Contact: Yvonne French (202) 707-9191
November 5, 1997
"African American Odyssey" Exhibit Opens in February 1998 at Library of Congress
Exhibition Includes Items from Nation's Largest Archive of African American Materials
The Library of Congress will open a major exhibition, "African American Odyssey," on Feb. 5, 1998. The exhibition, which comprises items from the nation's largest collection of materials relating to African American history and culture, documents the quest for full citizenship. All of the materials on display are from the Library's collection.
"The Library has eagerly sought African American materials for more than a century," said Librarian of Congress James H. Billington. "Its holdings encompass not only books, but also manuscripts relating to black individuals and institutions; musical recordings from the world's largest jazz collection; the fullest surviving collection of films from the early black film industry, as well as photographs, prints, maps, folklife and oral histories. These collections demonstrate the tenacity of Americans of all colors and races in believing that this nation guarantees 'liberty and justice for all.'"
The exhibition is based on a book published by the Library in 1993, The African American Mosaic: A Library of Congress Resource Guide for the Study of Black History and Culture, edited by Debra Newman Ham, professor of history at Morgan State University, former specialist in African American history and culture in the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress and guest curator of the exhibition.
Like the resource guide, the exhibition will have nine sections: Slavery--The Peculiar Institution; Free Blacks in the Antebellum Period; Abolitionists, Antislavery Movements and the Rise of Sectional Controversy; the Civil War; Reconstruction and its Aftermath; the Booker T. Washington Era; World War I and Postwar Society; the Depression, the New Deal and World War II; and the Civil Rights Era. The exhibition will include books, pamphlets, microfilm, manuscripts, newspapers, recordings, sheet music, posters and films.
Slavery -- The Peculiar Institution: By focusing on the triumphs of African Americans rather than their victimization, the exhibition will document not only the cruelties of slavery, but also the success of blacks in resisting it. Some Africans resisted enslavement on the West African coast, mutinied on board slave trading vessels, ran away from their owners or rebelled on plantations.
In 1839, while the Amistad slave ship was carrying Africans captured in Sierra Leone, the captives rebelled in the Caribbean, killing some crew members and ordering others to return them to their homeland. During the day, the pilots steered the vessel eastward, but at night they headed north, ultimately landing near Long Island, N.Y., where they were captured and imprisoned. Almost overnight the incident became a cause clbre. The Africans, led by the Mende warrior, Cinque, insisted that they be freed and returned to their continent. President Martin Van Buren thought that they should be extradited to Cuba, where the crew members had been killed, but John Quincy Adams, who argued their case before the Supreme Court, believed that the Africans should be freed. He won, and the 32 surviving Africans were sent home as free men. Drafts of the brief delivered by John Quincy Adams, affidavits of the Amistad Africans, and a screen print of Cinque will be in the exhibition.
Free Blacks in the Antebellum Period Free: Blacks in the antebellum period were outspoken about the injustice of slavery and the institution's inconsistency with Revolutionary-era protests against British tyranny. Black soldiers fought in the American Revolution and in the War of 1812, as Library records clearly reveal.
For example, some of George Washington's papers discuss the use of black soldiers, and the Manuscript Division's Gladstone collection contains a few pay receipts for black Revolutionary War soldiers. Free blacks were also active "conductors" on the Underground Railroad. The exhibition will include first- person accounts of some of those who took this perilous route to freedom.
The exhibition also documents the efforts of people of color to achieve artistic freedom. Some free blacks in Philadelphia supported themselves in the beginning of the 19th century as professional musicians. Best known among them was Francis Johnson, whose sheet music will be displayed.
Abolition, Antislavery Movements and the Rise of the Sectional Controversy: This section of the exhibition will examine the work of black and white abolitionists in the first half of the 19th century. This biracial assault against slavery proved to be extremely effective and heightened the rift that had threatened to destroy the nation as early as the Constitutional Convention of 1787.
