Former Clevelanders Open National African American Museum


The historic lines marking the opening of the $534 million National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C extended all the way to Cleveland’s Glenville community. Ruth Odom Bonner, the stately 99-year-old woman who joined President Obama in ringing a bell steeped in black history officially opening the 400,000 square foot Museum to visitors, is from Cleveland. Mrs. Bonner and her family lived off Ashbury Avenue, a street now boasting banners of its place on the National Registry of notable neighborhoods. She left 15 years ago to join her son, Michael Bonner, a 1964 graduate of the old East High School.

The Bonner family was asked by a fellow church member, and Museum Program Committee member, to join the memorable ceremony with four generations of their family. The quartet of Bonners was welcomed on stage to join President and Michelle Obama in ringing the bell signaling the opening of the impressive museum positioned on the National Mall designed to resemble a Yoruba tribal headdress.

The bell was from the first Baptist church established by African Americans in Wilmington, Va. The symbolic tone replicated the freedom-dipped sounds that rang out as the word of Emancipation began to spread in 1863. Mrs. Bonner, the family’s matriarch was the nucleus of family members that included her son, Michael, grandson Michael VF Bonner, and her great granddaughter seven-year-old Christine Bonner.

Mrs. Bonner has a particularly fascinating link to African American historic lore. Her father, Elijah Odom, was a slave doing hard labor in racially torn Mississippi. As legend goes, Elijah and his brother escaped by swimming across a narrow patch of the Mississippi River. He would later, and miraculously, attend Meharry Medical School, become a doctor and open a pharmacy in Biscoe, Ark. While Dr. Odom practiced medicine in Biscoe, serving both black and white patrons, whites during that time would not allow Elijah to deliver their babies.

Michael, whose son, and daughter Rukiya are both attorneys, re-located to the District to attend Howard University after graduating from East High, but maintains ties to Cleveland through friends and some family members. Now retired, Michael brimmed with pride in recounting how Vice President Joe Bidden, Will Smith, Robert DeNiro, former President Bill Clinton, Angela Bassett, and Stevie Wonder among other luminaries made sure to hug, kiss and otherwise acknowledge the woman President Obama called “gorgeous” as she patiently waited in a backstage area.

Trying his best to capture the enormity of the moment, son Michael said the entire day, the repartee with the Obamas and the stream of welcoming celebrities, was “enjoyable, but also extremely humbling.”

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