and Culture is Saturday, Sept. 24.

The museum was built on five acres of the National Mall, just across from the Washington Monument. The building's visually striking design was inspired by the three-tiered crowns seen in West African art.

Inside, the complex story of the African American experience unfolds, curated with equal parts celebration and somber reflection.

"You can't understand resiliency and strength without understanding the travails," said founding director Dr. Lonnie Bunch.

Bunch took the job after a stint as president of the Chicago Historical Society, joining 10 years ago before there was even a location for the museum or items to put in it.

"In many ways, we discovered that the African American experience is the quintessential American experience," Bunch said.

Last week Bunch offered the media a sneak peek at the museum, taking a moment to celebrate the realization of a dream of so many generations.

Staff is busy putting the final touches on exhibits throughout the building and installing artifacts, including one the director himself calls one of the most powerful pieces in the museum: the original casket of Emmitt Till.

The casket was discarded in a shed in Burr Ridge Cemetery, discovered years after Till's body was exhumed. Bunch convinced Till's mother to donate it, and it's now being restored.

Chicago features prominently throughout the museum. There is memorabilia from figures like Harold Washington, Barack Obama and Oprah Winfrey.

"So much of the history that is tied to America runs through Chicago. We talk about the Chicago Defender and the migration of blacks from the South to the North," Bunch said.

Many of those new to the city decades ago came to Quinn Chapel, the first African American church in Chicago established in the 1840s. Bunch befriended the congregation and asked the church to donate a pew, which now sits in the museum.

"We were overjoyed to realize and recognize that Quinn Chapel is being included among American history," said Rev. James Moody of Quinn Chapel A.M.E. Church.

The museum also has a personal connection for ABC7 Eyewitness News reporter Karen Jordan. There is a clip of her father Robert Jordan and his co-anchor performing their handshake routine, which went viral. There is also a concert poster of her great aunt, opera singer Mattiwilda Dobbs.
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