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African-American Museum Groundbreaking Held on the National Mall

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By Dorothy Rowley, Staff Writer
Special to the NNPA from the Washington Informer –

President Barack Obama was among a slate of dignitaries who helped celebrate Wednesday’s groundbreaking for the nation’s only museum devoted exclusively to the documentation of African-American life, art, history and culture.

The $500 million construction project, which Congress will provide half of the costs, will be erected near the Washington Monument. Upon its completion in 2015, it will showcase stories told by families and individuals, some rarely shared. Among the exhibits will be a Jim Crow-era segregated railroad car, Louis Armstrong’s trumpet and galleries showcasing military and sports history.

“This day has been a long time coming,” said President Obama. “The idea for a museum dedicated to African Americans was first put forward by black veterans of the Civil War. And years later, the call was picked up by members of the civil rights generation – by men and women who knew how to fight for what was right and strive for what is just,” he said. “This is their day. This is your day. It’s an honor to be here to see the fruit of your labor.”

Obama added, “At moments like this I think about my daughters. When our children look at Harriet Tubman’s shawl or Nat Turner’s Bible … I don’t want them to be seen as figures somehow larger than life; I want them to see how ordinary Americans can do extraordinary things.”

While the idea of the museum was first floated some 100 years ago by black Civil War veterans, it wasn’t until an act of Congress, signed in 2003 by President George W. Bush, paved the way for the museum to become a reality.

Since then, museum staff has been fastidiously planning exhibits and scouring historical artifacts from across the country in preparation for the historical edifice that will highlight history, culture and community. The seven-level building will boast more than 323,000 square feet.

Congressman John Lewis (D-Ga.) said, however, the whole story of the past 400 years begs to be told and it should be recalled without anger or apologies. Former first lady Laura Bush said it was particularly fitting that land for the museum was earmarked for the Mall.

“This museum will pay tribute to the many lives known and unknown that have immeasurably enhanced our nation,” said Bush. “The National Museum of African American History and Culture began as a nonpartisan effort through legislation sponsored by representatives John Lewis and J. C. Watts and Sen. Sam Brownback . . . and my husband, President George Bush, was proud to sign it into law.”

In crediting slave labor with the construction of both the White House and U.S. Capitol, Bush added that President Abraham Lincoln “was horrified by the sight of the slave pens,” that could be seen from the Capitol. She also said she was glad the museum will “stand next to the monument to our first president, George Washington, who freed his slaves in his will.”

The 90-minute ceremony, marking the start of a public fundraising campaign to construct the museum, was hosted by Phylicia Rashad. The acclaimed actress of “The Cosby Show”, who said in an earlier interview that African-American history is interconnected with many other groups.

“What makes America really great and unique is that there are different peoples living here who come together as one people,” she said, adding that she hopes to be surprised by what the new museum can offer.

“I would like to see some stories I’ve never imagined. I’d like to see some stories that aren’t so well talked about, but that have documentation to back them up.”

Several other celebrities have also thrown their support behind the project which so far has raised $100 million. They include Quincy Jones and Oprah Winfrey whose foundation has provided $1 million.

Shevry Lassiter contributed to this article.

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