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President Obama: African-American History Museum Is 'Central To The American Story'


A century after it was envisioned, a decade after Congress authorized it, the Smithsonian National Museum of African-American History and Culture is open to the public. The dedication of the museum was yesterday. Celebrities and musicians were on hand, and the keynote address came from President Barack Obama. Here's NPR's Sam Sanders.

SAM SANDERS, BYLINE: The tens of thousands of people that came to the National Mall Saturday morning were greeted with music.


SANDERS: There was the Howard University marching band and Patti LaBelle.


PATTI LABELLE: (Singing) It's been too hard living, but I'm afraid to die.

SANDERS: And that was just a taste of all the performances. It was all for the opening of the National Museum of African-American History and Culture, an opening that was literally over 100 years in the making. Reverend Calvin Butts III was the first speaker. He referenced a James Brown song in his remarks.


CALVIN BUTTS III: Say it loud. I'm black and proud. Say it loud. I'm black and proud. Say it loud. I'm black and I'm proud.

SANDERS: The dream of this museum started with black veterans of the Civil War. And the guest of honor was the country's first black president, Barack Obama, and first lady Michelle. Former President George W. Bush was there, too, with his wife, Laura. Bush signed the bill that led to the creation of the museum. Oprah was there, Colin Powell, Will Smith, too. In the crowd, people pointed out that this is a hard time to celebrate black history given all the unrest between police and black communities across the country. Cynthia Kahn was out on the mall, watching on a Jumbotron.

CYNTHIA KAHN: Today felt like it was full of contradictions 'cause all week we're bombarded with how black men are being killed in our country, and yet we're asked to celebrate our culture and our contributions on the mall. So today felt a little bit strange.

SANDERS: Hasani Blue said it was all even more reason to bring her young son down from New York to see the opening.

HASANI BLUE: He's 5. He may not completely understand it now, but the fact that he is here for this and gets to see a lot of reflection of himself, I think, is extremely important.

SANDERS: Onstage, President Obama used his remarks to make the point that the museum is for all of the country.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: It reaffirms that all of us are American, that African-American history is not somehow separate from our larger American story. It's not the underside of the American story. It is central to the American story.

SANDERS: Most of those on the mall won't be able to get into the museum right away. The museum is free, but most people need a ticket to get in, at least for now. And some of those tickets are for November and December. Lolita Warner was lucky. She came to D.C. all the way from Bermuda. She'll be going into the museum on Monday.

What do you think you're going to do the moment you walk inside on Monday for the first time?

LOLITA WARNER: I'm going to absolutely thank the Lord that I was alive to experience this. I'm so thankful. For all of my relatives, my family, my - that have gone through - that I have witnessed - thank you, Lord - that I can see this and pass this on to my children, my grandchildren and my great-grandchildren.

SANDERS: Choking back tears, Warner kept going, talking about the day and the museum and how happy this all makes her. From my vantage point on the mall yesterday, she wasn't the only one smiling through tears. Sam Sanders, NPR News, Washington.


LABELLE: (Singing) It's been a long time, long time coming, but I know change is going to come. Oh yes, it will. I go to the movies. Son, I go downtown. My friends keep telling me... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sam Sanders is a correspondent and host of It's Been a Minute with Sam Sanders at NPR. In the show, Sanders engages with journalists, actors, musicians, and listeners to gain the kind of understanding about news and popular culture that can only be reached through conversation. The podcast releases two episodes each week: a "deep dive" interview on Tuesdays, as well as a Friday wrap of the week's news.