It’s an image that would break any parent’s heart.
A handwritten deed of sale for an enslaved Black child in Westmoreland County, Va. shows the purchaser paid $260.00 in 1854 to own someone’s child. Regardless of the amount, the document is a painful reminder of the frequency with which the children of enslaved parents were sold away, often never to be seen again.
The deed is one of over 100 fascinating photos and artifacts that make up “Forging Freedom, Justice and Equality,” the compelling 40th anniversary special exhibition at the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia. Divided into six themes – “Before Freedom Came; In My Father’s House; Tell Them We are Rising; The Business of Commerce, Organizations and the Black Press; The Black Military Experience; and Arts, Sports and Entertainment”- the interactive exhibition demonstrates extraordinary examples of agency in Black Virginians’ quest for freedom, justice, and equality over several centuries.
“This exhibit is a survey, a taste of everything,” explains Mary Lauderdale, director of collections. “Through our partnership with the Virginia Museum of History and Culture, we’ve been able to start inventorying and digitizing the Black History Museum’s collections to make them more accessible to all.”
How many local natives are aware that freeborn Richmonder George Lewis Ruffin was the first Black to earn a law degree from Harvard? His accomplishment was the result of his parents relocating to Boston in search of greater educational opportunities than were available for their four children here. Ruffin went on to become the first Black elected to the Boston City Council and the first Black appointed a judge in Massachusetts.
“In My Father’s House: The Black Worship Experience” looks at how the collective fellowship within Black churches has historically promoted the importance of education while providing a moral compass and offering opportunities for stewardship. Some of the historic Black churches pictured in the exhibit were founded pre-Civil War and some as long as 200 years ago.
The Black quest for education, both before and after the Civil War, is the focus of “Tell Them We are Rising: The Black Experience in Education.” The drive to be educated is perfectly encapsulated in a photograph of a ferry with at least 50 young students aboard -most of them standing and exposed to the elements in the roofless boat- being transported across the James River to school.
After the Civil War, the Freedmen’s Bureau organized schools throughout Virginia and the South, including the Richmond Colored Normal and High School founded in 1867. That school continues today as Armstrong High School.
In “The Business of Commerce, Organizations, and the Black Press” gallery, viewers learn about Black entrepreneurs such as Marcellus Carrington Waller, who founded Waller Jeweler & Sons in Carver in 1900. Today it’s one of the oldest, continuously run Black-owned jewelry businesses in the country – no small accomplishment.
Black men and women have served in the armed forces with distinction throughout history and their stories make up “The Black Military Experience.” Anyone who’s driven Williamsburg Road in Fulton Bottom has probably seen Admiral Gravely Boulevard, but how many knew who he was or that was the street where he was born?
Richmond born Vice Admiral Samuel L. Gravely, Jr. was a graduate of Armstrong High School and Virginia Union University. He achieved multiple firsts in his naval career, including being the first Black to serve as an officer in control of a warship, the first to command a numbered U.S. fleet and the first to achieve the rank of admiral.
A striking black, beaded gown worn by world-renowned opera singer Marian Anderson, who had family in Richmond, dazzles viewers in the gallery devoted to “Arts, Sports, and Entertainment.” Born enslaved in Loudon County, George Washington Johnson was discovered singing on street corners in New York City and went on to become the first Black recording star of the phonograph era. His recoding of “The Laughing Song” sold more than 50,000 copies.
Also on display is a can of Bill Robinson Hair Dressing, which the tap-dancing star sold to raise funding for a traffic light at Adams and Leigh Streets in Jackson Ward after noticing schoolchildren dodging cars to cross the street.
A 1978 photograph of Virginia Commonwealth University student Jerome W. James, Jr. with his paintbrushes shows the promising young artist before his paintings were in the collections of celebrity stars such as Stevie Wonder and Michael Jordan.
“Forging Freedom, Justice and Equality” is a riveting immersion into a significant part of our country’s history that is not taught in schools. That this exhibit can’t help but educate while also entertaining the viewer makes it all the more important. “Our goal with this exhibit is to pique people’s interest in the Black experience in Virginia,” says Lauderdale. “These Virginia stories and people are part of the American story, not just Black history.”
“Forging Freedom, Justice and Equality” through April 2023 at the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia at 122 West Leigh St. Blackhistorymuseum.org