WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama marked the groundbreaking of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African-American History and Culture Wednesday, calling “not just an achievement for our time, but a monument for all time.
“This day has been a long time coming,” said Obama, the nation’s first African-American president, who noted that it was black veterans of the Civil War who had first issued a call for such recognition.
The museum -- which is being built near the Washington Monument -- is scheduled to open in 2015 and will be the only national museum devoted exclusively to the documentation of African American life, art, history and culture.
Obama called it “fitting” that the museum is being built on the National Mall – where he noted slaves were once traded -- and that it will sit near other “pillars of democracy,” including the White House and Capitol buildings, which he noted, were “built often by black hands.
“A time will come when few people remember drinking from a colored water fountain or boarding a segregated bus…” Obama said. “That’s why what we build here won’t just be an achievement for our time, it will be a monument for all time.”
He spoke of the lessons he hoped the museum would impart to 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,” he 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,” he said.
Some critics have questioned the need for a separate museum for African-Americans, but Obama said he hoped the facility won’t be viewed apart from the American experience.
“I want them to see it as a central and important part of our shared story,” he said. “A call to see ourselves in one another.”
Though he and Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., who sponsored the legislation to create the museum, spoke at the ground breaking ceremony, neither were among the dignitaries wielding a shovel.
First Lady Laura Bush – whose husband, George W. Bush, signed the museum into law in 2003 -- was among those breaking ground. Actress Phylicia Rashad called the museum a "milestone, not only for the Smithsonian, but for the United States.
"This will be an iconic building that will house something truly wonderful," she said, "A museum with the power to change hearts and minds and ultimately, the nation."