Obama Opens Smithsonian African-American Museum

Mark Shiffer

American President Barack Obama officially opened the new Smithsonian African American museum on Saturday. The museum will examine in depth the history and culture of black Americans. Like all other Smithsonian institutions, this one will have free admission.

Obama added that he hopes the museum can add context to some current events such as the relationship between law enforcement officials and black communities. There are still ongoing protests around Charlotte, North Carolina, and Tulsa, Oklahoma, where black men have recently been shot by police.

The event was attended by other American leaders. Besides Barack and Michelle Obama, Representative and civil rights fighter John Lewis called it a dream come true. Former President George W. Bush also attended. During his term, Bush signed into law the bill to build a museum dedicated to African-American history and culture.

There were musical performances by Stevie Wonder, Patti LaBelle, and Denyce Graves. Robert De Niro and Angela Bassett read works by black writers. Celebrities Oprah Winfrey and Will Smith were also in attendance.

One of the highlights of the opening ceremony was the appearance of Ruth Bonners. Bonners, who is 99-years-old, was joined by her seven-year-old granddaughter alongside Barack and Michelle Obama. Bonners is the daughter of a former slave, and her presence gave great meaning to the museum and its purpose.

The Smithsonian African-American museum of History and Culture has eight levels and contains an area of 400,000 square feet. The building reportedly cost upwards of $540 million. It's located close to both the Jefferson Memorial and Washington Monument. Both former presidents were slaveholders.

The newest Smithsonian building is unique in its architecture. The museum is surrounded with bronze exterior panels, the patterns inspired by an African wooden column. The building materials are also based on historic nineteenth-century ironworks created by slaves in the South. Sunlight will stream into the structure through patterned openings.

There will be 36,000 artifacts on display. Items used by slaves, as well as documents on sales of slaves, can be viewed. Segregated railway cars will be shown. Historic figures in the struggle for racial equality will also be prominent. There is a hymn book used by Harriet Tubman and a dress made by Rosa Parks.

There will also be exhibits of past celebrities. Items such as Michael Jackson's fedora hat, Muhammad Ali's headgear, and Chuck Berry's Cadillac will be seen.

One of the highlighted items will be a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation. It was issued by President Abraham Lincoln on January 1, 1863. At the height of the American Civil War, the Proclamation declared that all persons held as slaves were to be freed. While African-Americans were technically given their freedom following the Civil War, many discriminatory laws against blacks were still enforced throught the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

In a ceremony opening the Smithsonian museum, Obama rang a 500-pound bell from the First Baptist Church in Williamsburg Virginia. The historic church was founded in 1776 by slaves and free blacks. Bells also rang throughout the Washington D.C. area where the museum is located.

[Featured Image by Susan Walsh/AP Images]