National Museum of African American History and Culture
9:03 A.M. EST
THE VICE RESIDENT: Well, thank you all for being here. Thank you to Secretary David Skorton, for your kind words and for your outstanding stewardship of the Smithsonian Institution. Would you give him another round of applause. He sees to the national treasures every day. (Applause.)
And to the host of this event, INSIGHT America, and to the great director of this national treasure, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, Lonnie Bunch, thank you for your stewardship of this great institution. (Applause.)
This is African American History Month, and it is deeply humbling for me to stand before you today in the midst of this great national monument to the struggles, the sacrifices, and the triumphs of so many American heroes -– the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
It’s amazing to think of the progress — Lonnie and I were just speaking about it — the progress since the opening in the fall of 2016. As we stand before you today, nearly four million Americans have already made their way to these hallowed halls. (Applause.)
Nearly one year ago, President Trump visited this museum and spoke on behalf of a grateful and proud nation when he said how deeply, how deeply proud that we are to “have a museum that honors the millions of African American men and women who built our national heritage.” And so I echo those words today.
It’s also an honor to be with other distinguished Americans who sit before me today, but also sit on the stage — people who’ve helped bring about this morning’s opportunities. Join me in thanking Senator James Lankford, Congressman Mark Walker, and Senator Joni Ernst for making time to be with us on this occasion. (Applause.)
And also my friend and the new president of the Heritage Foundation, Kay Coles James, and the chairman — the co-chairman, rather, of the party of Lincoln, Bob Paduchik is with us today. Join me in thanking all of these outstanding leaders. (Applause.)
You heard a few moments ago from someone who played an instrumental role in ensuring the creation of this great museum during his season in Congress, along with now our Ambassador for Religious Liberty, former Senator Sam Brownback. Join me in thanking Congressman J.C. Watts for his past, present, and future contributions to preserving African American heritage. (Applause.)
It is wonderful to be with all of you today. You know, the Good Book tells us, if you owe debts, pay debts; if honor, then honor; if respect, then respect. And from the very moment that Lonnie was charged with finding a place and building an institution, and building public support to construct this great African American Museum of History and Culture, this has been a payment of a debt of gratitude to Americans who, since before our nation’s founding, have contributed mightily to the liberty of this nation. And allow me to reflect for a few minutes today on that.
The history that’s recorded in these halls literally is stitched into every fabric of the American story. It’s a story of hope defeating evil, courage overcoming injustice. But it’s also a story of fellow Americans fighting shoulder-to-shoulder to claim their birthright of liberty and equality.
For nearly a century, I’m proud to say that Americans have paid tribute to the authors of this history by setting aside time in February to celebrate African Americans and everything that they’ve contributed to the life of this nation. But since 1976 in particular, 200 years after our founders declared the immortal words, that “all men are created equal,” we have celebrated African American History Month in February, and we always will. (Applause.)
Now this year, the theme of this special month is “African Americans in Times of War.” And as President Trump said in his proclamation commemorating this month, we remember all — we remember all those African Americans who, in his words, “Bravely fought and died in the name of freedom, while at the same time struggling to attain equality, respect, and the full privileges of citizenship.”
It truly is amazing to think about the contributions of African Americans in the uniform of the United States. It is accurate to say African Americans have worn the uniform of the United States and fought in every war since the American founding. (Applause.)
It was — this reality was memorialized in a painting, in a painting that became, perhaps, the most famous image in the first 150 years of our nation’s image. It’s a painting that now hangs in the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art. But I’m proud to say, Lonnie, that a copy of it hangs in my small office in the West Wing of the White House.
It is a painting known as “Washington’s Crossing.” And as I mentioned, that I expect it comes into the mind of every American gathered here. It was painted by an artist, Emanuel Leutze, in 1850. And as I learned in a book by David Hackett Fischer that I read some 10 years ago, Emanuel Leutze wasn’t just an extraordinary artist who wanted to capture that iconic image of George Washington standing with his knee bent with Alexander Hamilton behind him and an ice-filled river and other patriots surrounding him in the boat as they crossed on that Christmas night, 1776 to take on the Hessians and literally turn the fortunes in the Revolutionary War.
But Emanuel Leutze was also a man deeply committed to the abolition of slavery, and he wanted to make sure that a story was told in the images of that painting. And I encourage all of you — and some of you that might be looking on these words later — to go back and look at that painting one more time.