The exhibition will draw on the Library's wealth of materials relating to the antislavery movement. Books, pamphlets, reports, songbooks, hymnals and broadsides speak to the activities of abolition societies. To further their cause, abolitionists encouraged former slaves to write or dictate their memoirs. Many did so. The exhibition will draw on these published accounts as well as manuscripts of slave narratives collected by the Works Projects Administration during the Great Depression.
The exhibition will also feature a small photographic "carte de visite" of antislavery advocate and orator Sojourner Truth, a printed broadside of a lecture on John Brown by Frederick Douglass, and an 1880 map titled "The Northern View of Slavery in the U.S.," which shows southern states marked by "God's Curse--Slavery," while northern ones enjoyed "God's Blessing--Liberty."
The Civil War: Abraham Lincoln's election in 1860 led to secession and then to war. Newly freed blacks were forced to begin their trek to full equality in employment, education and politics without even the aid of "40 acres and a mule." The exhibition will draw on documents, prints and photographs detailing the Lincoln administration's struggles before and during the Civil War. It will include a photograph of the 1st South Carolina Volunteers assembled on Jan. 1, 1863, to hear the reading of Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation. It also will include a broadside of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," by Julia Ward Howe, published by the Supervisory Committee for Recruiting Colored Regiments.
The exhibition also draws on the Library's collection of firsthand accounts by African American soldiers and their white officers, and the visual and written record of post- Civil War black's efforts to guarantee the rights granted by the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments.
Reconstruction and Its Aftermath: The Reconstruction period provides a bittersweet backdrop to the African American quest for full citizenship. The elusive vote, denial of civil rights, racial violence and slavery's twin children--peonage and sharecropping-- proved to be deadly quagmires on the path to full citizenship. Yet blacks were educated in unprecedented numbers, hundreds received degrees from institutions of higher learning, and a few, like W.E.B. Du Bois, earned a doctorate.
At this time of newborn freedom, as never before, African Americans demonstrated their genius in music, painting, sculpture, literature and dance. The exhibition will include an illustration by Alfred R. Waud of black soldiers with their families published in Harper's Weekly and titled "'Mustered Out'--Little Rock, Arkansas, April 20, 1865," and a sketch by Jas. E. Taylor of women sewing at the Freedmen's Union Industrial School in Richmond, Va. It also will include a diary of an African American girl explaining her life after the Civil War, lithographs of the first African American senators and representatives in the 41st and 42nd U.S. Congresses, and a hand-colored lithograph from 1883 titled "Distinguished Colored Men."
The Booker T. Washington Era: As the 19th century drew to a close, one of the black men who was most interested in establishing a dialogue between whites and blacks was educator, orator and author Booker T. Washington (1856-1915), an emancipated slave. In 1881, Washington became the first principal of the Normal School for Colored Teachers at Tuskegee, Ala., and served in that capacity until his death.
An excellent public speaker, he soon was in demand before diverse groups, receiving a cordial reception by thousands of people of color and also by some white audiences because of his conciliatory attitude toward race relations. The exhibition will draw on the papers of the first three presidents of Tuskegee Institute--Washington, Robert Russa Moton and Frederick Douglass Patterson--and other important papers and photographs relating to the establishment and operations of historically black colleges and universities--to emphasize the progress of blacks at the turn of the century. For example, the exhibition will include a 1902 photograph of a Tuskegee University history class. It also will include a photograph of the Buffalo Soldiers--the 25th Infantry wearing buffalo robes at Fort Keogh, Mo.
World War I and Postwar Society: Black soldiers were leaders in protest against racial injustice on the homefront and abroad. Blacks and whites in the NAACP and the National Urban League (NUL), both founded in 1909, and other organizations led the onslaught against discrimination and segregation. Painstakingly, one law at a time, these groups confronted the legal system, taking hundreds of cases to court. Black artists, actors and writers led the battle against intellectual bias.
