Last year, during the inaugural Women’s E3 Summit at the National Museum of African American History & Culture (NMAAHC), Oprah Winfrey strode onstage and channeled the famous 1851 speech of abolitionist Sojourner Truth. Passionately preaching and punctuating her keynote address with the searing words “Ain’t I a woman,” Winfrey paid homage to the history of Black women in America—our power, our pain and our purpose.
This year the Smithsonian museum once again drew celebrities, newsmakers and women from around the country for its second annual summit celebrating Black womanhood. Some 300 attendees—from college students to elders—gathered on June 13 for a networking breakfast and conversations centered on the E3 themes of empowerment, entrepreneurship and engagement.
Also on hand were Black women execs representing event sponsors AARP, Target and Kaiser Permanente. Year two built on the 2018 event, which museum officials credited as the brainchild of Shiba Haley, senior sponsorship manager at NMAAHC.
Lesli Foster, an Emmy-winning anchorwoman at WUSA9 in Washington, D.C., served as mistress of ceremonies for the affair, welcoming a star-studded roster of notables who ranged from actress Yara Shahidi to Stacey Abrams, the 2018 Democratic nominee for governor of Georgia.
“There’s nothing more powerful than the sharing of women’s stories,” Kinshasha Holman Conwill, deputy director of NMAAHC, told ESSENCE. “The ability to change a country is shaped by women.”
Black women hold key leadership and decision-making roles today, Conwill told the audience, standing on the shoulders of such visionaries as Harriet Tubman, Madam C.J. Walker and Dr. Dorothy I. Height. “This is why it is so important to come together each year to remind each other that as women, we must empower each other.”
The event kicked off with 19-year-old Shahidi and her mother, educator and actress Keri Shahidi, paired in an evocative chat moderated by CNN anchor Fredricka Whitfield. They touched on topics that included Hollywood representation, social activism and a family dynamic described as loving, spiritually grounded and intellectually engaging.
“In our house, we’ve always been discussing what’s happening in the world,” said the young activist and starlet, whose television shows include ABC’s black-ish and its spin-off grown-ish. Her mother noted that she and husband Afshin Shahidi, a photographer who collaborated with Prince, raised their three kids to be free thinkers who are self-aware and proud of their African-American and Iranian-American heritage.
The festivities continued with artist and activist Ayannna Gregory, daughter of the late Dick Gregory, performing a song about stepping into one’s greatness that resonated through the Oprah Winfrey Theater.
Weekend Today coanchor, Sheinelle Jones then led a panel discussion with celebrity chef Carla Hall, Starbucks COO Rosalind Brewer, Academy Award–winning costume designer Ruth E. Carter and Ethiopia Habtemariam, president of Motown Records. Filled with wisdom and wit, the ladies touched on everything from following their creative inspirations to maneuvering as a Black woman in their high-powered workplaces. To wrap the forum, the audience heard from Abrams, who was the keynote speaker.
Touching on her historic gubernatorial campaign, which garnered millions of votes, Abrams told the crowd “we won,” even though she acknowledged that her Republican opponent is now in the governor’s mansion. Still the Spelman graduate, who subsequently launched and leads the nonprofit Fair Fight Action, says she will battle injustice, especially allegations of voter suppression that took center stage during the last election. “The system is wrong; the process is wrong,” Abrams asserted.
With her profile higher than ever, and an urge from supporters to run for president, Abrams told the audience during a brief question and answer session that she’s not “being coy,” but is taking time to be “contemplative” about whether she will seek elected office again in the near future. “I’m not gonna rush,” she said.
Before the festivities came to an end, Dr. Lonnie G. Bunch III, the founding director of the museum, brought warm greetings to the women assembled in the sweeping, sunlit space. Despite being recently named the 14th secretary of the Smithsonian, the historian and author told guests that making time in his schedule to attend the annual summit was a priority. The programming exemplifies the promise Bunch made before the museum’s 2016 opening: that the institution would be a gathering space of hope for the Black community, nation and world.
“Last year I was so moved by this program and the important conversations it generated,” Bunch said. “Women and their stories are celebrated throughout the National Museum of African American History & Culture, and it is only fitting that we take this time to not only reflect back but look forward and highlight what African-American women are doing today.”