Alumnus Helps Make African-American History Museum a Reality

Tuesday, September 20, 2016
Robert Wilkins

Robert Wilkins, a 1986 chemical engineering alumnus, is a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Washington, D.C. Circuit Court.

Stories-"the powerful and the wonderful"-from the African-American community's past will come to life when the National Museum of African-American History and Culture opens to the public September 24 in Washington, D.C. - thanks to the efforts of Rose-Hulman alumnus Robert Wilkins and many others.

Wilkins, a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Washington, D.C. Circuit Court, served on the Presidential Commission created by Congress to plan the museum and its location, which is opening on the capital's National Mall as part of the Smithsonian Institution.

Its artifacts, exhibits, and interactive displays are designed to help Americans celebrate the richness and diversity of the African-American experience and how it helped shape the nation.

"This is a proud moment for so many," says Wilkins from his judge's office in the nation's capital. "When I saw it for the first time, it brought tears to my eyes. I couldn't believe this place, a dream for so many people, had become a reality. This is a proud moment for America."

The 1986 chemical engineering alumnus chronicles the long and winding path to the museum's creation in the new book, Long Road to Hard Truth: The 100 Year Mission to Create the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Bridging history and personal memoir, Wilkins writes about the time he attended the wake of a fellow congregant, Lewis Fraction. Paying his respects to the family, he listened as the African-American elders relayed stories of joyous courtship rituals and family life from long ago; of attending all-Black, one-room, ramshackle schoolhouses; and of suffering the indignities inflicted on African-Americans-but also of the camaraderie at the marches and sit-ins during the Civil Rights movement.

"When my wife and I drove home that night, I wondered why African-Americans didn't have a museum to share all these wonderful stories," says Wilkins. "It became an obsession. The more I learned about the history, the more I wanted to become involved to make this happen."

Long Road to Hard Truth chronicles early efforts, starting in 1916, to build a memorial in honor of the nation's black soldiers of the Civil War, which expanded into a vision for the national museum. The book details obstacles ranging from political maneuverings to world events that put it at the bottom of priorities. Wilkins revived the idea of the museum and worked with Congressman John Lewis and other African-American civic leaders to bring it to reality.

"There were bumps, setbacks, and plenty of doubts," he says. "This was something that had to happen. For most of our history, African-Americans were not seen or heard. Hopefully, this museum will help bring the country together. I hope that people will come away with a new appreciation of the many sacrifices that African-Americans went through and progress we have achieved."

Wilkins wrote about the personal struggles to build the museum in a recent op-ed published in The Washington Post. He also was interviewed on CBS This Morning and National Public Radio before the museum's opening.

Wilkins is an inspiring story himself. The son of a single mother in Muncie, Indiana, he was named Rose-Hulman's distinguished graduating senior in 1986 and went on to graduate from Harvard Law School in 1989. As a partner at Washington, D.C.'s Venable law firm, Wilkins specialized in white collar defense, intellectual property, and complex civil litigation, and was named one of the "90 Greatest Washington Lawyers of the Last 30 Years" by Legal Times in 2008. He is excited about continuing to make a difference for society as an appellate judge, after being appointed by President Barack Obama in 2013 and confirmed by the Senate early in 2014. Wilkins was awarded an honorary doctorate of engineering from Rose-Hulman in 2014.