Slavery and Freedom

Powder horn used by Pvt. Prince Simbo during Revolutionary War

Thousands of African Americans fought in the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War, among them Prince Simbo, who owned this engraved powder horn.

Slavery and Freedom

Silk-lace-and-linen shawl given to Harriet Tubman by Queen Victoria

Harriet Tubman, born a slave, became a leader of the Underground Railroad, a Union spy during the Civil War and later a suffragist for women’s rights. Among her admirers was Queen Victoria, who gave her this silk-lace-and-linen shawl.

Slavery and Freedom

Charleston “slave badge”

Slaveholders could earn money by hiring their slaves out as workers. A slave badge identified the slave by his or her profession and the date.

Slavery and Freedom

Glass plate lantern slide with slave with lacerated back

This image, of an escaped slave named Gordon, who made it to safety behind Union lines in 1863, was one of the most provocative photographs of the century, further angering antislavery activists and encouraging African Americans to enlist in the Union cause.

Slavery and Freedom

Ship manifest with names of 92 enslaved persons

Dated Oct. 30, 1833, this document shines light on the government-sanctioned trading of human beings. It is signed by John Armfield, who operated his slave trading business out of Alexandria, Va.

Slavery and Freedom

Wrought-iron slave collar, lock and key

The roughly hewn iron of this restraint emphasizes the harsh realities of the slave trade. It was probably used to chain enslaved African American men to each other as they were moved from one place to another.

Slavery and Freedom

Stoneware storage jar by Dave the Potter

Slaves were rarely allowed to learn to read or write, so the things they made were seldom identified with the name of a craftsman. Dave the Potter, who lived in South Carolina, was an exception, and this pot is marked with his name and the date of its creation, 1852.

Slavery and Freedom

Blood-stained map from “Bleeding Kansas” era

In the years before the Civil War, the slaveholding Southern states sought for control of the federal government, in part by attempting to ensure that new states added to the union would be open to slavery. In Kansas, in the 1850s, that led to violent clashes between pro- and antislavery settlers. This blood-stained map was owned by the abolitionist David Starr Hoyt, who was murdered by slavery partisans in 1856.

Defending Freedom, Defining Freedom: Era of Segregation

“Mammy” and “Chef” pair of salt and pepper shakers

During the segregation era, caricatures of African Americans were an ubiquitous part of American life that ornamented household items, from candleholders to coin banks to these salt and pepper shakers, made in the 1950s.

Defending Freedom, Defining Freedom: Era of Segregation

Travel guide published by the Afro-American, from the 1940s

Gift from Stephanie Capparell, author of "The Real Pepsi Challenge"

African Americans had to plan their road trips carefully to identify restaurants, gas stations and other spots in unfamiliar places to avoid humiliation or potential violence from being in places where they weren’t welcome. These guides offered reliable information that previously had been available only through word of mouth.

Defending Freedom, Defining Freedom: Era of Segregation

Shards of glass and shotgun shell from 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala.

Gift from the Trumpaure-Mulholland Collection

The church was a flashpoint in the nonviolent struggle for rights in Birmingham, and in September 1963, it became a site of martyrdom as well. Dynamite planted by members of the Ku Klux Klan tore through the church on a Sunday morning, killing four girls and injuring more than 20 others. These remnants memorialize a turning point for the civil rights movement.

Defending Freedom, Defining Freedom: Era of Segregation

Training aircraft used by Tuskegee Institute

The brightly painted open-cockpit plane hangs overhead as a stunning reminder of the bravery of World War II pilots.

Defending Freedom, Defining Freedom: Era of Segregation

Ku Klux Klan robe and belt

This bright-red robe and belt was worn by Phineas Miller Wilds, a Florida farmer who was a member of the violent hate group until he died in 1930 at age 80.

Defending Freedom, Defining Freedom: Era of Segregation

Koran acquired by Elijah Muhammad

Elijah Muhammad -- leader of the Nation of Islam and mentor to Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali and Louis Farrakhan -- preached a variant of Islam that combined elements of the traditional Muslim religion with racial theories that celebrated black supremacy over whites and conservative social values. He built the organization into a formidable force in the decades after World War II, nurturing new generations of black radicals.

A Changing America: 1968 and Beyond

Door with rescue markings from Hurricane Katrina

In the days after Hurricane Katrina inundated New Orleans, rescuers painted "X" codes on the doors of houses to indicate which rescue team had surveyed the property, on what date, how many people (or bodies) were inside and what they found there. Known informally as "Katrina Crosses," the codes became part of a painful new iconography of race, neglect, indifference and poverty as the nation grappled with a bungled response to one of its most devastating natural disasters.

A Changing America: 1968 and Beyond

Jacket emblazoned with “Black Unity Black Power”

Vietnam soldiers on leave on the Japanese island of Okinawa would frequently buy customized jackets. This one, with its black-power symbol of the fist, emphasizes that racial struggle was also present away from home.

A Changing America: 1968 and Beyond

Black Lives Matter T-shirt

Gift from Harriet G. McCombs

Collected from rallies calling for the end to violence against blacks, these items help to explore the ongoing struggle for civil rights and equality.

A Changing America: 1968 and Beyond

Invitation to the 2009 inauguration of President Barack Obama

Gift from the Stafford Foundation

After Barack Obama was elected, Washington braced for what were anticipated to be unprecedented crowds for the Jan. 20, 2009, inauguration. Invitations were highly sought-after and, in some cases, offered for sale for thousands of dollars.

