Ambassador Mary Beth Leonard’s Opening Remarks at the National Museum of African American History and Culture

Dr. Desta, thank you for asking me to join the live streaming of the museum’s opening.

So excited to be here; I was in Washington for several weeks this summer as I prepared for my Senate hearings and eventual arrival to become the U.S. Ambassador to the African Union.  The museum’s glorious building was already completed on the Mall.  I was so disappointed to figure out that it would not open until after I left the U.S. – and apparently I would have had to wait even more still, because tickets are already booked out through sometime in November!

The National Museum of African American History and Culture celebrates African American history, culture, and identity and demonstrates how the African American journey has shaped America’s past, present, and future.

Today’s grand opening is a teachable moment for us all.  So many nations and communities, including the U.S., have histories with lasting legacies reflecting imbalanced opportunities and protections of citizens.  This museum reminds of the ways in which the U.S. has come far on these issues, even as current events in the U.S., including even over the last few days in the city of Charlotte, remind us of how much farther we still need to go.

So, this opening is particularly important for us in the United States, as our nation struggles to match our ideals and values about equality and universal human rights with the reality on the ground; it is about memorializing a rich history of struggle and triumph, while also shining a light on the continued struggle for equality and justice in America, and America’s long journey of acceptance and validation.

Those stories are as different for Americans as the broad diversity of experiences across our large country.  I come from a town called Worcester, Massachusetts, about one hour to the west of Boston, a town you are perhaps more likely to have heard of.  My home town prides itself on a history of principled stands in the struggle for racial equality, and in particular fervent abolitionist roots in the mid-nineteenth century.  The anti-slavery Free Soil Party was founded in Worcester in 1848; and the chronicle of Worcester’s 1854 history includes an event called the Butman riots, in which the good citizens of Worcester gathered to physically intimidate and run out of town an infamous bounty hunter who arrived in town to try to hunt fugitive slaves, setting a local precedent banning future such attempts.

Those events pre-dated my own family’s tenure in Massachusetts.  I am a daughter of Irish and Italian immigrants, the latest an Italian grandfather who arrived in the United States 100 years before I became a U.S. ambassador for the first time.  Past stories about making the American dream a reality have in many instances been cross-generational ones.

Since its creation nearly ten years ago, the U.S. Mission to the African Union has been working in close partnership with the Afircan Union and UN Econcomic Commision for Africa to advance our shared interests of democracy and governance, trade and investment, peace and security, and opportunity and development.

We are working together to help ensure that our shared values, represented in the museum we celebrate today, may be realized across Africa.

Although we in the United States have certainly not always lived up to these ideals, as the National Museum of African American History and Culture captures so eloquently, we have remained steadfast and committed to the continued perfection of our union and to our connection with the African continent.  As we work to partner with the African Union, we do so not by holding ourselves as perfect examples, but by highlighting our long and hard, but always worthy journey.

Today’s opening provides an important window to America’s past struggles and a lens to understand present day challenges.  I am honored AND delighted to stand here with you today to celebrate this joyous occasion.