Exhibition at The New-York Historical Society explores race in America
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Exhibition at The New-York Historical Society explores race in America
Winslow Homer (1836-1910), A Visit from the Old Mistress, 1876. Oil on canvas. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of William T. Evans.

NEW YORK, NY.- The New-York Historical Society is dedicating gallery space to the topics of freedom, equality, and civil rights in America. The initiative primarily explores the long struggle of African Americans for full rights as citizens, including the right to be accepted and to feel safe, with future exhibitions widening the lens to include other historically marginalized groups.

“At a time of great urgency for public understanding of the nation’s founding principles of freedom and equality—and in the context of the long struggle of Americans, in particular African Americans, to ensure that these principles apply to all—the New-York Historical Society aims to educate the public about the roots of contemporary civil and equal rights movements in the Constitution and its Amendments over time,” said Dr. Louise Mirrer, president and CEO of New-York Historical. “Establishing these dedicated spaces throughout the museum builds on our long and sustained record of exhibitions and programs around the history of America’s diversity, ranging from our acclaimed exhibition Slavery in New York (2005) to more recent shows exploring the Latino, Asian American, and Jewish American experiences. Above all, this landmark initiative responds to our deep conviction that telling the story of American history is important, but that it is inadequately known, taught, and understood today.”

In a letter of support for the project, Lonnie G. Bunch III, Founding Director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture wrote: “As the founding Director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., I recognize the urgent mission of cultural organizations to shed light on the persistent implications of slavery and racism on our nation’s institutions and our individual lived experiences. I am heartened that the New-York Historical Society has committed to educating the public on these complex issues in New York and I look forward to continued partnership.” Former New York City Mayor David N. Dinkins wrote: “At this crucial time in our nation’s trajectory and consciousness, I cannot think of a more urgent mission for this cultural institution to establish.”

The inaugural exhibition, Black Citizenship in the Age of Jim Crow, examines the meaning of citizenship for African Americans following the abolition of slavery, through Reconstruction and the Jim Crow era. Future exhibitions at the Museum include Betye Saar: Keepin’ It Clean (November 2, 2018 – May 27, 2019), highlighting the work of an iconic figure of the Black Arts Movement of the 1970s, whose complex assemblage sculptures address race, memory, and black consciousness; Augusta Savage: Renaissance Woman (spring 2019), showcasing the work of the influential Harlem Renaissance sculptor who overcame poverty, racism, and sexual discrimination, and whose work elevated images of black culture into mainstream America; and in summer 2019, a commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising, the historic turning point in the modern LGBTQ civil rights movement.

Black Citizenship in the Age of Jim Crow
Black Citizenship in the Age of Jim Crow, which has received major funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor, the Ford Foundation, Crystal McCrary and Raymond J. McGuire, and Agnes Gund, explores the struggle for full citizenship and racial equality that unfolded in the 50 years after the Civil War. When slavery ended in 1865, a period of Reconstruction began (1865–1877), leading to such achievements as the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution. By 1868, all persons born in the United States were citizens and equal before the law, but efforts to create an interracial democracy were contested from the start. A harsh backlash ensued, ushering in the “separate but equal” age of Jim Crow.

Opening to mark the 150th anniversary of the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment, the exhibition is organized chronologically from the end of the Civil War to the end of World War I and highlights the central role played by African Americans in advocating for their rights. It also examines the depth and breadth of opposition to black advancement, including how Jim Crow permeated the North. Art, artifacts, photographs, and media illustrate these transformative decades in American history and their continuing relevance today. Exhibition highlights include:

• portrait of Dred Scott (ca. 1857), a Missouri slave who sued for his freedom and lost after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that no black person, free or enslaved, could ever be a U.S. citizen;

• Thirteenth Amendment (1865), signed by President Abraham Lincoln, which permanently abolished U.S. slavery;

• slave shackles (1866) cut from the ankles of 17-year-old Mary Horn, who was held captive even after slavery was abolished the year before, until her fiancé asked for help from a Union soldier who removed the chains and married the couple;

• Uncle Ned’s School (1866) a plaster sculpture by artist John Rogers depicting an improvised classroom created by African Americans during Reconstruction;

• marriage certificate (1874) of Augustus Johnson and Malinda Murphy, who made their long-standing relationship legal during Reconstruction;

• activist Ida B. Wells’ pamphlet Southern Horrors (1892), which reported that 728 lynchings had taken place in just the previous eight years and was written to “arouse the conscience of the American people to a demand for justice to every citizen”;

• vegetable shampoo tin (ca. 1910-1920) by the Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Co., a cosmetics empire whose African American founder became a millionaire;

• World War I toy soldier diorama featuring African American troops in the 369th Infantry Regiment known as the “Harlem Hellfighters”; and

• maquette for artist Kara Walker’s Katastwóf Karavan (2017), a 2018 public sculpture installed at Algiers Point, New Orleans, featuring provocative silhouettes that depict slavery and racial stereotypes.

The exhibition also looks at how housing segregation in Manhattan eventually led to community-building in Harlem, where local individuals and organizations laid the foundation for the Harlem Renaissance, with a focus on the area around Harlem’s important 135th Street nexus, including black churches. Black Citizenship in the Age of Jim Crow concludes with an exploration of black military service during World War I and the struggle for equality in the decades to follow. With the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act, the most significant civil rights bills since Reconstruction, these laws signaled the end of legalized Jim Crow, though the struggle for full citizenship continued.

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