President Obama celebrated the groundbreaking of the new National Museum of African American History and Culture on Wednesday, saying it will remind all Americans of the ordeals and triumphs of blacks.
"It should stand as proof that the most important things in life rarely come quickly or easily," Mr. Obama said of the $500 million museum under construction near 14th Street and Constitution Avenue Northwest on the National Mall. "It should remind us that although we have yet to reach the mountaintop, we cannot stop climbing."
The president was joined by former first lady Laura Bush, a member of the museum's advisory council, who said the new project "will pay tribute to the many lives known and unknown that so immeasurably enriched our nation."
Mr. Obama didn't refer directly to his role as the nation's first black president, but he personalized the moment by saying he wants his daughters, Sasha and Malia, to understand the lessons that the museum will provide when it opens in 2015.
"I want my daughters to see the shackles that bound slaves on their voyage across the ocean and the shards of glass that flew from the 16th Street Baptist Church, and understand that injustice and evil exist in the world," the president said. "But I also want them to hear Louis Armstrong's horn and learn about the Negro League and read the poems of Phyllis Wheatley. And I want them to appreciate this museum not just as a record of tragedy, but as a celebration of life."
The new Smithsonian Institution museum will consist of seven levels with more than 323,000 square feet. President George W. Bush authorized the project in 2003, and Congress agreed to provide half the funding.
Among the collections on display will be a Jim Crow railroad car (circa 1922), Chuck Berry's red Cadillac convertible, an airplane flown by the Tuskegee Airmen, and the casket of Emmett Till, the black teen whose murder in 1955 in Mississippi was considered a catalyst of the civil rights movement.
Other speakers at the event included Washington Mayor Vincent C. Gray; Richard Kurin, undersecretary for history, art and culture at the Smithsonian; Rep. John Lewis, Georgia Democrat; and Gov. Sam Brownback of Kansas.
"This is an idea whose time has come," said Mr. Lewis, who had introduced several bills to create the museum.
Mr. Brownback referred to the anti-slavery tradition in Kansas and abolitionist John Brown's activities in the state.
The president said the museum's site on the National Mall is fitting for its subject.
"It was on this ground long ago that lives were once traded, where hundreds of thousands once marched for jobs and for freedom," Mr. Obama said. "It was here that the pillars of our democracy were built, often by black hands."
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