African-American Museum Breaks Ground In D.C.

Feb 23, 2012
Originally published on May 23, 2012 11:01 am

President Obama spoke Wednesday at the formal groundbreaking for the Smithsonian's newest museum, the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. The museum, Obama said, has been "a long time coming" and will serve "not just as a record of tragedy, but as a celebration of life."

Obama said he hopes visitors will see the artifacts of the African-American experience and understand that "ordinary Americans could do extraordinary things" — whether they are inspired by Louis Armstrong's trumpet, the plane flown by Tuskegee Airmen or Harriet Tubman's shawl.

Museum director Lonnie Bunch remembers seeing a photograph of Tubman wrapped in the shawl two days before she died. The shawl was a gift from Queen Victoria, who had heard about the escaped slave who had freed so many other African-Americans that she earned the nickname "Moses."

The museum's collection also includes Tubman's hymn book, which she had for 50 years, using songs to alert slaves that it might be time to flee. "The rivers and creeks and streams played a vital role in the Underground Railroad," says historian Charles Blockson.

References to those waterways were coded into spirituals: "Wade in the water. God's gonna trouble the water. ... The water, the underground, the flow ... her spirit is flowing into the National African American Museum," he says.

When Tubman died in March 1913, her friends gathered at her bedside to sing her favorite spirituals. Blockson says he was touched by the hymnal of this spiritual woman: "They said that she was illiterate, but she attempted to write her name in the book."

Blockson donated 39 items that belonged to Tubman to the museum. Tubman's great-great niece, Mariline Wilkins, left the objects to him in her will. Their families, he says, have a connection. "Several of my relatives from the Eastern Shore of Delaware and Maryland escaped with Harriet Tubman," he says.

The collection includes artifacts ranging from Tubman's homemade knife, fork and spoon to photographs from her funeral.

Visitors to the museum, which is expected to open in 2015, will also see shards of brightly colored glass from the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., where four little African-American girls were killed in a Ku Klux Klan bombing. But the items the museum has been collecting since 2005 also include Louis Armstrong's trumpet, funkmaster George Clinton's iconic stage prop the Mothership, a Jim Crow railroad car, and a Tuskegee airman bi-plane from World War II.

"That's the greatness of this museum," says Tony Award-winning actress Phylicia Rashad, who was the master of ceremonies for the groundbreaking. It is important to know that the sum of the history of African-Americans is not encompassed by bondage and segregation, she says. "African-American people have contributed much to American culture: in medicine, in education, in art, in music, in dance. Name someplace where we have not been!"

The museum's collections, exhibitions and programming are being designed to showcase the richness of the African-American experience. There will be theaters where films and documentaries are screened — and also live interviews with scholars and history-makers. Director Bunch says almost every moment of major transformation in this nation has been shaped by issues of race. The African-American experience is central to the American experience, he says, so the stories this museum will tell are for everyone, of every race.

"The time will come when few people remember drinking from a colored water fountain, or boarding a segregated bus, or hearing in person Dr. King's voice boom down from the Lincoln Memorial," Obama said at the groundbreaking ceremony. "That's why what we build here won't just be an achievement for our time, it will be a monument for all time."

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And I'm Steve Inskeep.

A range of dignitaries lent their famous names to yesterday's groundbreaking for the National Museum of African American History and Culture here in Washington. But none had a story quite as compelling as a man most of us are about to meet for the first time thanks to NPR's Allison Keyes.

ALLISON KEYES, BYLINE: At 92 years old Lorenzo Dufau is still standing tall, smiling in the midst of a crowd of admirers at the groundbreaking.

LORENZO DUFAU: Very proud.

KEYES: The Navy Signalman, First Class, served on the USS Mason during World War II, the first warship with a mostly black crew. Dufau says it was tough.

DUFAU: I was only interested in trying to prove we were as much American as anybody

KEYES: They proved it. And Dufau donated his dress blue jumper to the museum he never thought he'd see built.

DUFAU: Not in my lifetime.

PHYLICIA RASHAD: Three, two, one - break ground.


KEYES: Tony award winning actress Phylicia Rashad was emcee for a joyous program, attended by President Obama and the first lady.


KEYES: Scores came to watch dignitaries on the order of Former First Lady Laura Bush take shovels to a rectangular strip of earth inside a cavernous tent. Along with contributors, both financial and material, were people such as Congressman John Lewis. The Georgia Democrat co-sponsored legislation launching this project in 2003, finishing a battle begun by black Civil War veterans in 1915.

REPRESENTATIVE JOHN LEWIS: We must call upon the courage of those who were in the struggle long before any of us were born. We must tell the story, the whole story, the 400 year story of African-American contributions to this nation's history - from slavery to the present - without anger or apology.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: This is their day. This is your day.

KEYES: President Obama told the audience that he wants his daughters and others who visit the museum to see how ordinary Americans could do extraordinary things. He says the museum will be a monument for all time because...

OBAMA: The time will come when few people remember drinking from a colored water fountain or boarding a segregated bus or hearing, in person, Dr. King's voice boom down from the Lincoln Memorial.

CALVIN BUTTS: I too sing America.

KEYES: Reverend Calvin Butts of Harlem's Abyssinian Baptist Church quoted Langston's Hughes.

BUTTS: This may be the land of the pilgrim's pride, but it's also the land where my mothers and fathers died, so let freedom ring.

KEYES: Former First lady Laura Bush reminded the audience that slaves were once sold near the Capitol building and that it and the White House were partially built by slaves. She said she was glad the museum will stand near the monument to the nation's first president, George Washington.

FIRST LADY LAURA BUSH: A man who fought for liberty and who came to recognize the evils of bondage, freeing his slaves in his will.


KEYES: The 92-year-old Navy Signalman, First Class, Lorenzo Dufau says he's glad he's lived long enough to see African-Americans reach higher heights than he could've imagined. And he's also glad this museum will be here for the nation and its children.

DUFAU: I've got great grandchildren. I want them to know that I made a contribution to making this place better.

KEYES: The National Museum for African American History and Culture is set to open in 2015.

Allison Keyes, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.