Best Slavery Exhibit Ever at the Museum of African American History

Laura and I played hooky today and slipped up to Washington, D.C., on Amtrak to look at the cherry blossoms. It was gloomy and drizzly, so we opted instead for visiting the Museum of African American history. Laura breezed through the history portion of the museum and made it to the Oprah Winfrey exhibit. As is my habit — most annoying to other members of my family who visit any museum with me — I anally compulsively view and read each display.

I was pleased to note that the floor on slavery had a small booth in the “Chesapeake” slavery alcove dedicated to Bacon’s Rebellion. I was even more pleased to see that the commentary defied the current Leftist fashion of describing Nathaniel Bacon as racist for his conflict with Native Americans, and instead highlighted the multiracial nature of the rebellion he led. Reads the placard:

White landowners were terrified to see black and white workers united in any cause. In 1676 Nathaniel Bacon led a rebellion of black and white colonists against the governor of Virginia, William Berkeley. They demanded that Berkeley open up new lands for settlement, end Native American raids, and regulate the abuse of servants.  The short-lived rebellion resulted in the government limiting European indentured servitude. The scales tipped. Europeans gained new rights and Africans lost their freedom.

African servitude in the English colonies began in 1619 when Dutch slavers sold the Africans into bondage at Jamestown. But England had no history or legal framework for slavery, so the status of Africans in early Virginia was amorphous. I’m not sure that Bacon’s Rebellion was quite the watershed it’s commonly portrayed as. Laws depriving Africans of the rights due white Englishmen were enacted before the Rebellion, and they were enacted after the Rebellion. The process converting black slaves into chattel was a process that took a half century, as the Museum history itself makes clear elsewhere.

Be that as it may be, I found the slavery section of the Museum to show much of the complexity and nuance of the “peculiar institution.” Not surprisingly for a museum focused on African-Americans, the exhibit told the story of slavery from the perspective of… African-Americans, not whites. The dominant theme was how Africans came to the English colonies and adapted to and resisted the horrors of slavery. They learned skills, they bargained, they negotiated, they literally purchased their freedom, they built their own traditions (especially through the church), they endeavored to hold their families together, they ran away — either to relative freedom in the North or to maroon colonies — they created alliances and trade networks with Native Americans, and they occasionally even rebelled.

I was struck by the contrast between how historians give tremendous agency to African-Americans in resisting slavery with how people of a certain ideological proclivity that shall remain nameless give 21st-century African-Americans very little agency, instead blaming all ills afflicting African-Americans today upon racism and institutional racism. At some point — it’s not exactly clear — African-Americans transmuted from heroes to victims.

One other point worth noting: The Museum seriously bashes Thomas Jefferson. There’s a handsome statue of Jefferson, but the museum commentary is eviscerating, contrasting his lofty words about equality in the Declaration of Independence with his history as a slave holder. No credit at all for articulating universal principles that would one day provide the ideological basis for freeing the slaves and providing equal rights to blacks.

To no one’s surprise, the narrative of the Museum is scrupulously politically correct. But it shows many facts of a complex institution, it emphasizes the humanity of slaves through personal stories, it reproduces amazing photographs and portraits that bring African-Americans of the era to life, and it provides an uplifting narrative of African-Americans asserting their autonomy and independence under horrific conditions. I can’t speak to the post-Civil War exhibits, which I didn’t see, but I would urge everyone to view the exhibits on slavery.

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17 responses to “Best Slavery Exhibit Ever at the Museum of African American History

  1. Ah, going to D.C. on Amtrak is great, although my trip earlier this spring was delayed about an hour somewhere in Caroline County due to engine trouble.
    I have not been to the African-American museum yet; I have decided to wait and let the newness and the crowds subside. I am happy to hear your report. I was really disappointed several years ago with the American Indian museum. I am generally very sympathetic toward the Indians (I root for them in the cowboy movies), but that museum was too much for even me. After going through there, one leaves with the impression that the Indians could do no wrong and they were the best examples of innocent and pure human nature, at one with nature, almost Man before the Fall.

