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Obama opens new black museum on National Mall

  • ASSOCIATED PRESS

    Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., right, and President Barack Obama embrace at the dedication ceremony for the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture on the National Mall in Washington, Saturday.

WASHINGTON >> America’s first national museum dedicated to African-American history and culture opened Saturday with emotional but joyful words from the country’s first black president, who said he hoped the stories contained inside will help everyone “walk away that much more in love” with their country.

In an impassioned speech, President Barack Obama pointed out the highs and lows of being black in America, from slavery and Jim Crow segregation to voting rights and economic leaders. That duality lingers still, Obama said, through successes such as his presidency, and trials such as the police killings of black men.

“We are not a burden on America. Or a stain on America … we are America. And that’s what this museum explains,” Obama said.

He and first lady Michelle Obama joined Ruth Bonner, a 99-year-old direct descendent of a slave, and her family as they rang a bell from the historic First Baptist Church of Williamsburg, Virginia, to signal that the museum was officially open.

The church, believed to be among the first Baptist churches organized entirely by black people, acquired its Freedom Bell in 1886. It will return to the church for its 240th anniversary later this year.

Civil rights veteran John Lewis, a Democratic congressman from Georgia who co-sponsored the bill that created the museum, said he hopes visitors will come away with a healthy respect for human dignity, “and a stronger commitment to the idea of justice, truth and democracy.”

“This place is more than a building, it is a dream come true,” Lewis said.

In his speech, Obama imagined himself coming back to the museum someday as a private citizen, “holding a little hand of somebody and telling them the stories enshrined here.”

A shining bronze-colored beacon on the National Mall, only steps away from the White House and the Washington Monument, the new Smithsonian chronicles the complex relationship between the United States and a people it once enslaved and tells the story of those who worked at the changes necessary to bring the country to where it is today.

Thousands gathered on the National Mall to watch the museum officially open its doors and to be among the first inside — if they were lucky enough to get the much-coveted opening day tickets.

“It’s like walking across the desert and finally getting to a fountain of water to quench your thirst. It’s absolutely breathtaking for me,” said Verna Eggleston, 61, of New York City, who was touring the museum later Saturday.

After a decades-long push, ground was broken for the new museum in 2012 on a five-acre tract near the Washington Monument. Lewis worked with then-Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas, now the state’s Republican governor, to usher legislation through Congress. President George W. Bush signed it into law in 2003.

Bush said the museum tells the unvarnished truth, that a country founded on the promise of liberty once held millions of people in chains. A great nation does not hide from its history, Bush said, “it faces its flaws and corrects them.”

Construction was completed earlier this year on the 400,000-square-foot museum designed by British-Ghanaian architect David Adjaye. The museum strikes a unique shape on the Mall with its three-tiered bronze exterior panels inspired by an African wooden column. The bronze-colored tiles are inspired by 19th century ironwork created by slaves in the South, and allow sunlight into the museum through its patterns.

The new museum “symbolizes all of the contributions, the culture and the crisis of black America,” said Rev. Howard-John Wesley, pastor of Alfred Street Baptist Church in Alexandria, Virginia, whose members donated $1 million to the museum. “It’s a beautiful thing, especially in this day and time when we’re fighting to remind ourselves how important black lives are.”

Inside, museum officials say they have nearly 3,000 items occupying 85,000 square feet of display space, including exhibits like a Tuskegee Airmen training plane and the casket of Emmitt Till, an African-American boy whose murder helped rally the civil rights movement.

“It’s been 100 years in the making. So many people have dreamed about this, fought for this and wanted this to happen,” said U.S. Circuit Judge Robert L. Wilkins, who wrote “Long Road to Hard Truth,” a book about the struggle open the museum. “It’s going to be a testament to their work and a testament to so many of our ancestors that this museum will open on the Mall.”

Millions of donors, known and unknown, contributed to the $315 million in private funding raised before the museum’s opening. Some of the biggest donors’ names adorn the walls inside, including the Oprah Winfrey Theater; the Michael Jordan Hall: Game Changers; and the Robert F. Smith Explore Your Family History Center, named for the CEO of investment firm Vista Equity Partners after a $20 million gift announced Monday.

As part of the opening ceremony, Winfrey and actor Will Smith read lines of famous black writers, from Maya Angelou to Langston Hughes, Toni Morrison and Martin Luther King Jr.

“I am overwhelmed. I’m humbled,” said Deborah Elam, president of the GE Foundation and chief diversity officer for General Electric, as she waited Saturday among the dignitaries on the National Mall. GE donated $5 million toward the museum’s construction.

Some people trying to get to the dedication ceremony stood for more than an hour in lines that snaked around the Mall to get through security.

Master Sgt. Donald Sparks of Houston, who just finished a yearlong deployment in Iraq, said he was eager to see the exhibits inside the museum. “I’m just elated and can’t express how much joy and gratitude I have to be here today and witness history,” he said.

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  • A major major event. Footnote _ America did not start slavery – it came from Europe and Africa from back in the day. President Lincoln make it illegal. John Lewis is an icon – goes to show that Congress really is the governmental arm of the people.