Visual Art

Mavis Pusey, “Recarte”

Curators at the museum predict that the abstract painter Mavis Pusey may be one of the great discoveries for visitors who explore the art gallery. Pusey was active in the middle of the 20th century, and although she never secured fame other artists enjoyed, her constructivist paintings stand out in a crowded field of non-objective art in retrospect.

Visual Art

Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller, “Ethiopia”

Gift from the Fuller Family

It wasn’t easy for a woman born in the 19th century to forge a career as a sculptor, and even more unlikely that an African American woman would succeed in the field. But Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller studied art, honed her craft in Paris, befriended W.E.B. Dubois and August Rodin, and created this statue, “Ethiopia,” in its time a highly regarded tribute to the emergence of a new African American identity.

Visual Art

David C. Driskell, “Behold Thy Son”

The lynching of the 14-year-old Emmett Till in 1955 inspired this painting by the prominent artist and art scholar David C. Driskell. The image connects religious iconography to the galvanizing martyrdom of an adolescent boy.

Visual Art

Joshua Johnson, portrait of John Westwood

Joshua Johnson is considered by many scholars to be the first professional African American artist who worked in the United States. His portraits are typical of the Federalist era, and he was widely commissioned by the elites of cities such as Baltimore to paint portraits.

Musical Crossroads

Boombox owned by Chuck D of Public Enemy

These battery-powered, portable music players, introduced in the mid-1970s, helped spread the culture-changing sounds of hip-hop. The museum also has the boombox featured in the Spike Lee movie “Do the Right Thing,” in a scene that dramatizes its power as a cultural symbol.

Musical Crossroads

James Brown’s black cape

The "King of Funk" and "Godfather of Soul" was renowned as a live performer. His cape was a vital part of the raw electricity Brown unleashed onstage.

Musical Crossroads

Michael Jackson’s fedora

The hat was a trademark of the pop sensation, who rose from child stardom to become a global phenomenon and MTV icon. A controversial figure, Jackson nonetheless left a mark on music, dance and fashion.

Musical Crossroads

Marian Anderson’s outfit worn for 1939 Lincoln Memorial concert

Beloved in Europe, the opera singer was invited to perform in Washington and sought the use of Constitution Hall. It was denied because of her race, so she performed a 25-minute outdoor concert at the memorial, attracting a diverse crowd estimated at 75,000. The statue of Lincoln served as the backdrop.

Taking the Stage

Dress worn by Lena Horne in “Stormy Weather”

The 1943 film featured an African American cast — including Cab Calloway and Fats Waller — and was made during a time when African Americans rarely landed starring roles.

Taking the Stage

Book of paper dolls from TV show

Features an African American actress in a starring role as a nurse and not as a maid or other type of servant.


Althea Gibson’s tennis racket

Gibson broke the color line in what was perhaps the whitest of sports. In 1957, she became the first African American to win the Wimbledon women's singles championship. Gibson was the top-ranked American player. She won 56 singles and doubles titles, including 11 majors.


Jesse Owens’s track shoes

Owens wore these while competing in the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, which were promoted as a showcase for white supremacy by their German hosts. Owens won four gold medals, earning international acclaim and upending the German message.


Tommie Smith’s warm-up suit from 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City

Upon receiving a gold medal for the 200-meter race, Smith and bronze medalist John Carlos raised their gloved fists -- a black-power salute -- in a silent but forceful protest of racial discrimination. The controversial move led to their early dismissal from the Games.

Double Victory: The African American Military Experience

Photo of soldier (and Harlem Hellfighter) Lawrence McVey and his croix de guerre medal

McVey was a member of the Harlem Hellfighters, who were among the first soldiers to reach the battlefields in World War I. The soldiers were assigned to the French army, and McVey was awarded the Croix de Guerre — the cross of war — for bravery in combat.

Double Victory: The African American Military Experience

Uniform worn by Brig. Gen. Hazel Johnson-Brown

The polyester skirt and jacket represent the historic path blazed by Johnson-Brown, a nurse and teacher who in 1979 became the first female African American general.

Making a Way Out of No Way

Muhammad Ali’s boxing headgear

The story of the Olympic and professional boxer moves beyond sports in focusing on boxing’s role in transforming Cassius Clay into the conscientious objector and converter to Islam who became a cultural icon.

Making a Way Out of No Way

U.S. passport belonging to James Baldwin

Gift of the Baldwin family

A vocal opponent of racial discrimination, Baldwin’s official document, from Aug. 2, 1965, depicts the man behind the legend.

Making a Way Out of No Way

Desk from Hope School in Pomaria, S.C.

Gift of the Hope School Community Center, Pomaria, SC

This simple desk was used between 1925 and 1954 in one of the 5,000 so-called Rosenwald Schools, a network created by Booker T. Washington and Sears Roebuck executive Julius Rosenwald to educate African American children in the segregated South.

More stories

Tour through the Smithsonian’s new National Museum of African American History and Culture

The National Mall’s newest museum sits in the shadow of the Washington Monument and occupies levels below and above ground.

A thorny question for African American museum: Whose story do we tell?

When you’re trying to tell 400 years of history, you’re forced to leave a lot of good stuff out.

Painful but crucial: Why you’ll see Emmett Till’s casket at the African American museum

The museum leaders grappled with how much of the dark corners of U.S. history to expose.

The artifacts and stories that brought the African American museum to life

Donated items from all over reflect our racial history and bloodied path to democracy.

Haunting relics from a slave ship headed for African American museum

Items are reminders of the horrors of slavery’s dreaded “middle passage” across the ocean.