Unifying Culture

Black History Museum’s new exhibit examines Alexandria’s roots in Africa.

When Louis Hicks became director of the Alexandria Black History Museum, he found an impressive, but fragmented, array of items and exhibits.

“We didn’t have a complete document assembled about African-American culture,” he explained. The museum’s efforts to create this document quickly became broader and deeper than had been imagined, and not so unified after all.

At the urging of Jean Federico, the director of the Office of Historic Alexandria at the time, the museum decided to make slavery the focal point of its exploration of black culture. This created a need to portray the life in Africa that slavery destroyed. The ambition to document black history over 250 years produced a plethora of material “that was way beyond our space capacity,” said Hicks. So planners of the exhibit, titled “Securing the Blessings of Liberty,” decided to break it into three phases.

The first phase begins with life in Africa and covers a time span up to 1820. It will open June 23 and run for about two years.

Audrey Davis, the museum’s assistant director and exhibit curator, said it was important to trace black culture to its roots in Africa. “When people talk about slavery, they … don’t talk about the full lives of the people that were taken, like they lived in this vacuum before they were enslaved,” said Davis. “But they had what people had in this country: their own societies, their own culture. They had a life in Africa that was disrupted by the slave trade. They were taken away from that and brought here and had this new life enforced on them.”

Davis said “Securing the Blessings of Liberty” will focus on what life was like for black people in Alexandria. “Alexandria was a very bustling town,” Davis said. It exported tobacco and received exports from all over the world. “Part of that cargo was human cargo.” Davis said research indicates Market Square was the site of slave sales.

But there was also a burgeoning free black population that developed at the turn of the century. “You would have these people who were enslaved living next door to people who were free,” Davis said. “I’m sure there were relationships that developed where people fell in love.” She said she had seen documentation of freed slaves trying to buy the freedom of a family member, or a man trying to buy the freedom of a woman he wanted to marry.

DAVIS SAID she thought the most fascinating aspect of the exhibit was “learning the survival strategies that slaves would have to use to get by or that free blacks had to use. Even though you’re free and had your manumission papers, you didn’t know that people would always honor those … you never knew what action you could take one day that could result in your death the next day.”

But finding these stories of survival “with that kind of fear,” as Davis put it, was a difficult task. The nature of slavery meant that few artifacts of its existence survived, and much fewer were purposefully preserved. Planning and research for the exhibition began in 2001. It was an effort that involved every department and every museum in the Office of Historic Alexandria.

Jackie Cohan, Alexandria’s archivist, said she played only a small role in the collaboration, compiling lists of research for other researchers. “It was very, very difficult to find items,” she said. Most of the records that exist on slavery were compiled by slave-owners.

But the efforts of the Historical Office paid off.

Janet Pressler, of VisionWorks Studios, who co-designed the exhibit with Dennis Kund, of Kund Associates, said that her biggest challenge was not finding information but editing the fruits of the collaboration. They eventually decided to include additional information on pamphlets. “You just can’t get that much information up on the wall,” she said.

The exhibit begins with life in Africa and describes the Middle Passage to America. Davis said they felt it was important to describe both rural and urban slave life, so larger plantations like Gunston Hall, Mount Vernon and Monticello will be covered. The exhibit will have two life-size dioramas, one a plantation and the other an Alexandria sugar house. Facets of urban life in Alexandria will include the places where slaves worked, the people they worked for and opportunities for free blacks. There will be a scale-model of Alexandria circa 1760.

Davis said Benjamin Banneker, a mathematician and surveyor, who wrote almanacs, among other things, will be profiled because of the time he spent surveying Jones Point. One of Banneker’s almanacs will be on display at the exhibit. Banneker, a freedman, was the son of a former slave and an indentured servant.

Artifacts from the slave quarters at Mount Vernon, sewing tools from the laundry house on Shuter’s Hill and sugar molds from the Alexandria sugar factories will also be some of the items on display.

Davis also described the free black register, in which freedmen recorded detailed descriptions of their bodies so they could be identified if they ever left the area. The exhibit will also display abolitionist material, like a teapot painted with a black slave in chains saying “Am I not a man and a brother?”

PRESSLER DESCRIBED the layout of the exhibit as a “buffet.” She said the designers created the display with a linear path and a hierarchy of information. But they know visitors won’t necessarily walk to each section in order, or read every line. By putting the most important information in the largest type, and color-coding areas that share a theme, Pressler believes people will be able to read as deeply into an exhibit as they wish, but even the most inattentive museum-goers will leave with some idea of what they’ve seen.

Davis said she hopes the exhibit raises new questions in people’s mind. She listed “the Revolutionary Paradox” as one particularly intriguing storyline. She believes people will ponder the state of affairs that led to free blacks “fighting for the revolution, but not for their own independence.”

“[The exhibit will] whet your appetite for a larger story,” Davis said, “the evolution of America and American culture.”