Publication Date

April 1, 1998

Perspectives Section


The African American Odyssey, an exhibition chronicling black America’s quest for full citizenship from the Revolutionary War to the 20th century, as well as the art, photography, businesses, and family life of African Americans throughout the country’s history, will be on display at the Library of Congress from February 5–May 2, 1998. Portions of the exhibition are in each of the three library buildings, with the major presentation housed in the newly renovated Thomas Jefferson Building.

Showcasing nearly 250 items, including books, government documents, manuscripts, maps, musical scores, plays, films, and recordings, The African American Odyssey is the largest black history exhibition ever mounted by the Library of Congress, giving the general public a glimpse into its multimillion-piece collection of African Americana. “The library has eagerly sought African American materials for more than a century,” said Librarian of Congress James H. Billington, reflecting on this relatively unknown and underused portion of the library’s holdings. “These collections demonstrate the tenacity of Americans of all colors and races in believing that this nation guarantees ‘liberty and justice for all.'”

The African American Odyssey was curated by Debra Newman Ham, former specialist in African American history and culture in the Library of Congress’s Manuscript Division, and currently a professor of history at Morgan State University. It is based on The African American Mosaic: A Library of Congress Resource Guide for the Study of Black History and Culture, edited by Ham and published by the library in 1993. Like the resource guide, the Jefferson Building portion of the exhibition is divided into nine sections: Slavery—The Peculiar Institution; Free Blacks in the Antebellum Period; Abolition; the Civil War; Reconstruction; the Booker T. Washington era; World War I and Postwar Society; the Depression, the New Deal, and World War II; and the Civil Rights era. Prints and photographs by 20th-century African American artists are on display in the foyer of the James Madison Building, while items from the Daniel A. P. Murray Collection on black business and family life at the turn of the century are on exhibit in the foyer of the John Adams Building.

The exhibition will also be available on the Internet at as part of a long-term project, funded by a grant from Citicorp Foundation, to digitize materials from the library’s incomparable African American collection. A preview of the exhibition is currently available online, and other materials, including items from the Abraham Lincoln collection, will soon follow. All materials will remain online indefinitely.

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