Slave Ships to 20th-Century Rights Struggles: History, Influence of Blacks Highlighted

Article excerpt

It's fall 1877. You've come to town for provisions after a full day of sharecropping. As you enter the little store, your eyes fall upon a broadside posted on a wall.

"All Colored People That Want To Go To Kansas, On September 5th 1877, Can Do So For $5.00."

That's a lot of money, you think to yourself, and you're perplexed, so you read on:

"Whereas, we, the colored people of Lexington, Ky., knowing that there is an abundance of choice lands now belonging to the government, have assembled ourselves together for the purpose of locating on said lands . . ."

Thousands of Southern blacks saw broadsides like that and took the offer during the Reconstruction era.

By 1879, more than 7,000 "exodusters" had arrived in Kansas, while many more had landed in Iowa, Missouri and Nebraska, all in search of greater freedom and better job opportunities.

This month, icons of black history - such as a reproduction of the broadside quoted here - are hanging on the walls of the Capital Children's Museum at 800 Third St. NE.

"The African Presence in the Americas 1492-1992, A Quincentenary Commentary" is a traveling exhibition from the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York City.

This exhibit of several dozen black-and-white photographs, lithographs and drawings is not the only black-history exhibit in the area. There are dozens. Nor is it the largest exhibit mounted in observance of Black History Month. But the exhibit uniquely celebrates and explores with pinpoint precision the accomplishments of African descendants in North, South and Central America. The works are grouped under four broad themes: migration, work, culture and resistance.

Before the exodusters came another mass of blacks, captured in Africa and shipped to the Americas against their will. The harshness of the middle passage, as the Atlantic Ocean voyage on slave ships came to be known, is reproduced in one of the drawings.

It shows several captured men with their hands bound and their heads hung low as stern white men dressed in pirate fashion lead them into the bowels of a ship. A clutch of captured women seated off to one side mournfully wait their turn to go under.

Tens of thousands died during the 3,000- to 4,000-mile journey. More died upon arrival and while living as slaves. Many refused to die as slaves and fled to freedom.

An 1850 photograph, "Refugees From Slavery in the United States," shows blacks who fled the South to Canada, a safe haven from slave catchers. Four of the people depicted are old; one is much younger. Two of the older ones hold canes. All look tired.

After the War of 1812, Canada announced that residing in that country made blacks free, according to explanatory text near the picture.

"By 1820, definite routes into Canada had been established," the text says. "It is conservatively estimated that 30,000 slaves used this `Underground Railroad,' to escape to freedom, aided by free blacks, Quakers and Methodists as well as by individuals like John Mason and Harriet Tubman, both escaped slaves who risked recapture to lead runaways to freedom."

In the room devoted to work, the labors of black people from the past and present are included - the exhalted endeavors and the lowly toil - to show the continuum of their accomplishments. …