February 22nd, 2012
01:25 PM ET
WASHINGTON (CNN) – The Smithsonian Institution officially began construction Wednesday on a new museum dedicated to African American culture and heritage – a complex committed to the celebration and study one of the central components of the American story.
Construction of the Smithsonian's 19th museum, the National Museum of African American History and Culture – to be located on the National Mall – is expected to last three years. The museum is slated to open in 2015.
The nation's first black commander-in-chief, President Barack Obama, delivered remarks and spoke of the importance of the museum’s location.
“It was on this ground long ago that lives were once traded, where hundreds of thousands once marched for jobs and for freedom. It was here that the pillars of our democracy were built, often by black hands,” the president said. “And it is on this spot –- alongside the monuments to those who gave birth to this nation, and those who worked so hard to perfect it –- that generations will remember the sometimes difficult, often inspirational, but always central role that African Americans have played in the life of our country.”
“This was true bipartisan effort, echoing the museum’s message of unity. What a magnificent location, in view of powerful symbolism. It is a fitting home for this museum, invoking the indelible threads that connect African American stories to the American tapestry,” said Wayne Clough, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution.
Former First Lady Laura Bush and democratic Congressman John Lewis of Georgia were among the other speakers celebrating the onset of the museum’s construction.
“I look forward to the day when I can amble through the exhibit, search through the archives, participate in a program, rest my tired feet in a café and get lost in history inside the granite wall of an idea whose time has finally come, “ Rep. Lewis predicted. “We didn't give up, didn't give in. We didn't give out. We didn't get lost in a sea of despair. We kept the faith. We kept our eyes on the prize.”
The five-acre site, selected six years ago by the Smithsonian, is located between the Washington Monument and the National Museum of American History. The museum will be the first environmentally sensitive "green" building on the Mall. It is expected to cost $500 million, half of which will be covered by federal funds.
The groundbreaking ceremony was emceed by actress Phylicia Rashad, best known for her role as Claire Huxtable in the 1980s sitcom hit The Cosby Show. Opera singers Denyce Graves and Thomas Hampson also performed.
CNN's Alan Silverleib contributed to this story