The first thing that a visitor to the National Museum of African American History and Culture's latest exhibit, "Changing America: The Emancipation Proclamation, 1863 and The March on Washington, 1963" notices is that this exhibit joins two pivotal events that gave racial relations in the United States momentum toward equality and freedom.
The second thing one notices are the many precious artifacts, landmark documents and other vital ephemera relating to both events in a soul-stirring educational experience.
At the entrance to the exhibit, housed in the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History, one can go back 150 years to the Emancipation Proclamation and the history that led up to that decisive moment when enslaved people of African descent were officially freed. Or, one can enter 50 years ago to encounter the more recent fervor of the March on Washington, and experience the events and consequences of the movement that galvanized the push toward the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1964, which finally gave all Black people the right to vote in this country.
The elements of this exhibit are diverse, important and numerous, housed in a temporary gallery in the National Museum of American History until the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) debuts on the National Mall in 2015.
Tightly packed into the limited space, various glass display cases containing documents, medals, even 10 shards of stained glass from the blown-out window of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., where the terrorist act that took the lives of four little girls, serve as reminders of our progress as African Americans, or the lack thereof. Those mementos are complemented by film clips of Civil War historians and Civil Rights Movement figures shown on continuous film loops.
"There are some wonderful national treasures throughout this exhibit that tell both very personal as well as national stories of the American experience," said Harry Rubenstein, co-curator of the exhibit.
A rare example of a Sibley tent, which housed the slaves who endeavored to join the Union Army, is the size of a medium camping tent, yet it would house upwards of 20 people who were willing to fight in the Civil War in exchange for their freedom. Faded sepia-toned photographs of African Americans in Union uniforms bear witness to their service, as do the medals awarded for valor.
On the other side, the film clip of Martin Luther King, Jr. addressing the marchers on that hot, August day in 1963, still creates a sense of electricity followed by an age-old sadness remembering his fight, his victories and his eventual assassination.
The same can be said of the materials that belonged to Abraham Lincoln; his handwritten notes announcing his intention to free the slaves to aid in the Union's fight against the Confederacy, and a rare copy of the 13th Amendment bearing Lincoln's signature. One of Lincoln's classic black suits and the top hat he wore to Ford's Theater, where he would be assassinated, generate the same sense of melancholy realizing that within days after he signed the document on January 1, 1863, John Wilkes Booth had already decided it would be the 16th president's last great act.
A sense of poignancy emanates from the wall text quote, where the revered president declared, "If my name ever goes into history, it will be for this act, and my whole soul is into it."
The deep divide that separates the entrances and exits to each section may be metaphorical, as those 100 years in between these two milestones in American history were confusing, unsettling and represented a stalemate in racial progress that spawned Jim Crow laws, segregating Blacks and Whites and a host of promises yet to be fulfilled.
Lonnie Bunch III, founding director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture commented, "America's promise of freedom is filled with contradiction. Perhaps no one understood this more than the 4 million enslaved Africans living in the United States before 1863."
Addressing the racial environment 100 years hence, Bunch, who is also the co-curator of the exhibit, concluded, "Move forward to 1963 and the March on Washington, and you see a coalition of people and organizations continuing the pursuit of liberty and equality for all. This is a shining moment in America's story."
"Changing America: The Emancipation Proclamation, 1863 and The March on Washington, 1963" is on view through September 15, at the NMAAHC Gallery of the National Museum of American History at Constitution Avenue between 12th and 14th Streets, NW.
A schedule of related public programs accompanies the exhibit, including a National Youth Summit on Abolition to take place on February 11 at noon and a book talk on "The King Years: Historic Moments in the Civil Rights Movement," a conversation with author and King biographer Taylor Branch on February 28th at 7 p.m. in the museum's Warner Brothers' Theater. Visit www.nmaahc.si.edu for other programs and more information.
At the Library of Congress, the first draft of the Emancipation Proclamation in Abraham Lincoln's own hand is on view in the exhibit, "The Civil War in America." The document, which has not been exhibited publicly since 2009, remains on view through February 18th in the ongoing exhibit which runs through June 1st in the Thomas Jefferson Building, 10 First Street, SE.