President Obama participated in a symbolic groundbreaking ceremony Wednesday morning for the long-awaited National Museum of African-American History and Culture, the only national museum whose exclusive mission will be to document and celebrate the breadth of African-American life, art, history and culture.
“It was here that the pillars of our democracy were built often by Black hands, and it is on this spot, alongside the monuments to those who gave birth to this nation and those who worked so hard to perfect it, that generations will remember the sometimes difficult, often inspirational, but always central role that African-Americans have played in the life of our country,” said Obama, whose own historic journey to the White House will one day be part of the museum’s collection.
“This museum will celebrate that history because, just as the memories of our earliest days have been confined to dusty letters and faded pictures, the time will come when few people remember drinking from a colored water fountain or boarding a segregated bus or hearing, in person, Dr. King’s voice boom down from the Lincoln Memorial,” he added.
The exhibits and artifacts will feature items that will enable visitors to immerse themselves in Black history almost from its beginning, including rare photos and personal belongings of Harriet Tubman, a legendary conductor on the Underground Railroad who helped lead slaves to freedom; a vintage plane used to train the brave Tuskegee Airmen; and the glass-topped coffin that held the body of 14-year-old Emmett Till, whose death is a tragic symbol of the civil rights movement. Some items will depict the Black experience through masterpieces painted by such artists as Jacob Lawrence and the sculptures and prints crafted by Elizabeth Catlett. Others will be just plain old fun, like iconic rock ‘n’ roller Chuck Berry’s famous red Cadillac convertible.
“When our children look at Harriet Tubman’s shawl or Nat Turner’s Bible or the plane flown by Tuskegee airmen, I don’t want them to be seen as figures somehow larger than life; I want them to see how ordinary Americans could do extraordinary things, how men and women just like them had the courage and determination to right a wrong, to make it right,” Obama said.
The museum will sit on a five-acre site next to the Washington Monument, and will be the Smithsonian’s only “green” building.
It was a long time coming. Black Civil War veterans unsuccessfully pushed for a monument on the National Mall in 1915. Congress passed legislation in 1929 to build one, but didn’t provide any funding. Following a couple of decades of congressional debate on creating such a museum, President George W. Bush signed a bill in 2003 authorizing the museum and pledging half of the $500 million needed to build for construction. Its advisory council, which includes former First Lady Laura Bush, and a veritable who’s who of the nation’s top Black executives, must raise the rest.