    • The museum still has crowds, but the wait to get in is only half an hour.

    • There is an element of “African-Americans can do no wrong” in the African-American exhibit. You’d never know, for instance, as Library of Virginia records show, that slaves got drunk with some frequency, occasionally wandering off and dying of exposure. Or that slaves quarreled with one another, occasionally with fatal results. There are only a few hints that whites and blacks could reach across the institution of slavery and acknowledge one another’s humanity, as in fact they often did. Perhaps the biggest void was not a single mention (that I noticed) of the fairly widespread practice of manumission — the act of slave owners, following their ideals rather than their material self interest, giving slaves their freedom. These are all quibbles, however, given the larger truth that slavery was an evil institution.

      • “Perhaps the biggest void was not a single mention (that I noticed) of the fairly widespread practice of manumission — the act of slave owners, following their ideals rather than their material self interest, giving slaves their freedom. These are all quibbles, however, given the larger truth that slavery was an evil institution.”

        Wrong! These are not quibbles at all. They are the reverse. The biggest and most important part of the entire story in America by far. This non-quibble started from the beginning of the problem in the 1600s to the beginning of the major political solution that cost the deaths of between 625,000 and 750,00 people during Civil War, and all the struggles that have ensued since, until this very day. There is nothing else like this ongoing non-quibble in all human history. But to admit this Great Truth & Saving Grace dilutes the false narrative of today culture warriors, their pursuit of power struggles & political agendas.

        Remember evil is everywhere. So are human love & ideals. Never ever reduce the latter below the former, for the latter is the one essential to a life worth living. It ain’t no “quibble.”

  2. This is an interesting one we’ve seen on our travels:

    National Underground Railroad Freedom Center

  3. Re Jefferson, if you have not read “Master of the Mountain”, Jim, I suggest you do. I would think it mandatory for ‘hoos, even alums….It is such an interesting situation in Virginia, where Democrats built their organization around an annual Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner, but Republicans refused to even mention Lincoln (and now make their stand at the feet of statues of dead white Democrat slavery defenders). Can’t make this stuff up….

    • Thomas Jefferson was a deeply flawed man with prodigious talents that he willfully deployed to the world’s great benefit. In sum, Jefferson was a world class demagogue, saved in legacy by his talents and instincts. I fear that today’s Virginia puts on display the worst and lesser parts of Jefferson’s legacy. And almost none of Jefferson’s better angels. There Mr. Jefferson consumes himself.

  4. I have recently been reading “Virginius Dabney’s Virginia – Writings about the Old Dominion.” Published in 1986 it’s a collection of articles written by Mr. Dabney from 1925 through 1981. Sadly, there is a theme of racism throughout the articles. Not the hard racism of white nationalists but the more subtle bias of the Richmond elite. Dabney’s article from 1981 titles, “The Jefferson Scandals” takes great umbrage at the idea that Thomas Jefferson fathered children with Sally Hemmings. Dabney fiercely attacks authors who claimed that such lineage actually existed. Only one thing … the DNA doesn’t lie. Jefferson did father children with Sally Hemmings. The authors Dabney bitterly criticized were right, Dabney was wrong. However, it’s less that Dabney was wrong and more the emotionality of the tone he uses to refute the historically reasonable theory that Jefferson fathered children with a slave. Why the vitriol in 1981? I guess you have to stand under that 6 story tall statue of Robert E Lee in downtown Richmond to really understand. 6 stories. Really?

    • Don – when you last mentioned Virginius Dabney’s Virginia, you asked for other recommendations on early Virginia History. Let me suggest the books by Bernard Bailyn, most particularly his superb overview titled:

      The Barbarous Years: The Peopling of British North America–The Conflict of Civilizations, 1600-1675

      This is one the best overviews of those times, I have read. It puts Virginia’s earliest times into a wonderful perspective of what was going on up and down the North American coast, and from whence its new peoples came. I suspect you will like it. It pulls no bunches, tells the good, bad and ugly, by a first class scholar. His other books on the subject in later years are excellent too.

