WASHINGTON — Construction has begun on a landmark black 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 Barack 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 blacks 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.
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 murder in Mississippi in 1955 energized the civil rights movement.
A museum of black 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.