President Obama called the National Museum of African American History and Culture a “celebration of life” on Wednesday morning at the groundbreaking for the 19th Smithsonian museum. The museum will “stand in proof that the most important things in life rarely come quickly or easily,” Obama said. “Though we have yet to reach the mountaintop, we cannot stop climbing.”
The president — joined on stage by first lady Michelle Obama and former first lady Laura Bush — spoke of his daughters, Malia and Sasha, and what he hoped they would learn from the museum when it opens in 2015.
He said that when his children viewed artifacts such as Harriet Tubman’s shawl, Nat Turner’s Bible, and an airplane flown by the Tuskegee Airmen, he hoped they would not be seen as larger-than-life figures, but rather, “Men and women just like them [that] had the courage and determination to right a wrong,” he said. The museum has collected more than 20,000 artifacts so far.
“The time will come when few remember drinking from a colored water fountain or boarding a segregated bus or hearing in person Dr. [Martin Luther] King’s voice boom from Lincoln Memorial,” Obama said. “What will be built here is not just a monument for our time, but a monument for all time.”
He recalled, along with other speakers, that the Mall, where the museum will stand, was once a trading ground for slaves, and that many of Washington’s prominent buildings were erected by African Americans.
“May we remember their stories, may we live up to their example,” said Obama.
The 10 a.m. ceremony took place inside a tent on the five-acre site at 14th Street and Constitution Avenue NW. Smithsonian Secretary G. Wayne Clough, museum founding director Lonnie Bunch, Bush, and members of the museum’s advisory board, including Richard D. Parsons and Linda Johnson Rice were among those turning the soil.
“This building will remind us that there are few things as powerful as a people, as a nation steeped in its history,” said Bunch. Other speakers included Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback and Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.).
Denyce Graves, Washington’s own mezzo-soprano, sang “The National Anthem,” among other musical tributes to Duke Ellington and historic spiritual songs. The invitation-only event was streamed live on the museum’s Web site.
The museum, which is expected to cost $500 million, is being built with public and private funds. It is scheduled to open in November 2015 and is expected to draw more than 3 million visitors a year.
The push for an African American history site in Washington began in 1915, when black Civil War veterans asked for a monument on the Mall. But it wasn’t until 2003 that President George W. Bush signed the museum’s authorizing legislation.