Shared experience: The entire nation can learn from a new museum

Written by Susan Mannella on .

Last month ground was broken on the Smithsonian Institution's 19th museum. When it opens in 2015, the sign outside will read: National Museum of African American History and Culture. But African-American history is the history of every American, whether you're a recent immigrant or a descendant of the earliest European colonists.

The black experience in America is nearly 400 years in the making. The first 246 were dominated by slavery, and the next century by Jim Crow. Despite the past six decades of the civil rights movement, sometimes-subtle forms of discrimination persist.

Still, that experience has been so important and progress toward equality so profound, that future generations must not forget past sacrifices and accomplishments.

Artifacts that trace the road African-Americans traveled from slave quarters to the White House will enrich the $500 million museum. The structure, to be built on the National Mall near a place where slave pens once stood, already has 20,000 items, including slave revolt leader Nat Turner's Bible, Underground Railroad conductor Harriet Tubman's hymnal and a biplane in which the Tuskegee Airmen trained.

Other items range from the historic -- shackles from a slave ship, shards of stained-glass from the church bombing in Birmingham, Ala., that killed four girls -- to the iconic -- Louis Armstrong's trumpet and Bo Diddley's hat.

While this museum is about African-Americans, it would be a mistake to think of it as only for African-Americans. It is important to preserve history, and even more important to teach it. The lessons that will be housed in the Smithsonian's newest addition are worth learning -- and relearning -- by each new generation of Americans.

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