    • John Lewis is a remarkable man. From being nearly beaten to death while working to secure the right to vote for black folks, he has forgiven the racist imbeciles who nearly killed him. That is some kind of courage!

        • Not surprising that you would choose to dishonor Congressman Lewis like this.

          You simply have no bottom. None. Nothing is below you.

  • Forgive me for my lack of knowledge, but what countries of origin where these primary slaves from? What are the current standard of living there today? Are the contrast between our country and the origin of their ancestors’ countries a great distinct difference? Speaking for myself I’m glad my illiterate ancestor left their country. Even with a false pretense of roads paved with gold and much money to earn. They had a very hard, difficult and stressful lives navigating through perils of working in cane fields with primitive conditions, language barriers and many obstacles foreign to them. They prevail because the opportunity was brighter than the country of their birth. Today their descendants are Americans and way better off than their unknown ” relatives” in the third world country of our ancestors.

    • OK … you are hereby forgiven for your lack of knowledge. You’ve shown that lack over and over and over again. And then over again.

      So it sounds like you’re saying that hundreds of years of slavery and millions of deaths associated with it were a good thing because the standard of living is better here than in Africa?

      Good thing you’ve been forgiven for your lack of knowledge!

        • Quote from lespark on another post, today. “What Obama did to the blacks is very sad & pathetic.”
          I didn’t read anything in this post to convince me President Obama did something very sad and pathetic for the black community.

        • seaborn – It’s wise to not debate either racist imbeciles or committed liars. The time used isn’t productive.

        • Lespark, don’t waste your time with Klasstri. He spends most of the day trolling and calling everyone an Imbecile. Nobody here seems to be as bright and worldly as he.

        • BuhByeAloha – Thanks for noticing how bright and worldly I am.

          If you don’t want to read my comments, then try to develop the self discipline to not read them. I couldn’t care less. Really.

  • People still don’t understand that Blacks are still a minority in the U.S. and there are a number of other minority races. Since just a museum is no longer allowed in the U.S. It has to be have a racial designation. I guess the Smithsonian and other museums on the Mall can’t be shared and must be a White museum! There is a new Black Museum mandated by Obama. Also, I assume Chinese, Japanese, etc. need separate museums if not a separate Mall. BTW, you can’t have a White House. Oh, Hispanics are an up and coming race in the U.S. We could cede California and other States to Mexico but the Mexican Government doesn’t want them. It already has a multitude of financial issues. This whole situation is a MAJOR CATASTROPHE. HELP, HELP!!!!

    • It’s a major catastrophe only for white supremacists. Like you?

      I’m not sure how many of the other minorities were enslaved, lynched, forbidden to marry, kept out of schools and such. You appear to be a brilliant social scientist, so you probably know the answers.

      Despite your brilliance, you seem ignorant of the fact that President Calvin Coolidge signed the original legislation that authorized the museum and President G.W. Bush signed the law that funded the new museum.

      • You know, I’m using too many words to try to say a simple truth. America is great because it’s forged from so many stories. We all have stories and they deserve to be told. My particular story became real to me when I read my grandmother’s signature at Ellis Island and when I see my grandfather X6s signature on the Declaration of Independence. “E PLURIBUS UNUM” of many, one.

        • (are you kidding me? You have to moderate a comment that says America truly is great because of all of us?)

    • Geez, it gets so tiresome proposing that “Just Your View” may in fact be totally wrong everywhere in the universe except in your mind. This museum was not “…mandated by Obama.” I was first proposed almost 100 years ago. This museum in it’s present form dates from 2003.

      “The National Museum of African American History and Culture was established in 2003 by an Act of Congress, making it the 19th Smithsonian Institution museum.”

        • Texas politicians beat their chests threatening to leave the U.S. I vote to let them go. In 60 days, they’d be begging to join Mexico.

  • African-American history museum to showcase the achievements of Blacks in our nation. There have been a few notables.

    Isn’t it ironic how of the few who have gained social status have NOT banded together to help resolve the problems that the rest of the population is experiencing – Black Lives Matter ?

    • A common fallacy, that members of a given ethnicity owe some kind of debt to everyone else of that ethnicity. When I look at your screen name, I wonder why you aren’t over there stalking Kim Jong Un to ace him out because of all the discredit and disrepute he brings on your (perceived) ethnicity.

      • You tell em Klastri! Insult another person that doesn’t see the world exactly like you do. Not sure why the SA hasn’t banned you yet. You are out of bounds on most of your posts when it comes to the terms and conditions. And for the record, I’d bet that you do have half a brain.

        • I could not care less what you think of my comments. Maybe learn some self discipline and don’t read them?

          It’s sad that you, presumably an adult, need some kind of protection. Grow up.

      • kalstri-You are correct!

        HanabataDays is not very sophisticated and shallow minded. His perceived notions are incorrect. Just because an individual uses a ‘screen name’ doesn’t necessarily mean they’re of that ethnic race.

    • Correct. He was voted in by a hugh Black vote, however has caused more riots,chaos and separation of the Blacks in America!

      Hopefully, they can finally see through the Obama smoke screen of lies of ‘Change’ . The only thing he has changed is the terrible Healthcare system he shoved through congress and placed as a burden on the rest of us.

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