African American News and Genealogy

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Saturday, June 17, 2006

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. Full Story:


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