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John Lewis: New Smithsonian museum is 'a dream come true'

A shining bronze addition to the National Mall, the newest Smithsonian museum chronicles the complex relationship between the US and the people it once enslaved.

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    Rep. John Lewis (D) of Georgia, who marched with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, embraces President Obama at the dedication ceremony for the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture on the National Mall in Washington, Sept. 24, 2016.
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Centuries of struggle and decades of planning have culminated in a ribbon-cutting where the nation's first African-American president officially opened the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.

President Obama tweeted from his presidential Twitter account Saturday morning that he was "Proud to help open @NMAAHC with so many heroes. African American history is a central part of our glorious American history."

As he formally opened the museum, Obama rang the Freedom Bell, acquired in 1886 by the historic First Baptist Church in Williamsburg, Virginia, believed to be among the first Baptist churches organized entirely by African-Americans for African-Americans. It will be returned to the church for its 240th anniversary later this year.

Earlier, Congressman John Lewis (D) of Georgia, who co-sponsored legislation authorizing the museum, said the bronze-colored museum "is more than a building, it is a dream come true."

A shining bronze beacon on the National Mall, only steps away from a monument dedicated to a slaveholder president, the new Smithsonian chronicles the complex relationship between the United States and a people it once enslaved, and tells the story of those who worked to make the necessary changes to bring the country to where it is today.

Thousands gathered on the National Mall on Saturday morning to watch Obama, the nation's first black president, cut the ribbon to open the museum. 

"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 of New York City, who will tour the museum later Saturday.

Museum director Lonnie Bunch spoke with The Christian Science Monitor last week:

The NMAAHC, he says, uses “history and culture as a lens to understand what it means to be an American.”

He adds, “This is not a story by black people for black people. This is the story that has profoundly shaped all of us.”

He relishes the opportunity for the museum to be a “convener” and to facilitate conversation about everything from the historic civil rights movement to Black Lives Matter. “The museum is as much about today and tomorrow as it is about yesterday,” he says.

Bunch also acknowledges the opportunity that the museum has in light of recent events.

“Race is the last great unmentionable in many ways: We talk about it, but we don’t talk about it,” he says. “The Smithsonian is this amazing place where people will grapple with issues and ideas that they won’t in other places.... Because it is the Smithsonian, we have the chance to be one of the greatest educational opportunities in America to help Americans grapple with what has divided them.”

Ground was broken for the new museum in 2012 on a five-acre tract near the Washington Monument after a decades-long push for an African-American museum on the National Mall. Representative Lewis, a longtime civil rights icon who marched with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., worked with then-Sen. Sam Brownback (R) of Kansas to usher legislation through Congress, which President George W. Bush signed into law.

The new museum "symbolizes all of the contributions, the culture, and the crisis of black America," said Rev. Howard-John Wesley, pastor of Alfred Street Baptist Church in Alexandria, Va., whose members donated $1 million to the museum. "It's a beautiful thing, especially in this day and time when we're fighting to remind ourselves how important black lives are."

Construction was completed earlier this year on the 400,000-square-foot museum, designed by British-Ghanaian architect David Adjaye. The museum strikes a unique shape on the Mall with three-tiered bronze exterior panels inspired by an African wooden column. The patterned tiles, inspired by 19th century ironwork created by slaves in the South, allow dappled sunlight into the museum.

Inside, museum officials say they have nearly 3,000 items occupying 85,000 square feet of exhibition space including exhibits like a Tuskegee Airmen training plane and the casket of Emmitt Till, a murdered black child whose death helped rally the civil rights movement.

"It's been 100 years in the making. So many people have dreamed about this, fought for this and wanted this to happen," said US Circuit Judge Robert L. Wilkins, who wrote the book "Long Road to Hard Truth" about the struggle to get the museum open. "It's going to be a testament to their work and a testament to so many of our ancestors that this museum will open on the Mall."

Millions of donors, both known and unknown, helped fund the museum. But some of the biggest donors' names adorn the exhibit spaces inside, including the Oprah Winfrey Theater; the Michael Jordan Hall: Game Changers; and the newest named addition, Robert F. Smith Explore Your Family History Center, named after the chief executive of investment firm Vista Equity Partners, after a $20 million gift announced Monday.

"I am overwhelmed. I'm humbled," said Deborah Elam, president of the GE Foundation and chief diversity officer of General Electric, as she waited for the museum's opening. GE donated $5 million toward the construction of the museum. "I'm so proud our company contributed early because we believed in this project."

People flew into the nation's capital from around the country to attend the opening of the museum, with security lines lasting for more than an hour for some people trying to the dedication ceremony.

"Hopefully this grand occasion allows the rest of the nation to come out and see a building that's not just for African-Americans, it's for all of America," said Master Sgt. Donald Sparks of Houston, who just finished a yearlong deployment in Iraq. "I'm just elated and can't express how much joy and gratitude I have to be here today and witness history."

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Darlene Superville has covered the White House for The Associated Press since 2009. Jesse J. Holland covers race and ethnicity for The Associated Press and is the author of "The Invisibles: The Untold Story of African American Slaves in the White House." Contact him at jholland@ap.org, on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/jessejholland or on Facebook athttp://www.facebook.com/jessejholland . Follow Superville on Twitter at www.twitter.com/dsupervilleAP .

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