For in that small boat, crossing that river, are all different types of Americans in all different apparel — patriots all. Some from the South, some from the North. But there in the boat, pulling on an oar, is a man with a short jacket, in the garb of a New England seaman, and he is an African American soldier crossing the Delaware with George Washington. (Applause.)
Now as David Hackett Fischer recounts in his book, this was a reflection of a reality. The 14th Massachusetts Continental was actually raised in Marblehead and recruited from fishing towns and on the north shore of Massachusetts. There were challenges, one can imagine, when you appreciate the history. An army led by George Washington, himself an owner of slaves. But an army that integrated an America of southern colonies and northern colonies.
But George Washington is a reflection of his capacity for command, and his character brought that army together to win us a nation. The challenge of integrating the regiments was extraordinary, but it was accomplished.
George Washington, as history records, first allowed African Americans to simply continue in the ranks. But I say with great pride, as history records, by the end of the Revolutionary War, African Americans were actively recruited, and some rose to the rank of colonel in New England regiments in the army of the American founding. (Applause.)
It’s a story that lives on, that we need to tell our children and our grandchildren, to understand that literally, since before the founding of this country, African Americans wore the uniform of the United States and fought for the ideals enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and our founding documents.
We remember in this month heroes all. Men like Crispus Attucks, who perished in the Boston Massacre; Lemuel Hayes, who fought at Lexington and Concord. We remember the nearly 200,000 African American Union soldiers who bravely sacrificed and forged a new birth of freedom for our nation in the fires of the Civil War. We remember the Buffalo Soldiers who helped tame the West; the Tuskegee Airmen, several of whom I’ve had the great honor to meet, who flew for freedom in World War II.
And we also remember a man that I had the privilege of helping to pay tribute to at the annual dinner in his name — a graduate of West Point Military Academy, Henry Flipper. Lieutenant Henry Flipper became the first African American to graduate from the United States Military Academy in 1877, just 12 years after the end of slavery and its eradication from the Republic.
Sadly, only four years later, history records that, after serving with great distinction and valor and courage in the 10th Cavalry, Henry Flipper was unjustly accused of a crime he did not commit, and he was ejected from the Army dishonorably.
Happily, history was righted. In 1976, the Army corrected this historic wrong and retroactively awarded Henry Flipper an honorable discharge, and his name and his service to America was restored. (Applause.)
In fact, every year, there is the Henry Flipper Dinner at the West Point Military Academy, where a new candidate is, each year, commemorated in the great tradition of that trailblazing American hero, Henry Flipper.
In fact, his legacy would go on to inspire generations of African Americans in uniform at that great and storied institution. As I was sharing with the Secretary and the Director just before we came out, I just returned from South Korea.
It was there that I had the great privilege to be among the men and women who serve in United States Forces Korea, as well as to meet with our allies. But it was also there that I spent time with my friend, and a great American, General Vincent K. Brooks, the commander of U.S. Forces Korea, who was the West Point Military Academy’s first African American cadet’s first captain when he graduated in 1980. (Applause.)
But General Vincent Brooks comes from good stock. We were with his wife, Carol. She herself grew up in a military family. But General Brooks himself, who I’m sure will be somewhat humbled, if not a little annoyed for me making a fuss about him this morning — General Brooks actually is the brother of General Leo Brooks — Brigadier General Leo Brooks, Jr. And he and his brother are both the sons of Major General Leo Brooks, Sr. This is a great American family in uniform and part of an extraordinary legacy of African Americans. (Applause.)
So during this extraordinary month of commemoration, we think about all those who have gone before. We think about those who are serving now. But also, I’m very humbled to say, it is an honor for me to be with the first-ever female African American graduate of West Point. In fact, Sergeant Pat Locke is with us here today. Would you give her a huge round of applause for being another great trailblazer of African Americans. (Applause.)
So thank you all for being here today. Thank you for being a part of African American History Month, as we celebrate all these heroes.
But as I close, let me remember one other hero in particular, and the contributions that he made.
Yesterday, we remembered the birthday of Abraham Lincoln, February the 12th. But tomorrow, we will commemorate the 200th birthday of his friend, and a great American, Frederick Douglass. (Applause.)
Two hundred years ago tomorrow, America was blessed by the birth of a man who, in his lifetime, through his intellect and his personal courage, and through his inspiration that would echo through the generations, transformed America into a more perfect union.
Frederick Douglass was born into slavery. But he always knew — he always knew that he was endowed by his Creator with certain inalienable rights; that he was made in the image of God, not property. And he resolved early on in his life to be free, after teaching himself to read and to write. Or as Frederick Douglass later said, “Education… means emancipation.”
