During his brief remarks, Obama said the museum - the 19th in the Smithsonian Institution - would help future generations remember the sometimes difficult, often inspirational role, that African Americans have played in the nation's history. And he said it was fitting that a museum telling the history of black life, art and culture would be located on the National Mall in the capital city.
"It was on this ground long ago that lives were once traded, where hundreds of thousands once marched for jobs and for freedom," Obama said. "It was here that the pillars of democracy were built often by black hands."
The president was joined by wife Michelle Obama and former first lady Laura Bush to celebrate the start of construction on the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
It will be built between the Washington Monument and the National Museum of American History as a seven-level structure with much of its exhibit space below ground. A bronze-coated "corona," a crown that rises as an inverse pyramid, will be its most distinctive feature. Organizers said the design is inspired by African-American metalwork from New Orleans and Charleston, S.C., and also evokes African roots.
Some exhibits will eventually include a Jim Crow-era segregated railroad car, galleries devoted to military and sports history and Louis Armstrong's trumpet, among thousands of items. There will also be a court for quiet reflection, Museum Director Lonnie Bunch said.
"We will have stories that will make you smile and stories that will make you cry," Bunch told The Associated Press. "In a positive sense, this will be an emotional roller coaster, so you want to give people chances to reflect and to think about what this means to them."
In many ways, the museum already exists. It has staff collecting artifacts and working to raise $250 million to fund the construction. Congress pledged to provide half the $500 million construction cost. The museum is scheduled to open in 2015. It already has a gallery at the Smithsonian's American history museum with rotating exhibits to showcase its new collection and test different themes and approaches with visitors.
The newest exhibit explores Thomas Jefferson's lifelong ownership of slaves and his conflict and advocacy against slavery, while also looking at the lives of six slave families who lived on his Monticello plantation in Virginia, to humanize the issue of slavery.
Telling such stories has been taboo at many museums in the past and missing from the National Mall. Bunch said that by presenting a fuller view of history and dealing directly with difficult issues like race, the Smithsonian can present a fuller view of history and what it means to be an American.
"What this museum can do is if we tell the unvarnished truth in a way that's engaging and not preachy, what I think will happen is that by illuminating all the dark corners of the American experience, we will help people find reconciliation and healing," he said.
Curators estimate that 15,000 to 20,000 artifacts already are in hand. Bunch estimates they will need about 35,000 artifacts to choose from to create the museum's permanent galleries. The staff is working to collect more material on popular culture and music, earlier materials from military history from World War I and earlier and artifacts to tell stories from the 19th century, including slavery and Reconstruction.
In Washington, the black history museum will follow major museums devoted to the Holocaust and to Native American history. Legislation has also been introduced in Congress to create a Smithsonian American Latino Museum.
Actress Phylicia Rashad, famous from TV's "The Cosby Show," hosted the groundbreaking ceremony Wednesday. In an interview, she said African-American history is interconnected with many other groups.
"This is what makes America really great and unique is that there are different peoples living here who come together as one people, she said, adding that she hopes to be surprised by what the new museum can offer. "I would like to see some stories I've never imagined. I'd like to see some stories that aren't so well talked about but that have documentation to back them up."
The groundbreaking also marks the start of a public fundraising campaign to build the museum. Officials revealed about $100 million has been raised to date in private funds. This includes $5 million gifts from Wal-Mart, American Express, Boeing, Target and UnitedHealth Group. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Lilly Endowment each gave $10 million in recent years.
Some celebrities also are supporting the project, including Quincy Jones and Oprah Winfrey, whose foundation gave $1 million.
Delphia Duckens, the museum's associate director for fundraising, said the museum will begin a regional campaign targeting key markets of New York, Los Angeles, Houston, Dallas, Chicago, Atlanta and Washington.
They are modeling the strategy to seek individual donors on the recent effort to build a Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial and on Obama's 2008 presidential campaign, she said. Those campaigns maximized the value of drawing many small gifts online, in addition to major donors, she said.
"This is a museum for everybody," she said. "We want to model it such that everybody can say they had a part in making this a reality."
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)