Exhibitions and Interpretive Programs

Exhibit Review: Before Freedom Came: African American Life in the Antebellum South, 1790–1865

Gregg D. Kimball, May 1992

The decision by the Museum of the Confederacy, in Richmond, Virginia, to mount a major exhibit on African-American life under slavery struck many local Richmond residents, both black and white, as somewhat strange. Was a museum widely perceived as a shrine to the Confederacy and the "lost cause" the proper venue for such an exhibit? Despite initial reactions, many people also perceived a subtle irony and legitimacy to the project. If the Civil War was ultimately about slavery, and if the foundation of Southern culture was built on racial servitude, what better place was there to examine the "peculiar institution"? The National Endowment for the Humanities believed the case was strong, and funded the exhibit in both planning and implementation, as did several other foundations and corporations. The Museum of the Confederacy's executive director, Louis Gorr, vowed not to let the show be "a 'whitewash' of the horrors of slavery,"1 and he succeeded, but the struggle to have the exhibit accepted took its toll on the interpretation. The exhibit scrupulously avoided controversy by rooting itself firmly in a positive story of cultural survival, and by avoiding some tough historical issues of the relationship between blacks and whites.

The exhibit Before Freedom Came comprises 314 objects, including photographs, paintings, manuscripts, and artifacts; the assembly of this material was the exhibit's most singular and important contribution. Guest curator Kym S. Rice mined private and public collections and brought to light numerous artifacts that had never before been displayed to the public. Design and space problems, however, detracted from the power of many of these artifacts. The effort to get too many items into a relatively small exhibit space resulted in dense clusters of artifacts, and the visually exciting ones were overwhelmed by the sheer mass of material. The tight fit also caused the shoehorning of labels into low and inaccessible places that made many extremely difficult to read, if they were found at all. Given the density of the exhibit, the designers should have attempted to highlight some of the truly outstanding artifacts through special placement and lighting. A beautifully carved ivory bust of freed slave Nora August, done in 1865 by a Union soldier, was used on the cover of the exhibit catalog, and in much of the exhibit's publicity. I walked past it several times before it caught my eye in the gallery.

A handsome catalog for the exhibition contains essays by Drew Gilpin Faust, Charles Joyner, Theresa A. Singleton, David R. Goldfield, John Michael Vlach, and Deborah Gray White. The essays provide topical overviews of scholarship that most of the authors have explored in other publications, but their compilation in one well-written volume is a worthy companion to the exhibition. The essay by archaeologist Theresa Singleton should prove particularly useful to historians. As Dr. Singleton pointed out at the symposium sponsored for the exhibit, much of the literature on African-American archaeology (and archaeology in general) is contained in field reports and in the heads of archaeologists. Her essay provides historians and other non-archaeologists with an extremely useful overview of work in the field.

Before Freedom Came is emphatically about the transmission and survival of African culture in the American South. The main label states: "Whether enslaved or free, African Americans living in the Antebellum South created a vital and dynamic culture based on their African roots and molded by their experiences. Against a background of the horrors of slavery, Before Freedom Came uses objects, visual evidence, and individual testimony to tell a story of daily endurance and cultural survival."

This emphasis on cultural roots in Africa is, of course, an important subject in the scholarship of slavery, but the exhibit does not do enough visually to convince the visitor of the connection. Few African artifacts are displayed or shown in photographs so that the visitor can understand the connection, and the exhibit unwittingly creates the idea that there was one monolithic "African" culture.

Given the reliance on African cultural roots as a theme, it is surprising that the planners and curator of Before Freedom Came decided largely to ignore the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Pre–1790 events are compressed into a section on the Chesapeake and South Carolina, including the obligatory map of the slave trade. Given the heavy emphasis on culture, a more detailed analysis of this crucial early period of cultural transmission and adaptation seems in order. Without this overview, the visitor is left to wonder what specific African cultures and regions slaves came from, and what these societies were like. Also, the limited treatment given to the early development of slavery leaves the visitor with the impression that racial slavery was always a given, rigidly determined from the very beginning of European settlement in the Americas. New World slavery was not an "American" phenomenon, nor was it originally racial, as all of the colonies initially used European, African, and Native American unfree labor. David Brion Davis reminds us that the "Africanization of large parts of the New World was the result not of concerted planning, racial destiny, or immanent historical design but of innumerable local and pragmatic choices made in four continents."2

Despite the exhibit's stated goal of examining African precedents and adaptations, the label copy sometimes assumes a strikingly ethnocentric set of cultural values and norms when describing slave culture. One label states that, "Slaves, for their own emotional reasons, forged traditional two-parent households and raised children, even though doing so served the economic interests of their masters." Setting aside the question of whether West African societies structured families as described in this label, is it accurate to speak of a two-parent household as being "traditional"? Certainly it is not traditional in any historical or anthropological sense, nor is marriage necessarily based on emotion, rather than kinship, economic status, and other factors.

