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New National Museum of African American History and Culture opens to fanfare, tears

Free Press wire reports | 9/30/2016, 8:43 p.m.
Black history officially has a new, prominent place in America’s story. With hugs, tears and the ringing of a church ...

WASHINGTON

Black history officially has a new, prominent place in America’s story.

With hugs, tears and the ringing of a church bell, the new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture opened its doors last Saturday to help this nation understand, reconcile and celebrate African-Americans’ often-ignored contributions toward making this country what it is today.

Slave shackles on display in the “Slavery and Freedom”
exhibition of the National Museum of African American
History and Culture.

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

Slave shackles on display in the “Slavery and Freedom” exhibition of the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

President Obama wiped away tears as he formally opened the Smithsonian’s 19th museum with an impassioned 31-minute speech on the National Mall.

His audience included two former presidents, leaders from all branches of the federal government and First Lady Michelle Obama, whose lineage has been traced to slaves in the South. She, too, cried as her husband spoke.

President Obama noted one artifact in the museum: A stone marker from a slave block where Andrew Jackson and Henry Clay spoke in 1830. This item, the president said, chronicles not just the fact that two powerful men spoke, but also that multitudes of slaves were “bought and sold, and bid like cattle.”

“This national museum helps to tell a richer and fuller story of who we are,” President Obama said. “It helps us better understand the lives, yes, of the president, but also the slave. The industrialist, but also the porter; the keeper of the status quo, but also of the activist seeking to overthrow that status quo; the teacher or the cook, alongside the statesman. And by knowing this other story, we better understand ourselves and each other.”

Ground for the $540 million museum was broken in 2012 on a 5-acre tract near the Washington Monument, and construction was completed earlier this year. Millions of donors, known and unknown, contributed $315 million in private funds ahead of the opening.

“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.

The names of some big donors are on prominent spaces inside: 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 last week.

With exhibits ranging from the glass-topped casket first used to bury lynching victim Emmett Till to a fedora owned by late pop superstar Michael Jackson, the museum helps to complete the American tale by incorporating highs and lows, triumph and trauma experienced by black Americans since the first African slaves arrived on this continent almost 400 years ago.

“We’re not a burden on America, or a stain on America, or an object of pity or charity for America. We’re America,” President Obama said. “And that’s what this museum explains, the fact that our stories have shaped every corner of our culture.”

President Obama was joined on stage by his predecessor, former President George W. Bush, who in 2003 signed legislation establishing the museum, and U.S. Rep. John Lewis, a veteran civil rights activist and longtime Democratic congressman from Georgia who co-sponsored the bill.