WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama opened the new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture on the National Mall by ringing a bell from a historic African-American church on Saturday afternoon.
The museum is the 19th and the newest of the Smithsonians.
President Barack Obama said the new national African-American history museum helps tell a "richer and fuller" story of who we are as Americans.
Speaking at the dedication ceremony, the president said the museum will give people a better understanding of themselves by teaching them about others — slaves, the poor, black activists, teachers. He also said knowing their stories will help Americans understand each other better.
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, to open the museum. It will be returned to the church for its 240th anniversary later this year.
Obama and former President George W. Bush took seats of honor at the outdoor ceremony together with their wives, Michelle Obama and Laura Bush. They were joined by civil rights icon Congressman John Lewis of Georgia, and museum founding director Lonnie Bunch.
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."
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 tell 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. Former Secretary of State Colin Powell, actress Angela Bassett, House Speaker Paul Ryan and men representing the famed Tuskegee Airmen were some of the people seen in the crowd in front of the stage.
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, Virginia, 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."
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. Congressman John Lewis of Georgia, a longtime civil rights icon, worked with then-Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas to usher legislation through Congress, and President George W. Bush signed into law the bill that allowed the museum to move forward.
Construction was completed earlier this year on the 400,000-square-foot museum designed by British-Ghanaian architect David Adjaye. 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 African-American boy 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 U.S. 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."