      I did buy at your suggestion, but have not read yet, Virginius Dabney’s Virginia – Writings about the Old Dominion. So cannot comment directly on it, except to say I am not surprised at his reaction to Sally Hemming controversy at that time. I do believe that there may still be some residual doubt on whether T. Jefferson was the father of Sally’s children, as opposed to his kin, particularly his brother, who last I heard may have fathered them. Perhaps that too has been resolved by now. But in any case, the truth of this should not have been a surprise to anyone.

      I believe this is one the great untold stories in history. As best I know, its still now fully told, or not told well, how common these sorts of practices were, not only as regards black slaves, but also out of wedlock births by unmarried women of all sorts, particularly those living on places run by large landowners or masters, white or otherwise, who owned and ran the place. The reasons behind these out of wedlock children were many and complicated no matter the race or class, as were their subsequent circumstances. For example, most married women during these times died in their thirties, if not before. Hence a landowner, wealthy or otherwise, often had three or four wives, before he died. Along the way, he often collected orphans from all sorts of places near and far, young children whose parents had died without other kin, or any kin at all, all this in addition to indentured servants, and slaves living on the masters place.

      In one instance, I recall the older spinster “master” and his never married brother lived on a large place in the family for generations, with some 35 to 40 + children – 15 said collectively to be legitimate children the master’s 4 now dead wives who predeceased him, plus another 9 “white orphans” of dubious parentage, plus another 15 mulatto children, at the least. And, of course, these habits and lifestyles in some cases had continued down through say 8 or 9 generations by the time of the Civil War, and/or beyond.

      How could Virginius Dabney not have known these simple facts of history and life, of the old south, and indeed many other places in America? Like I have said so many times before here, the present hates to admit to the past, and it hates even more to admit to the present, and is in perennial denial of both.

      But –

      We have to uncover and save and appreciate all of this history, in order to understand ourselves, which includes our ancestors and how they came as far as they did, given the harsh reality of their times. We are no better than they. Indeed, I personally admire them far more than I admire us.

    • Of course, I guess it would be ugly to ask why it took DNA to “prove” it instead of “documented history” as I’m quite sure dozens, hundred of books have been written about Jefferson and his life.

      Bad on me for asking…….

      • “Bad on me for asking…….”

        No, not bad at all, but good instead.

        And that was the whole point of my comment.

        Where we start to lose our way is when we hoist ourselves in our own minds and fantasies into a superior position over others, whether here now or gone before, without our efforts to understand the challenges and demands of their time and place. And when instead, we rely on our ignorance to invent grievances, excuses, and personal virtues for ourselves, to promote our own private advantages and pleasures, and/or to satiate our own insecurities, anxieties, or hates, by heaping (projecting) them upon others here now, or long gone before.

  5. Larry, the story is as old at the 1800 campaign, at least, and was told openly by the descendants of the couple. What has forced acceptance is the combination of DNA and scholarship, which demonstrates that the birth of her children corresponds with times the well-traveled Master of the Mountain was at home.

    • I guess before the DNA came along – it was “plausible deniability” from those who could not accept the actual descendants as real?

      Interesting Article: ” What Southern dynasties’ post-Civil War resurgence tell us about how wealth is really handed down”

      https://www.washingtonpost.com/us-policy/2019/04/04/how-souths-slave-owning-dynasties-regained-their-wealth-after-civil-war/?utm_term=.3518140ee058

      • Most all these people traveled over their entire lives no more that a three hours walk from where they were born. The idea of “plausible deniability” was totally alien to them. To suggest that it was for them is totally laughable.

        But there, at the very same time, were far more powerful, implacable, dangerous and unforgiving forces at work on these earlier people of our in America who struggled so hard so long ago, just to survive in a harsh, brutal and alien land.