A perceptive visitor might also have reached different conclusions than the scriptwriter based on some of the facts presented in the label copy. A label in a section entitled "Kin to One Another" reads: "The concentration of slaves in the hands of comparably [sic] few whites meant that three-fourths of southern slaves lived in groups of ten or more. Cooperative working patterns and shared living conditions created a feeling of community among enslaved African Americans." This selective use of data might have been tempered with a comparative perspective. Peter Kolchin points out that three-quarters of all American slaves lived in holdings of fifty slaves or less, that they were a distinct minority within the South's population, and were typically in everyday contact with whites, factors that probably lessened the chance for cultural autonomy in contrast to unfree workers in the Caribbean, South America, and Russia.3 The problem with the interpretation is not that it has a point of view, but given the vast scholarship of slavery, a dialogue between opposing views would have helped visitors understand that history is not a static enterprise, especially the history of slavery.

Similarly, the interpretation of white Southerners' attitudes toward slavery was summed up in a section entitled, "Masters and Slaves: Profits and Paternalism," which, through artifacts and audios from the ex-slave narratives, discussed punishment, miscegenation, the selling of slaves, and the abuse of African Americans by masters. This section at the end of the exhibit provided the only discussion of the slave/master relationship, but did not adequately emphasize the extensive interaction between these two parties. This section did not consider the work of Eugene Genovese, Mechal Sobel, and others who see a complex cultural interplay between whites and blacks, masters and slaves. When the curator and one of the consultants were asked at the exhibition symposium about the problem of presenting everyday contact and cultural interaction between masters and slaves, the curator responded that this was difficult to do in an exhibition and that some of this interpretation had to be carried out by the public programs connected to the exhibit, which include interpretation of servants in the White House of the Confederacy. The public programs, one of the more extensive and rich aspects of the exhibition, included actors portraying slaves, a camp for schoolchildren emphasizing African traditions, and programs at slavery-related sites in Richmond, such as the city's vast slave market. The medium of conveying historical information has to be able to handle the message, and the use of public programs for this topic was a good choice. Nevertheless, it would have been useful to have access to those programs in the exhibit, perhaps through video, and the label copy should have at least discussed the day-to-day contact and the merging of black and white culture in the American South.

In 1989, James Horton and Spencer Crew surveyed the field of African-American interpretation in museums, and mentioned the efforts of the Museum of the Confederacy in planning the exhibition under discussion. They noted that the curator was not a member of the permanent staff and cautioned that, "A temporary exhibit may not have a long-term effect on museum exhibition policy."4 I share these concerns. The real challenge to the Museum of the Confederacy is to continue to improve and incorporate the history they have presented in Before Freedom Came into their permanent galleries on the Civil War and the interpretation of the White House of the Confederacy. By viewing African-American history in the larger context of the coming of the Civil War, American race relations, and Southern culture, the Museum of the Confederacy could provide a continuous story in their changing and permanent exhibits.

Before Freedom Came was curated by Kym S. Rice at the Museum of the Confederacy. It has subsequently been shown at the McKissick Museum in Columbia, South Carolina, and will continue at the National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center in Wilberforce, Ohio, through the end of June.

Notes

1. Quoted in "Chilling Chapter on Slavery Finally Taught at Rebel Museum," Atlanta Journal-Constitution, September 8, 1991.

2. David Brion Davis, Slavery and Human Progress (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984), p. 52.

3. Peter Kolchin, "Reevaluating the Antebellum Slave Community: A Comparative Perspective," Journal of American History 70, no. 3 (Dec. 1983).

4. James Oliver Horton and Spencer R. Crew, "Afro-Americans and Museums: Towards a Policy of Inclusion," in Warren Leon and Roy Rosenzweig, History Museums in the United States: A Critical Assessment (1989).

—Gregg D. Kimball is a historian at the Valentine Museum, Richmond, Virginia.