While many in the entertainment and media industries were saying their bittersweet goodbyes to President Barack Obama at his final annual White House Correspondent’s Dinner this past Saturday in D.C., an elite crowd was communing at the Los Angeles home of movie star Denzel Washington and his wife Pauletta to raise additional millions for one of the President’s major priorities.
Early in his presidency, President Obama insisted that all monies needed to complete the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture be raised before his exit from The White House at end of 2016. Authorized by Congress in 2003, the museum stands on a five acre-site on the National mall, near the Washington Monument, and boasts a $540 million dollar price tag.
The federal government contributed $270 million, leaving the Smithsonian and others in the community to raise the remainder. The museum reported raising just over $252 million dollars last month –not far from their $270 million goal. The museum is set to open on September 24 of this year, with President Obama cutting the ribbon.
Denzel and Pauletta said they felt compelled to open the doors to their sprawling home in the Hollywood Hills, nestled far away from prying eyes of star tour buses, in celebration of the mostly California-based supporters of the museum who donated more than $55 million dollars to the project over the past few years.
The Saturday night event raised more than $17 million and included the announcement of a hefty pledge of $10 million dollars from television titan Shonda Rhimes, who could not attend the fundraiser.
“There is such a historical significance to this project,’’ said Denzel Washington, who is currently directing Viola Davis in the film adaption of August Wilson’s play ‘Fences.’ “It means so much for our community, our country and to future generations.’’
The lavish evening welcomed big names like Quincy Jones, Magic Johnson and Samuel L. Jackson and featured a performance by R&B singer Goapele Mohlabane who serenaded guests throughout the night. Dinner for the evening included braised short ribs, sea bass and cauliflower steaks.
Pauletta Washington, a noted Broadway performer and accomplished pianist opened the evening with a vocal invocation of the Lord’s Prayer near the home’s Olympian sized pool.
“In this climate where so much money is being raised for the Presidency and The White House, it is incredible to have the support we received,’’ said Pauletta Washington. “It’s good knowing that even with so much going on, people are committed to making sure that this museum is successful.’’
Washington recounted a family trip to Israel with Denzel and their four children a few years ago where they visited a Holocaust museum; she noted the chilling impact the experience had on the entire Washington family.
“There was one room in the Holocaust museum that featured the clothes, shoes and other items of the children murdered there and it was very disturbing,’’ she recalled. “I asked my kids about it after we left and I could tell it haunted them too. But it also made them think about their own history and they asked me where was there a place that told our (African American) story. That hit me because I didn’t know at the time this museum was in the making.’’
Washington added that she learned of plans for the National African American Museum months later and knew that she and Denzel would need to be involved.
Notable names who have contributed over a $1 million dollars to the project include George Lucas and his wife Mellody Hobson and Oprah Winfrey, who as the largest individual donor to date has donated more than $21 million dollars to the site that will feature Harriett Tubman’s hymnal, Nat Turner’s bible, Emmett Till’s original coffin as well as Louis Armstrong’s trumpet. The museum will feature a 355 seat theatre named after Winfrey, their largest contributor to date. Shonda Rhimes will also have a gallery in her name.
Hank Aaron, The NBA Association and former Secretary State Colin Powell have also given large donations.
Magic Johnson closed the evening on Saturday night with a promise of encouraging more from the world of entertainment and sports to show their support by donating to the museum, which will feature 11 inaugural exhibitions on the African American experience, including galleries on slavery, segregation and Civil Rights.
“We have to get everyone involved in this making this a success,’’ said Johnson