The gallery, inside the American History Museum, divides into two sides and organizes around a quote from labor and civil rights leader A. Philip Randolph: “Freedom is never given, it is won.”
To the left of the quote is the distant history of slavery and the Emancipation Proclamation, to the right is recent history, the March on Washington, such that visitors who were there will look to try to find their faces.
“Looking at these two moments in time, these two kinds of struggles for inclusion, freedom and participation, you see more than 100 years,” said Harry R. Rubenstein, co-curator of the exhibition. “You see the history of the nation.”
The Emancipation Proclamation side of the exhibition begins with slavery. “Enslaved people were valued at an estimated $2.7 billion in 1860,” reads a panel, and the nation protected its treasure with violence. There is a slave whip and an auction notice for a family of six. A pair of iron shackles for a small child conjures such a horror that co-curator Nancy Bercaw catches her breath as she talks about it.
Slaves resisted with acts of defiance. In 1831, Nat Turner’s rebellion killed 55 whites in Southampton County, Va., and the exhibit displays the Bible he was holding when he was captured. A handbill offers a $100 reward for a runaway slave: “My negro man named Dick, commonly called Richard Law, ran away from my residence in Upper Marlborough, Prince George’s County on the morning of the 18th of July.”
Maryland was not affected by the Emancipation Proclamation, which didn’t free slaves in border states and areas under Union control, Bercaw says.
African American History and Culture Museum Director Lonnie G. Bunch III calls the large “Contraband Tent” among his favorite artifacts. These tents housed the tens of thousands of “self-emancipated” slaves who escaped to the Union lines as soon as the war began and proclaimed themselves free, forcing Lincoln and the Union into action — to return them to slavery or recognize them as free.
“They said, ‘I ain’t waiting for you,’ ” Bunch said. While “it’s crucially important to celebrate Lincoln as the man who said ‘forever free,’ the slaves weren’t passive recipients of freedom,” but they instead agitated, prodded and were central to it. “That’s what I want to get across.”
President Abraham Lincoln’s black broadcloth coat, vest and trousers are displayed, along with the top hat he wore the night he was assassinated at Ford’s Theatre. The exhibit also features the lone copy of Lincoln’s handwritten 13th Amendment ending slavery in the United States. Medals and ID tags of black soldiers, the pen used by Ulysses S. Grant to sign the 15th Amendment, which guaranteed the right of black men to vote, exist along a continuum that includes poll taxes, the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and other racist retrenchments.