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Finally, Smithsonian honors black culture

President Barack Obama hugs Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., left, after Lewis spoke at the groundbreaking ceremony at the construction site of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2012. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

WASHINGTON – Frederick Douglass was black, and that was enough for the Smithsonian Institution to bar the famed abolitionist from speaking at a lecture series intended to convince President Abraham Lincoln that he should end slavery as war divided the nation in February 1862.

A century and a half later, the country’s first black president helped break ground on a National Mall museum meant to give voice to the African-American experience long ignored by the chief repository of U.S. history and heritage.

The 19th Smithsonian museum, set to open in 2015, will rise on ground where “lives were once traded, where hundreds of thousands once marched for jobs and for freedom,” President Barack Obama said. “It was here that the pillars of democracy were built often by black hands.”

The Smithsonian’s silencing of Douglass, who had escaped from slavery and rose to national prominence, was just one example of the museum’s long neglect of black culture and contributions.

“Well into the 20th century, curators purposefully excluded African-American history,” said Richard Kurin, the undersecretary for history, art and culture at the museum complex.

Obama said the National Museum of African American History and Culture would ensure that the sometimes difficult, often inspirational role that blacks have played will not be forgotten.

The museum will showcase Harriet Tubman’s shawl, a Jim Crow-era segregated railroad car and Emmett Till’s casket, as well as galleries devoted to military, sports and entertainment history.

“We will have stories that will make you smile and stories that will make you cry,” said Lonnie Bunch, the museum’s director. AP