WASHINGTON — Tammy Boyd remembers in 2000 when her boss Rep. John Lewis gave her the assignment: Get enough bipartisan support behind legislation to build a national African American museum.
Never mind that the Georgia congressman had been trying to get Congress to pass the bill for 15 years.
“I thought, ‘Oh this is a great idea – an African American museum … but I did not know how big it would end up being or how long folks had been fighting,” for a museum, recalled Boyd, then the legislative director for Lewis. “I knew it would probably be hard. I didn’t think it would be that difficult.”
Last fall, 16 years later, Boyd stood in the lobby of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, a 400,000-square-foot bronze-colored structure on the National Mall.
“Even when I was working on it, I knew that it was something great, but did not know that it would be of the magnitude that it was,” said Boyd, 42, a native of Jackson, Miss. “I’m like wow you actually worked on getting this passed.”
It’s been more than six months since Boyd joined tens of thousands at the museum’s grand opening. She sat rows from the stage where former President Obama, the nation’s first African American president, and former President George W. Bush, who had signed the bill authorizing federal funding for the museum, delivered passionate speeches.
It was a long road from the day Boyd was tasked with helping develop a strategy to navigate Lewis’ bill through the Republican-controlled Congress and drum up support from scores of groups off Capitol Hill. It was a daunting challenge.
“I had no idea there was so much entailed in it,” said Boyd, who now runs TKB Global Strategies, a lobbying/consulting firm in Washington, D.C. “I knew there were challenges (to passing a bill). But this had so many quiet kind of hurdles.”
For years, Lewis had introduced bills to build an African American museum, but those efforts repeatedly failed. Efforts by others dated back decades earlier.
Still, Lewis was determined to try again and teamed with then Rep. J.C. Watts, an African American Republican from Oklahoma. Over in the Senate, he worked with Sam Brownback, a Republican from Kansas, and Max Cleland, a Democrat from Georgia.
“We thought it was really key to get a Republican cosponsor,” Boyd said.
Boyd worked with the lawmakers’ staffers – Kerri Speight Watson from Watts’ office, La Rochelle Young from Brownback’s and Donnice Turner from Cleland’s.
“She made it clear what Lewis wanted and what his vision was for this museum and the legislation,” recalled Watson, who was then a senior legislative aid for Watts. “We all worked together to come up with a strategy to get the legislation moving and passed.”
Robert Wilkins, chairman of the site and building committee Congress set up to plan the museum, said Boyd was instrumental in pushing the bill, particularly helping to craft legislative language and build coalitions.
“She had to get in those weeds and figure out how to resolve all of these issues,” said Wilkins, author of the Long Road to Hard Truth. The 100-year Mission to Create the National Museum of African American History and Culture. “She really dug in and rolled up her sleeves.”
There were meetings with Smithsonian officials, who initially opposed the costly project.
There were groups worried the national museum would siphon funding for regional museums focusing on the African American experience.
Debate raged over whether the museum should center on slavery or other periods of black history in America.
Some Southern lawmakers were concerned the museum would focus only on the region’s troubling history of slavery and Jim Crow. One lawmaker had even put a hold on the measure.
Then there was a group that opposed putting another museum on the National Mall.
“Everything was sort of a fight,” Boyd said. “Every time we would get things sort of in sync there would be another issue, then another issue.”
Eventually in 2001, Congress passed a $2 million bill to set up a commission to study whether there could and should be a museum focused on African Americans.
Congress passed a second bill in 2003 authorizing the museum. Bush signed the bill into law later that year.
Tammy Boyd talks about what it means to see the National
Tammy Boyd talks about what it means to see the National Museum of African American History and Culture come to life. Boyd, a former legislative director for Rep. John Lewis, helped craft bills to build the museum. (Photo: Jarrad Henderson, USAT)
Watson, who described Boyd as politically savvy, said it helped to have Boyd’s knowledge of the inner workings of Congress.
“We had many, many challenging moments,’’ said Watson, who runs Politics and Pastries, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization she founded that promotes civic participation engagement in Oklahoma. “Tammy never let it get the best of her. She was never flustered or the type to just throw up her hands and say, ‘Just forget it.’ She was very determined the entire time … She refused to take no for an answer.”
Wilkins said he particularly remembers when Lewis and other lawmakers met with Smithsonian officials, who didn’t support the bill.
“I just remember how devastated she was and everybody was after that meeting,” Wilkins recalled. “But despite that she kept pushing and the mission was to find a way to build support in Congress… That was a difficult period, but she persevered.”
In the end, Boyd, said the Smithsonian “got on board.”
Wilkins said he wrote his book, in part, so people like Boyd would get credit for helping the bill sponsors who he dubbed the Four Musketeers.
“Behind those Four Musketeers were the four staffers,” Wilkins said. “It’s also significant that it was four black women…and that she and the others get their due.”
But Lewis praised Boyd for her work in his floor speech on the bill Nov. 18, 2003.
“The effort to create a National African American Museum has not been easy,” he said then. “It has been a long, hard, and tedious journey. We are here today because members, staff, and many supporters really never gave up. They did not give out. They did not give in. I want to thank my staff, Tammy Boyd and others, who worked so hard.”
To this day, Boyd said many don’t know the role she and other staffers played. But she noted there are many who helped during the civil rights movement – which was fought in her home state of Mississippi —who aren’t named in the history books.
“I’m not necessarily an out-front person anyway,” she said.
These days, Boyd is working with Lewis again, this time as the executive director of a documentary about his life.
“It’s kind of a nice segue,” she said. “The museum is definitely a part of John Lewis’ legacy. It all kind of comes together.”