Obama marks groundbreaking for Smithsonian African-American museum

McClatchy NewspapersFebruary 22, 2012 

WASHINGTON — A small Bible that once belonged to Nat Turner, the leader of an 1831 slave insurrection in Virginia, will be there. So, too, will be the coffin that held the body of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old whose 1955 murder helped mobilize the civil rights movement.

And there will be art, music, fashion and posters from the 2008 presidential campaign of Barack Obama, the first African-American president, who helped break ground Wednesday for the nation’s first national museum dedicated exclusively to African-American life, art, history and culture.

“This day has been a long time coming,” Obama said, speaking under a white tent erected on the National Mall at the future site of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, the 19th museum in the Smithsonian collection.

The president called the museum, which is to open in 2015, “not just an achievement for our time, but a monument for all time.” He said he hoped that it not only would preserve history, but also inspire future generations, including his daughters, Sasha and Malia.

“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 could do extraordinary things,” Obama said. “I want my daughters to see the shackles that bound slaves on their voyage across the ocean … and understand that injustice and evil exist in the world. But I also want them to hear Louis Armstrong’s horn. ... “I want them to appreciate this museum not just as a record of tragedy, but as a celebration of life.”

Years in the making — the president noted that it was African-American veterans of the Civil War who first called for the recognition — the museum gained steam only in this century, and former President George W. Bush signed legislation creating it in 2003. Former first lady Laura Bush attended the groundbreaking, saying the museum would “pay tribute to the many lives known and unknown that have so immeasurably enriched our nation."

The federal government will cover half the estimated $500 million cost of the museum; the rest is to be raised privately.

Some critics have questioned the wisdom of separate ethnic and racial museums — a Latino-American museum is in the planning stage and the Smithsonian also has a National Museum of the American Indian — but creators of the African-American museum said they were hoping it would be seen as part of the American experience.

“This will be a museum that will have moments to make one cry, to ponder the pain of slavery and segregation … but also will be a museum that soars on the resiliency of people,” said its director, Lonnie Bunch.

Though preservationists have decried adding more buildings to the National Mall, the spot is the last available there, and Obama called the location fitting. It’s near the corner of 14th Street N.W. and Constitution Avenue N.W. The president and other speakers noted that slaves once were traded on the mall and helped build nearby “pillars of democracy,” including the Capitol and the White House.

The museum is also near the site of the Lincoln Memorial, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his 1963 “I have a dream’’ speech, and in the shadow of the Washington Monument, honoring the first president, who freed his slaves in his will.

“It is on this spot … that generations will remember the sometimes difficult, often inspirational, but always central role that African-Americans have played in the life of our country,” Obama said.

Though the president and the bill’s sponsors, Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., and Republican Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, a former senator, spoke at the groundbreaking ceremony, they didn’t wield shovels.

The museum’s collections are still a work in progress, but Wayne Clough, the secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, said they’d collected about 20,000 artifacts and were on the hunt for more.

Acquisitions include shackles worn by slaves brought from Africa, one of the few framed portraits of abolitionist Tubman known to exist, her personal hymnbook and a lace shawl that England's Queen Victoria gave her.

There are also shards of glass from the 1963 church bombing that killed four girls in Birmingham, Ala., a Jim Crow-era railroad car, Chuck Berry’s red Cadillac convertible, an airplane flown by the Tuskegee airmen and a powder horn carried into battle by Prince Simbo, an African-American from Connecticut who fought in the Revolutionary War.

There’s also art by Charles Alston, John Biggers, Elizabeth Catlett, Jacob Lawrence and Lorna Simpson and works from the Black Fashion Museum, including a dress that Rosa Parks sewed shortly before her 1955 arrest in Montgomery, Ala., for refusing to sit in the back of a bus.

“Everyone who visits will realize we are all touched, shaped and enriched by African-American history and culture, all day, every day,” Bunch said.

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