        Unfortunately, faint shadows of those earlier but long gone powerful forces are still in in play a far more minor, and inconsequential way, a tiny burden or inconvenience or escape, or excuse for the great majority of us deeply frivolous people. But we have no where near, or in any way comparable the pressure on us, than these earlier people who founded and built this nation had on them, i.e for them to resist the status quo meant to be cast out and shamed in ways that caused the offender to disappear altogether, as a person, and lose not only their entire identity and support group, but to lose everything, including one’s life and means of survival. Another words to quite literally find oneself in the gutter until quick brutal death by violence and or humiliation, friendless without burial, or kin, all alone.

        In contrast, today, 99.9% of us today, have absolutely now idea or appreciation for what I have just said. Hence, my far greater respect for those who went before us, to create for us, and build for us, all that we all now enjoy to today without any clue whatsoever as to what so many endured and fought so hard against such implacable odds to give us all alive today the incrediable country we live in here in America.

        • Correction to last paragraph:

          In contrast, today, 99.9% of us today have absolutely no idea, no conception, nor any appreciation for what I have just said. Thus, I have far greater respect for those who went before us, and who created all this for us, and build it for us, all that we all now enjoy today, including so many of us today who carelessly, ignorantly, and without clue, know what it is that all that we enjoy today came from. And how so many who went before us endured and fought so hard against such implacable odds to give us the amazing country that was dropped into our laps, America. We are truly a grossly ignorant and foolish and unappreciative people, build over the last several generations.

      • Let me get this straight;

        Most all these people in earlier America traveled over their entire lives no more that a three hours walk from where they were born. The idea that they considered or worked and loved and died on the basis of “plausible deniability” would have been totally alien to them. To suggest that it an element in how they conducted their lives is totally laughable.

        But, at the very same time, there were in their lives far more powerful, implacable, ruthless, dangerous and unforgiving forces at work on these earlier Americans, who struggled so hard and so long ago just to survive in a harsh, brutal and alien land, and then build the foundations of the greatest country on earth and in history, up to present times.

        Unfortunately, faint shadows of those earlier but long gone powerful forces are still in play on us but in a far more minor, and inconsequential ways, tiny burdens or inconveniences or escapes for us, or an excuse for the great majority of us to be irresponsible, with the result that most all of us are a deeply frivolous people. Why? We have no where near, or in any way comparable, the pressure on us, that these earlier ancestors of ours who founded and built this nation had on them. For them to resist the status quo of their time meant to be cast out and shamed in ways that caused the offender to disappear altogether as a person, and to lose not only their identity, the support group, their means to survive, but to lose everything, including their life and means of survival. Another words, they would quite literally find themselves cast out into a ruthless wilderness, where torture by savages of all sorts, or rape or starvation led to brutal death by violence and humiliation, a corpse left friendless without burial, or kin, meat and bones remnants for wild animals as best.

        In contrast, today, 99.9% of us today, have absolutely now idea or appreciation for what I have just said. Hence, I have far greater respect for those who went before us, to create for us, and build for us, all that we all now enjoy today, than I do for us who have now clue or appreciation for what so many endured and fought so hard against such implacable odds to give us all alive today this incrediable country we live in here in America.

        We are a grossly ignorant and foolish and unappreciative people, children really who have regressed from a great people over the past 50 years. This is precisely what Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn saw so clearly and expressed so eloquently at Harvard University on June 8, 1978.

  6. Let me strongly endorse Reed’s recommendation of the “Peopling of British North America” by Bernard Bailyn. Based on a series of lectures he gave, it’s a short, easy read yet with a depth that keeps on giving with each re-read. He especially focusses on the early migration routes that took immigrants away from the port cities, and the role of indenturing for passage, and real estate merchants, and early industry on those patterns, revealed today by the distinct groupings of people from various communities in the Old Country that are still betrayed in regional language patterns and architecture.

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