The exhibition will make use of the Library's extensive 20th century collections, which document the efforts taken during this period, on the part of blacks and whites, to erase the legacy of slavery. Of special interest, for example, are the diaries of Rayford Logan, a black scholar who served as an officer in France during World War I and stayed as an expatriate there for many years. While there, he worked with W.E.B. Du Bois in the organization of the Pan African Conferences. He also successfully lobbied to have blacks trained as military pilots during World War II. His diaries will be on display in the exhibition along with a Frank Capra film, "The Negro Soldier," produced in 1944 for the U.S. War Department Special Services Division, and a World War I poster "True Sons of Freedom: Colored Men--The First Americans Who Planted Our Flag on the Firing Line," by Charles Gustrine, 1918.
The Depression, the New Deal and World War II: The exhibition will feature the Library's riveting materials (photographs, documents, oral histories, theater materials) from the New Deal period, including an extensive collection of Works Projects Administration/Office of War Information photography of African American life and culture as well as theater scripts, sketches of costumes and playbills of drama performed by "Negro" acting troupes of the WPA.
Included in the exhibition will be a manuscript of William Grant Still's "Afro-American Symphony," a photograph of the first black Army nurses to land in England and a photograph by Toni Frissell of the Tuskegee Airmen.
Civil Rights Era: The postwar era marked a period of unprecedented energy against the dual system of citizenship in many parts of the nation. Resistance to racial discrimination with strategies such as civil disobedience and nonviolent resistance-- marches, protests, boycotts and rallies--received national attention as television reporters and camera crews documented the raw wounds of racial repression. Success crowned these efforts: the Brown decision in 1954, the Civil Rights Act in 1964, and the Voting Rights Act in 1965 helped bring about the demise of the entangling web of legislation that seemed to inextricably bind blacks to second-class citizenship.
Library of Congress photographs, film footage, newspapers, magazines, manuscripts and music holdings chronicle this period better than any other collection in existence. In addition to the NAACP and NUL papers, the Library also holds papers of civil rights activists such as Thurgood Marshall (1908-1993). Exhibition photographs will be displayed of Marshall and others standing on the steps of the Supreme Court after the announcement of the Brown v. Board of Education decision (1954) and African American students with federal escorts arriving in 1957 to integrate the all-white Central High School in Little Rock, Ark.
The "quest for full citizenship" theme of the exhibition will extend to sports figures such as boxing champion and popular hero Joe Louis and Brooklyn Dodger Jackie Robinson, who was the first African American to play major league baseball in the 20th century and who fought for civil liberties even as he achieved recognition for athletic achievement. From these sports figures, the exhibition will include a lobby card from "The Jackie Robinson Story," starring Jackie Robinson, and a poster for "The Fight Never Ends," with Joe Louis.
Each section of the exhibition will also include relevant contemporaneous music selections. For example, from the slave era, the song "Jump Isabel, Slide Water," sung by ex-slave Isabel Barnwell and recorded in 1939 in Jacksonville, Fla., will be played.
The free exhibition will be on view in the Northwest Gallery of the Library's Thomas Jefferson Building, at Independence Avenue and First Street S.E. Graphic kiosks reprising scenes from the exhibition and inviting people to tour it will be mounted in the Library's two other buildings on Capitol Hill, the John Adams and James Madison buildings.
An exhibition catalog, The African American Odyssey, edited by Dr. Ham, prefaced by Dr. Billington and published by the Library, will be available in its sales shops in the Jefferson and Madison buildings.
"African American Odyssey" is being sponsored in part by the James Madison Council of the Library of Congress, Fannie Mae, the Anheuser-Busch Cos. Inc., Citicorp Foundation and Home Box Office. The exhibition will be open through May 2, 1998, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday. The Library is closed on Sundays and federal holidays. The exhibition also will be available on-line at http://www.loc.gov/exhibits. For information, call (202) 707-8000, (202) 707-6200 TTY.
Note to press: A press preview will be held at 11 a.m. Feb. 4, 1998, in the Jefferson Building, First Street and Independence Ave. S.E. Black-and-white photographs of some of the items in the exhibition are available to the press from the Public Affairs Office. For duplicates, call (202) 707-9191.
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