Children playing on the beach, posing for the camera, jumping rope, donning Halloween costumes, parading in Easter outfits, taking field trips and going to their first day of school are the kind of scenes commonly found in family photo albums.
Such happy images are part of this year's county-sponsored Black History Month exhibition, "We the Children. . . .: A History of African American Childhood," a large-scale photo album of sorts that contrasts the theme of childhood innocence with images of children thrust into more adult roles in historical events such as the Middle Passage and school integration.
Photographs, historical prints and artifacts examining the simple pleasures associated with youth as well, as the historical realities that confronted black children and the adults who raised them, are all part of the free exhibition, which runs through March 8 at Harmony Hall Regional Center.
Gail Thomas, who has been running the county's Black History Month exhibition for more than a decade, said she wanted to focus on children because their viewpoints have been largely ignored in historical exhibitions.
"Sometimes you think about different segments of history and think they happen only to adults," Thomas said. "This is a serious topic, because children endured most of the things adults did."
Hung on the gallery's walls are framed photographs of children from the Washington area and across the nation, and documents advertising such events as auctions of child slaves. Each wall is devoted to a distinct segment of history, marked by painted symbols: a slave ship to represent the Middle Passage, slaves working in a field to show slavery, a drummer boy to signify the Civil War, a swing set for recreation, and a bus to indicate the civil rights era. Throughout the gallery are glass cases housing Prince George's County artifacts, including include children's tea sets, toy trains, dolls, marbles and Boy Scout uniforms.
Some of the photographs -- which Thomas acquired from various research facilities -- including the Library of Congress, Howard University and the University of Maryland Baltimore County -- tell the story of the children on the Amistad, who helped their parents translate court proceedings after the enslaved West African passengers successfully revolted in 1839 and drifted to Connecticut, beginning a four-year battle in U.S. courts.
Around the gallery, photographs are juxtaposed to illuminate contrasting events. On one wall, there are children swimming in their native Africa in 1860 before they were enslaved; and on another, there are pictures of the Harlem swim team and children swimming at black-owned resorts such as the former Sparrow's Beach and Highland Beach in Annapolis in the 1920s, when pools, beaches, resort communities and other recreation communities were segregated.
One wall has a photo of youngsters dressed in Halloween costumes together with one of a tiny child dressed in a Ku Klux Klan robe. In between are pictures from the 1940s to the 1960s, showing black children escorted by Montgomery County police at Poolesville Elementary School when the school was integrated, white teenagers protesting the integration of Little Rock High School in Arkansas, and a small black child in a protest march holding a sign twice his size that says, "I'm To Young to Vote, What's Your Excuse?" [sic]
Viewed together, Thomas said, the visual renderings of black children throughout the 19th and 20th centuries celebrate the achievements, both political and social, of children.
"Most of the time when you see pictures of African American children, you see almost caricatures. These are very positive representations. Children were actively involved in all of the things their parents went through, and when they weren't, they were at least very good witnesses," Thomas said. "We wanted people to think about things in a different way."
"We the Children. . . .: A History of African American Childhood" is a free exhibition, open from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays, through March 8. Harmony Hall is at 10701 Livingston Rd., Fort Washington. 301-203-6070.