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President Barack Obama hailed Saturday the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, a long-awaited testament to black suffering and triumph in the US.

The first black president of the US cut the ribbon to inaugurate the striking 37,000-square-meter bronze-clad edifice before thousands of spectators gathered in the US capital at a time of growing racial friction.

"African-American history is not somehow separate from our larger American story. It's not the underside of the American story," said Obama. "It is central to the American story."

The star-studded public ceremony, just four months before Obama leaves office, included Stevie Wonder and Oprah Winfrey.

The Smithsonian's 19th addition to its sprawling museum and research complex is the first national museum tasked with documenting the uncomfortable truths of the country's systematic oppression of black people, while also honoring the integral role of African -American culture.

"A clear-eyed view of history can make us uncomfortable," Obama said.

"It is precisely of that discomfort that we learn and grow and harness our collective power to make this nation more perfect. That's the American story that this museum tells."

Guests of honor on stage included four generations of the Bonner family, led by 99-year-old great-grandmother Ruth, the daughter of a slave who went on to graduate from medical school.

After Obama declared the museum "open to the world," it was she - stooped in stature but smiling broadly - who tugged on a rope to ring an antique bell from a historic black church, sealing the inauguration. Elected in a wave of optimism,  in 2008, Obama pledged to unify, often repeating that he is the president of all Americans. But as his mandate comes to an end, polls show that most Americans believe US race relations are faring badly.

The recent fatal police shootings of black men in Tulsa, Oklahoma as well as in Charlotte, North Carolina - and the protests that followed - laid bare yet again the country's racial disquiet.

Obama delivered his Saturday address amid these ever-heightening tensions, as outrage grows over the spate of deaths of black men at the hands of police, prompting mass demonstrations.