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A National Treasure

The Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture opens in Washington, D.C.

By Jennifer Marino Walters

The bronze-colored National Museum of African American History and Culture stands out among the other monuments and buildings on the National Mall, such as the Washington Monument (seen on the right). Image credit Leigh Vogel/WireImage/Getty Images

This map shows where the National Museum of African American History and Culture is located in downtown Washington, D.C. Image credit Jim McMahon. 

Thousands of people from all over the country gathered in Washington, D.C., this past weekend to celebrate the latest addition to the National Mall—the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. It is the first national museum devoted only to African-American history.

On Saturday, September 24, President Barack Obama gave the dedication speech at the museum’s opening ceremony. “[This national museum] reaffirms that all of us are America,” Obama said. “African-American history is not somehow separate from the American story. It is not the underside of the American story. It is central to the American story.”

The museum officially opened after President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama helped 99-year-old Ruth Odom Bonner—whose father was born into slavery—ring the Freedom Bell. The bell came from a historic church in Williamsburg, Virginia, that was founded by both enslaved and free African-Americans in 1776.

A MUSEUM TAKES SHAPE

The museum has been in the works for a long time. Back in 2003, the U.S. Congress passed a bill to create the museum. President George W. Bush then signed it into law. After nearly a decade of planning, construction began in 2012.

The massive museum, which is nearly the size of seven football fields, is located near the Washington Monument on the National Mall. Its unique shape is based on a design from West African art that includes a crown. It’s made up of 3,600 bronze-colored metal panels to honor the metalwork done by many enslaved African-Americans.

The museum’s nine floors include many different exhibits that highlight various eras in African-American history, as well as the achievements of black leaders, entertainers, and athletes. On lower floors, visitors will learn about the history of slavery and segregation (the separation of people by race) in the U.S., and about the fight for equal rights for African-Americans. Other floors have exhibits celebrating African-Americans’ contributions to the military, sports, and the arts.

PIECES OF HISTORY

More than 36,000 artifacts are on display at the museum. They include historical items like a slave’s cabin from the early 1800s and a lace shawl that belonged to Harriet Tubman. Tubman was a slave who escaped to freedom in 1849 and then helped more than 70 other slaves make their way to freedom. Also on display are boxing gloves worn by famous boxer and human rights champion Muhammad Ali.

One exhibit even features an airplane flown by Tuskegee (tuhs-KEE-gee) Airmen during World War II (1939-1945). Trained in Tuskegee, Alabama, they were the first African-American pilots in the U.S. armed forces. Despite their courage, they were not honored for their service until 2007, when they received the Congressional Gold Medal.

U.S. Representative John Lewis of Georgia fought for the creation of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. He was a leader in the civil rights movement, the struggle in the 1950s and ’60s to gain equal rights for African-Americans. At the museum’s opening, he told the crowd: “There were some who said it couldn’t happen, who said, ‘You can’t do it.’ But we did it. This place is more than a building. It is a dream come true.”

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