Showtime: Washington

Smithsonian parallels emancipation, civil rights


Associated Press

President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and Martin Luther King Jr.’s March on Washington for Civil Rights were 100 years apart, but both changed the nation and expanded freedoms.

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture is presenting a walk back in time through two eras. A new exhibit, Changing America, parallels the 1863 emancipation of slaves with the 1963 March on Washington.

An inkwell Lincoln used to draft what would become the Emancipation Proclamation is on display on one side of the timeline, while the pen President Lyndon Johnson used to sign the Civil Rights Act is on the other.

A rare signed copy of the 13th Amendment to abolish slavery — once owned by abolitionist House Speaker Schuyler Colfax, who helped push the resolution through Congress — is on loan from businessman David Rubenstein. It echoes the plotline of the current movie Lincoln.

At times when some believed slavery would never end and later that segregation would never end, history shows that creative leadership can “find a way to perfect America,” museum Director Lonnie Bunch said.

“It took courage, it took strategy, it took loss,” he said. “But ultimately, it changed America for the better.”

The exhibit is on view through September at the National Museum of American History while the black history museum is under construction.

The Smithsonian is publicly displaying several artifacts from slave life for the first time to set the scene for emancipation. They include the Bible that belonged to Nat Turner, who led a slave rebellion in Virginia, and a shawl given to abolitionist Harriet Tubman by Queen Victoria. Another section includes shackles used to chain children, a slave whip and buttons used to identify people as property.

A broadside advertising a slave sale announces that “plantation hands” would be auctioned in the rotunda of the St. Louis Hotel.

The museum also acquired a tent from a “contraband camp” or “freedmen’s village” that sprung up to house slaves that had self-emancipated by crossing over Union lines.

“Slaves were not passive recipients of freedom,” Bunch said. “In essence, their action of running away forced the federal government to create policies that culminated in the Emancipation Proclamation.”

Facing the former slave’s tent in the exhibit is Lincoln’s everyday suit with a long black jacket, bow tie and his iconic top hat from the Smithsonian collection.

Displaying Lincoln’s suit this way “tells a powerful story of him, in a sense, facing this encampment,” Harry Rubenstein, a curator of political history at the Smithsonian, said. Lincoln encountered such scenes every day in his final years, seeing encampments of freed slaves in Washington as he rode about town.

The Civil Rights section includes posters and placards carried in the March on Washington and shards of stained glass from the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., where four young black girls were killed in an explosion.

Bunch said he wanted to mark the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1 and the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington in August. He also wanted to reach the crowds attending President Barack Obama’s inauguration in January. A passage from Obama’s first inaugural speech is quoted in the exhibition opposite a quotation from abolitionist Frederick Douglass.

“I realized that the inauguration is a time when people begin to look back,” Bunch said, “to understand who we once were as we also begin to look at who we might become.”

•  Changing America, through Sept. 15 at the National Museum of African American History and Culture (at the National Museum of American History), 1400 Constitution Ave., NW; 202-633-1000; Open daily 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.; free admission.

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