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Highlighting ‘Prize of Liberty’

A farming tool, a musket and a powder horn are the artifacts, coupled with text written by Loudoun historian Deborah Lee to tell the little-told story of slavery in Loudoun County.

“‘The Prize of Liberty:’ Opposition to Slavery in Loudoun County, Virginia, 1800-1865” will be on display at the main hallway exhibit at the Loudoun Museum starting this month.

“It is so much more interesting than a stereotype of northern abolitionists opposing slavery and southerners supporting it,” said Lee, contract curator for the Loudoun Museum and a member of the Black History Committee of the Friends of the Thomas Balch Library. “It shows how African-Americans worked to further the cause of ending slavery, and the way blacks and whites worked together to try to bring that change about. … The stories are fascinating — the people and the things they did to work to make people’s lives better.”

Former curator Randy Davis wrote the preliminary script for the exhibit before he left the museum last year to attend graduate school. The Loudoun Museum hired Lee in October 2003 to add local history, provide research and reshape and write the final script. She was already familiar with the topic having researched it since the early 1990s. She wrote her dissertation on anti-slavery in the upper south and last year received her doctorate in cultural studies. “People here tried to provide leadership to try to end slavery and to try to find a peaceful resolution to the contradiction between slavery and freedom,” she said.

“It’s a story it’s time to tell,” said Marybeth Mohr, museum director. “This is a great story. This is socially significant. As our county grows and becomes more diverse, we have to understand our history and our past experiences, especially in a time when this county changes so significantly and rapidly.”

THE EXHIBIT PROVIDES local examples of slaves trying to resist or escape from slavery and of Quakers, abolitionists and free blacks who tried to help them achieve their freedom. The exhibit includes images and photos of forms of resistance to slavery, along with:

* A farming tool that legend says was used by a slave, on loan from the Loudoun Heritage Farm Museum.

* A musket and powder horn used by a local man belonging to a group sent to Harper’s Ferry after John Brown’s raid at the site.

* A book on the topic written by Samuel Janney, a Quaker.

* A Lucas-Heaton letter written between free blacks who were sent to Liberia and their former slave owners.

“It’s a topic that hasn’t been explored much,” said Christie Hubner, collections manager and the project director for the exhibit. “It’s something unique and different with new fresh research.”

At the same time, “Being an exhibit on slavery, it has a sense of controversy,” Hubner continued. “An exhibit like that is challenging. With Deborah Lee, we’ve been able to come up with excellent research, so it’s a great product that’s new for the county.”

THE EXHIBIT is the first of three exhibits on slavery, each of which will be on display for one year. The second exhibit will focus on the black experience during the Civil War and Reconstruction and the third on the development and decline of segregation.

“This story is too big to tell all at once,” Hubner said.

The museum closed to the public on Jan. 24 through early February to allow staff and contractors to build the exhibit and a second exhibit on Victorian homes, which will open at the same time in the back room of the museum. That exhibit will focus on the purpose and function of different rooms in the Victorian era and include displays of a kitchen, parlor, dining room and bedroom. The artifacts for the exhibit are from the Dulin, Edwards and Keene collection.

Staff expects the two exhibits to be completed within the next week.

“We hate having to close to the public for so long … but it will be worth it in the end,” Hubner said. “It’s a great exhibit.”