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A range of dignitaries lent their famous names to yesterday's groundbreaking for the National Museum of African American History and Culture here in Washington. But none had a story quite as compelling as a man most of us are about to meet for the first time thanks to NPR's Allison Keyes.
ALLISON KEYES, BYLINE: At 92 years old Lorenzo Dufau is still standing tall, smiling in the midst of a crowd of admirers at the groundbreaking.
LORENZO DUFAU: Very proud.
KEYES: The Navy Signalman, First Class, served on the USS Mason during World War II, the first warship with a mostly black crew. Dufau says it was tough.
DUFAU: I was only interested in trying to prove we were as much American as anybody
KEYES: They proved it. And Dufau donated his dress blue jumper to the museum he never thought he'd see built.
DUFAU: Not in my lifetime.
PHYLICIA RASHAD: Three, two, one - break ground.
(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)
KEYES: Tony award winning actress Phylicia Rashad was emcee for a joyous program, attended by President Obama and the first lady.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RIDE ON KING JESUS")
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) Ride on King Jesus, ride on...
KEYES: Scores came to watch dignitaries on the order of Former First Lady Laura Bush take shovels to a rectangular strip of earth inside a cavernous tent. Along with contributors, both financial and material, were people such as Congressman John Lewis. The Georgia Democrat co-sponsored legislation launching this project in 2003, finishing a battle begun by black Civil War veterans in 1915.
REPRESENTATIVE JOHN LEWIS: We must call upon the courage of those who were in the struggle long before any of us were born. We must tell the story, the whole story, the 400 year story of African-American contributions to this nation's history - from slavery to the present - without anger or apology.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: This is their day. This is your day.
KEYES: President Obama told the audience that he wants his daughters and others who visit the museum to see how ordinary Americans could do extraordinary things. He says the museum will be a monument for all time because...
OBAMA: The time will come when few people remember drinking from a colored water fountain or boarding a segregated bus or hearing, in person, Dr. King's voice boom down from the Lincoln Memorial.
CALVIN BUTTS: I too sing America.
KEYES: Reverend Calvin Butts of Harlem's Abyssinian Baptist Church quoted Langston's Hughes.
BUTTS: This may be the land of the pilgrim's pride, but it's also the land where my mothers and fathers died, so let freedom ring.
KEYES: Former First lady Laura Bush reminded the audience that slaves were once sold near the Capitol building and that it and the White House were partially built by slaves. She said she was glad the museum will stand near the monument to the nation's first president, George Washington.
FIRST LADY LAURA BUSH: A man who fought for liberty and who came to recognize the evils of bondage, freeing his slaves in his will.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PRECIOUS LORD TAKE MY HAND")
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) Precious lord, take up...
KEYES: The 92-year-old Navy Signalman, First Class, Lorenzo Dufau says he's glad he's lived long enough to see African-Americans reach higher heights than he could've imagined. And he's also glad this museum will be here for the nation and its children.
DUFAU: I've got great grandchildren. I want them to know that I made a contribution to making this place better.
KEYES: The National Museum for African American History and Culture is set to open in 2015.
Allison Keyes, NPR News, Washington.