American History, in the First Person Singular
Monday, July 17, 2006
Gen. George Washington's words, written in his own hand, speculate on British germ warfare in 1775.
Photographs of an American Red Cross worker interned by the Japanese during World War II tell a story of endurance -- and hunger.
And here is the voice of Lady Bird Johnson, recounting the day a president was slain, and how what she remembers is the pinkness of it all, the color of a wife's suit as she throws herself across the body of her fatally wounded husband.
There is nothing that equals being present at a historic moment, having seen it, heard it, felt it. But they are the rarest of moments and it is the recounting by others upon which we depend. Bearing witness has a power all its own.
The exhibit, "Eyewitness: American Originals From the National Archives," which opened Friday in its Lawrence F. O'Brien Gallery, makes this point again and again with its firsthand accounts of well-known American historic moments by those who watched them unfold. The sorrow, the bravery, the urgency is transmitted through their voices, photographs and handwritten letters, be it from a president or the "anonymous" runaway slave or a World War II nurse.
"They're all snapshots from a very particular moment from a very particular view," says Stacey Bredhoff, the show's curator. "We know so much about President Lincoln's assassination, one of the most landmark milestone events, but we've never heard from the doctors who were at his bedside throughout the night.
"Unlike reading about it in the history book, this is a very personal account," she says.
And what happens when one comes face to face with that historic and personal past?
When Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) saw the exhibit's life-size photograph "Two Minute Warning," he nearly cried, he told Michael L. Jackson, designer of "Eyewitness." Lewis was on hand last week as organizers previewed the show, which will run in Washington until January then travel the country.
The black-and-white stand-alone picture from Selma's 1965 "Bloody Sunday" captures the moments before Alabama state troopers attacked more than 600 civil rights protesters, including Lewis, who was severely beaten and nearly killed.
"I thought I was so dead," said Lewis, standing in front of the picture in which white officers, armed with gas masks and batons, are poised to charge the protesters, who are standing two by two. Activist Hosea Williams, pinching his nose, stands next to Lewis.
Lewis recalled how at that very moment Williams was saying to him that they were about to be gassed. "The way he said it, I knew it was not good."