Posted on August 26, 2008

Exhibit Views Black Experience

Stephan Salisbury, Philadelphia Inquirer, August 22, 2008

The National Constitution Center will host the debut of a major traveling exhibition exploring the four-century sweep of the black American experience, from slavery to the cusp of the presidency, officials announced yesterday.


America I AM, scheduled to open at the Constitution Center Jan. 15 for a run through May 3, will feature interactive and video exhibits and more than 150 resonant artifacts, including one that was unveiled yesterday: a simple five-inch brass key to the jail cell where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was imprisoned in Birmingham, Ala., in 1963 and where he wrote Letter From Birmingham Jail.


Smiley [Tavis Smiley, conceiver of the exhibit], on hand for yesterday’s news conference, said the exhibit—the result of two years of planning—would seek to answer a question posed by W.E.B. Du Bois in 1903: “Would America have been America without her Negro people?”

“This will be the biggest, baddest, boldest exhibition ever that tells the story of African Americans,” Smiley said. “Think for a minute. . . . There would be no America without the contributions of black folk.

“From the arrival of the first slaves in Jamestown 400 years ago all the way up to the time of Barack Obama—we’re going to tell that story.”


Torsella [Joseph M. Torsella, the Constitution Center’s head] added that artifacts recovered from the historic archaeological excavation that preceded construction of the center would be included in the exhibit. And the story of the President’s House at Sixth and Market Streets, where George Washington lived during his presidency, attended by a number of black slaves, would also be woven into the exhibition.

The doors to the dungeon from Cape Coast Castle off the coast of Ghana, where captive Africans were warehoused before being shipped into slavery across the Atlantic, will be exhibited. {snip}

America I AM will involve more than weighty historical objects, organizers said. Drawn from dozens of black-history museums and individuals, the show will also feature everything from Muhammad Ali’s boxing gloves to materials associated with Motown to the writing table of 18th-century African American poet Phillis Wheatley.


America I AM is being underwritten by Wal-Mart, while Exxon Mobil is subsidizing the fuel costs for a kind of museo-mobile—a mini-exhibit in a tractor-trailer truck that will travel nationwide as the exhibit wends its way from city to city for the next four years. {snip}