Construction has begun on a landmark African American history museum on a National Mall site, a mile from where Martin Luther King Jr. spoke and even closer to where the nation's largest slave market once stood. That contradiction reflects the complicated story the National Museum of African American History and Culture will try to tell its visitors when it opens in 2015.
President Obama joined former First Lady Laura Bush, Washington Mayor Vincent Gray and Smithsonian Institution Secretary Wayne Clough for a ceremonial groundbreaking Wednesday that was punctuated by jazz and a cappella music.
"It is on this spot, alongside the monuments to those who gave birth to this nation and those who worked so hard to perfect it, that generations will remember the sometimes difficult, often inspirational, but always central role that African Americans have played in the life of our country," Obama said.
The museum's director, Lonnie G. Bunch, faces the daunting task of turning those ideas into a 380,000-square-foot museum that will reveal the tragedy of the persecution African Americans faced, while reflecting their triumphs and struggles to overcome discrimination.
"It must tell the unvarnished truth. Because this will be a museum that will have moments to make one cry, to ponder the pain of slavery and segregation, but a museum that soars on the resiliency of a people and will illuminate the joy and the belief in the promise of America," Bunch said.
Many of the speakers invoked King's name and words, but they also recognized the need to look forward. Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), the last living man to speak at the 1963 March on Washington, was among those sitting on the stage.
"The problems we face today as a nation make it plain — make it clear — that there is still a great deal of pain that needs to be healed," he said. "The story told in this building will speak the truth that has the power to set an entire nation free."
The museum's three-tier copper pagoda will rise near the Washington Monument. Its collection will include objects from all periods of American history, including Harriet Tubman's hymnal and shawl, Louis Armstrong's trumpet and the glass-topped casket that originally held the body of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old boy whose brutal killing in Mississippi in 1955 energized the civil rights movement.
A preview gallery at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History offers a glimpse into how these objects will come together. The current exhibit casts a light on Thomas Jefferson's relationship with his slaves. In one cabinet there is a collection of classic Greek and Roman books to highlight how Jefferson was educated. In another, a tiny set of iron shackles is a stark reminder of the conditions under which enslaved children crossed the Atlantic.
A museum of African American history in Washington was first proposed by black veterans of the Civil War, but that plan never came to fruition. The law creating the current museum was sponsored by Lewis and signed by President George W. Bush in 2003.