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Obamas attend groundbreaking for African American history museum

February 22, 2012 |  1:50 pm

Obama celebrates construction of African American history museum, with singer Denyce Graves

The Smithsonian Institution officially broke ground this morning on the National Museum of African American History and Culture, slated to open in 2015. Located on the National Mall, the Smithsonian's 19th museum will be a $500-million complex dedicated to documenting the life, art, history and culture of African Americans.

Though work had already begun on the site, Wednesday's fete marked the official start of construction and included remarks from President Obama, former First Lady Laura Bush, Georgia Democratic Rep. John Lewis -- an icon of the civil rights era -- and was emceed by actress Phylicia Rashad, best known for her role as Claire Huxtable in the 1980s sitcom "The Cosby Show."

The ceremony also included performances from opera singers Denyce Graves (who sang the national anthem, pictured above) and Thomas Hampson, as well as jazz pianist Jason Moran, who played Duke Ellington's "I Like the Sunrise."

Taking to the podium after Moran's performance, Obama said, "It was on this ground long ago that lives were once traded, where hundreds of thousands once marched for jobs and for freedom. It was here that the pillars of our democracy were built, often by black hands.

"And 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."

The president noted the museum's personal significance for his family. "I want my daughters to see slave shackles, but also hear the horn of Louis Armstrong."

"The day will come," Obama also said, "when few people remember drinking from a colored water fountain. [The museum] will teach that history."

The 380,000-square-foot museum will sit on a five-acre site. The first environmentally sensitive "green" building on the Mall, the museum will house more than 20,000 artifacts, including Michael Jackson's fedora and a dress of Rosa Parks'.


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Photo: Denyce Graves sings the national anthem as President Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama and Smithsonian Secretary Wayne Clough listen during the groundbreaking ceremony of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Credit: Alex Wong / Getty Images