Smithsonian Parallels Emancipation, Civil Rights

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The museum also acquired a tent from a “contraband camp” or “freedmen’s village” that sprung up to house slaves that had self-emancipated by crossing over Union lines.

“Slaves were not passive recipients of freedom,” Bunch said. “In essence, their action of running away forced the federal government to create policies that culminated in the Emancipation Proclamation.”

Facing the former slave’s tent in the exhibit is Lincoln’s everyday suit with a long black jacket, bow tie and his iconic top hat from the Smithsonian collection.

It is likely the first time Lincoln’s suit has been next to an encampment that housed formerly enslaved people since 1865, said Harry Rubenstein, a curator of political history at the Smithsonian.

Displaying Lincoln’s suit this way “tells a powerful story of him, in a sense, facing this encampment,” Rubenstein said. Lincoln encountered such scenes every day in his final years, seeing encampments of freed slaves in Washington as he rode about town.

The Civil Rights section includes posters and placards carried in the March on Washington and shards of stained glass from the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., where four young black girls were killed in an explosion.

Bunch said he wanted to mark the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1 and the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington in August. He also wanted to reach the crowds attending President Barack Obama’s inauguration in January. A passage from Obama’s first inaugural speech is quoted in the exhibition opposite a quotation from abolitionist Frederick Douglass.

“I realized that the inauguration is a time when people begin to look back,” Bunch said, “to understand who we once were as we also begin to look at who we might become.”

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