Sunday, February 9, 2014

Changing America: The Emancipation Proclamation, 1863, and the March on Washington, 1963

Where: American History Museum

When: through September 7, 2014

The latest in a series of exhibits in the African American History space on the second floor of American History, this display is divided into two parts.  As the title indicates, the first part is about the Emancipation Proclamation and the 1860s generally.  The second part is about the March on Washington in 1963 and events leading up to that.  At the entrance to the show, you are directed to choose which section you will see first: one sign leads to 150 years ago, the other to 50 years ago.  It's very effective; you feel immediately as if you are stepping back in time.

The part on the 1860s gives a good background description of what life was like for persons of African descent in America in the 19th century.  As one of the wall notes indicates, "America's promise of freedom is filled with contradiction."  That's certainly true, and the terrible conditions in which African-Americans were forced to live were certainly not conducive to their pursuit of happiness.  Perhaps the saddest item in the entire display are the child-sized shackles mounted on the wall.  Also included in the 1863 section is Nat Turner's Bible, donated by the descendants of a slaveholding family who survived the rebellion, the inkstand used by Lincoln in drafting the Proclamation, and a picture of Gordon, the slave with the horrible back wounds, that I'd seen at the National Portrait Gallery in one of their exhibits.

Of course, all the gains experienced by African-Americans after the war were ended with the beginning of segregation in the 1890s.  The percentage of African-Americans voting in the South plummeted once poll taxes and literacy tests and other barriers to exercising the franchise were put in place.  Which brings us to the second part of the exhibit, the March on Washington of 1963.

The 1963 March was not the first gathering of persons concerned about the rights of African-Americans.  An earlier march, organized in 1941 to protest inequalities in wages, was canceled after President Franklin Roosevelt prohibited racial discrimination in the defense industries.  In 1957, A. Philip Randolph led a prayer pilgrimage dealing with segregation in southern schools.  Martin Luther King spoke to over 25,000 people in attendance.  The 1963 March brought in over 250,000 people, who behaved in a peaceful manner, much to the relief of the Kennedy Administration and others who had feared violence.  Sadly, there were no women speakers that day; women were relegated to roles as performers or "behind the scenes" workers.  A pity.

Verdict: A very good, interesting, thought-provoking display.  It's manageable in a lunch hour, although you may want more time to listen to the videos in each section.

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