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Supporters keep up fight for African American museum

Published Oct. 4, 2005

Members of Congress are blaming budget cuts and philosophic disputes for the failure to open an African American Museum on the National Mall despite a decade of trying.

Numerous supporters inside and outside Congress have been working since the mid-1980s to establish the museum in the Arts and Industries Building at the Smithsonian Institution.

In early February, Democratic Georgia Rep. John Lewis, reintroduced legislation to set up a museum on the mall. Illinois Sen. Paul Simon, also a Democrat, introduced a companion measure to the Senate in March.

"The story of black people in America has yet to be told," Lewis said. "As a result, the understanding of American history remains incomplete."

Republican Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina is the proposed museum's outspoken foe, saying it duplicates existing ones elsewhere. He named as example the Anacostia Museum of African American History and Culture, which is is part of the Smithsonian.

On the Senate floor in October, Helms said that if the African American Museum measure passes, he believes Hispanic Americans and other minorities would want museums too. He also questioned whether the museum would allow exhibits featuring controversial Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan.

"I doubt many Americans want their tax dollars being spent to honor Louis Farrakhan," Helms told his colleagues.

Helms is a member of the Rules Committee, which has jurisdiction over the Smithsonian. He said museum backers are unable to specify how much it will cost, leaving him worried the federal government will pick up the bill.

But Steven Newsome, director of the National African American Museum Project, said that most of the money would come from private contributions and that there are no plans to seek federal funding. Fund-raising, however, can't begin until Congress approves the museum, he said.

Newsome estimates its cost between $20-million and $40-million.

The proposed museum is necessary, he said, because the existing African-American exhibits at the Smithsonian are inadequate.

The Anacostia Museum _ also directed by Newsome _ focuses on contemporary black history in a few East Coast states. The new museum will present African-American history and culture throughout the United States from slavery times to the present. It will help educate, inform and inspire all Americans, he said.

The bill has bipartisan support in Congress, including both Florida senators _ Republican Sen. Connie Mack and Democratic Sen. Bob Graham. In the House, Florida co-sponsors are Democratic Reps. Carrie Meek of Miami, Corrine Brown of Jacksonville and Alcee Hastings of Miramar.

Supporters said they are hopeful the bill will pass during this 104th Congress despite Helms' objections.

"These are long-term struggles," Newsome said.