Gripping reminders of slavery's hold on South

"Before Freedom Came". Orange County Historical Museum, Through March 8, 1998

This weekend, the Smithsonian Institution's gripping display "Before Freedom Came" opens for a six-week run at Orange County Historical Museum. The exhibit arrived here in 20 black trunks -- fittingly somber repositories for a record of America's saddest social genealogy: the everyday life of African-Americans in the antebellum South. Engravings, household items, manuscripts, musical instruments, spiritual objects and tools all are on view.

Piercing observations about that turbulent time include an excerpt from the first account of slavery written by an African -- in 1789, by 11-year-old Olaudah Equiano who'd been snatched from his family and West African homeland. Other narratives from slaves, former slaves and Freedmen are spliced with the lyrics of the spirituals that were salve to the maimed spirits of the indentured. And, there are "white-man" words -- from slave owners and non-slave owners alike. It is the melding of all this that gives the collection its magnificent voice.

Included in the exhibition's artifacts is a pair of leg irons (circa 1740s) excavated from a plantation near Williamsburg, Va., and a wooden weapon used in John Brown's 1859 insurrection at Harper's Ferry, W.Va. Also examined are the roles of African-Americans as agricultural and industrial workers, artisans and merchants. The exhibit probes antebellum race relations and, at its finale, looks at the resistance to slavery that crumbled the walls of "The Peculiar Institution of the South." It revisits African-Americans as soldiers and refugees in Union camps during the War Between the States and partakes of the jubilation on the eve of Emancipation.

The exhibit's daguerreotypes, tintypes and photographs from the antebellum era are especially moving. A viewer is drawn to the expression in the subjects' eyes. For, whether it is a photo of a woman gussied up in a hand-down dress or one of back-burdened men, the eyes are unflinchingly the same: broken, despairing, exhausted, hopeless, resigned. No wonder. They'd been stripped of every dignity, every identity. Their African names were replaced. Children were ripped from mothers' arms on the slave block. Their faces were branded; their marriage-rights denied. Little girls were destined to become a master's mistress. Through all of it, in addition to physical brutality, black men suffered unspeakable humiliation at their impotency to protect their women and children. It was death if they tried, and untold numbers died trying.

It is all of this and more -- and not the jocularity of contented "colored folk" created by sanitizing white writers -- that gazes out from the faces captured in the exhibit.

In 1619, there were only a handful of slaves in the United States -- 20 Africans landing on the shores as indentured servants, with tenures up to seven years, then freedom. Four decades later, because of Eli Whitney's cotton gin, the U.S. slave population soared. By the mid-1700s, there were 260,000 slaves just in Virginia. Before slavery became illegal, there would be 240 years of bondage that enslaved 11 million people.

Depending from whence they'd come on the continent, differences among the slaves were huge, but not insurmountable. A notable accomplishment of "Before Freedom Came" is its presentation of how myriad African lifestyles -- family life, religion, material culture, language, music, dance, art, work patterns -- and European traditions were woven by the enslaved into a distinctive identity. If the contents of the exhibit sound emotionally wrenching, they are, but they also offer insight and enlightenment.

Says Fredric P. Williams, of the Smithsonian's Traveling Exhibition Service, "The relevance of the subject of ‘Before Freedom Came' to today's community is that it is a mirror into our past that allows us to understand the troubled relationships that still exist between blacks and whites in the United States."

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