As a teenager, Frederick Douglass gained the confidence to escape his chains of bondage after fighting off an attack by his slave master — a moment he would later call, “A glorious resurrection, from the tomb of slavery, to the heaven of freedom.”
In fact, despite the horrors that he had suffered at the hands of the slave master, Douglass had a love for America that radiated out of his life because he believed in our Constitution. He believed in our founding documents. In fact, he called the Constitution, “A glorious liberty document.”
As we remember the 200th anniversary of his birth tomorrow, we do so standing today in between the birthdays of two great champions of a more perfect union and of equality in America.
Abraham Lincoln actually did call Frederick Douglass, “My friend… Douglass.” After his assassination, history records that Mrs. Lincoln actually gave Frederick Douglass Abraham Lincoln’s walking stick as a sign of their connection.
It is remarkable to think of the contributions that Frederick Douglass has made, and we do well to remember and to teach them to our children and our grandchildren, as time goes on.
But to remember Frederick Douglass is not simply to remember all the contributions that he made until his death in 1895. It is to understand that his example and his words would prick the conscience of a nation for generations to come. It would be Frederick Douglass who said, “Slavery is not abolished until the black man has the ballot.” And those words would echo from his passing in 1895 until the passing of the Voting Rights Act in 1965.
If you owe debts, pay debts; if honor, then honor; if respect, then respect. And today I thank you all for gathering in this really special place. Still new in its construction, but the memories that are enshrined here, the heroes that are remembered here, make this really hallowed ground for the American people. It’s hallowed ground where we remember a difficult past, but we remember our progress toward a more perfect union, a progress driven by the sacrifice, the courage, the idealism, and the service in uniform of African American men and women.
But we also remember the faith — the faith of a community that I think has lifted this nation throughout our history. You know, the Bible says in Second Corinthians, “Where the spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.”
In 2010, my wife and I joined a legendary leader of the Civil Rights Movement, my friend John Lewis, when we traveled to mark the 45th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday” in Selma, Alabama. We brought our children with us. It was an extraordinary experience we wanted them to have, to walk in arm-in-arm across the Edmund Pettus Bridge with John Lewis, who, 45 years earlier, had been a part of that steady march of courage and sacrifice toward a more perfect union.
But as inspiring as it was to be with my friend, John, I have to tell you that the pastor I walked with left me with a profound appreciation for the role of faith in the progress that we’ve made in this nation.
Dr. F.D. Reese is a pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Selma. We had met when we gathered at Brown Chapel in Selma, just for some prayer and fellowship before we made the walk over the Edmund Pettus Bridge. With John Lewis on one side and Pastor Reese nearby, he and I had a conversation.
As those of you have been there, and millions of Americans have, know that the Edmund Pettus Bridge is an old-style metal bridge that actually has a very high and severe peak over the river. You actually can’t see the other side of the bridge when you start up. And I’ll never forget, as we were walking up the bridge, realizing that what they would see on that day 45 years earlier when they came over the crest of the bridge, would be a sea of flashing lights, police officers on horseback, and the threat of violence against them for the protests — the peaceful protests that they were conducting.
I turned to Pastor Reese, and I asked him very sincerely, that when they came over and they saw that sight, I said, “Did you ever think of turning back?” And he said words I’ll never forget. Pastor Reese put his hand on my shoulder the way old men sometimes do with younger men, and he smiled and he shook his head, and he said, “Mike, we had just prayed through it at Brown Chapel, and we decided to go on regardless.” Faith had carried them forward.
I believe with all my heart it was faith that carried our nation to a more perfect union, inspired out of the pews of African American churches all across this country that challenged the conscience of a nation to end the evil of slavery in America. But also, on that Sunday that came to be known as “Bloody Sunday,” it also inspired a nation to live up to Frederick Douglass’ words to ultimately abolish slavery by ensuring that African Americans had the full access to the ballot and the right to vote.
That I saw it firsthand and heard it, inspires me to this day. So we gather here in this very, very special place, in this special month of the year to remember this National Museum of African American History and Culture. We gather here to remember, in particular this month, the contributions of African Americans in the uniform of the United States.
But let every American seize this month every opportunity to celebrate the incalculable contributions that African Americans have made to liberty in the past, in the present, and in the future.
So thank you very much, and may God bless this great, great heritage and all that it’s meant to the United States of America. (Applause.)
9:25 A.M. EST