Texas History: Black citizenship barely survived the Jim Crow era, according to museum
"We had no idea how relevant it would be."
So says Margaret Koch, director of the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum, regarding the current touring show, "Black Citizenship in the Age of Jim Crow."
The New York Historical Society first staged this exhibit in 2018, long before the recent Black Lives Matter protests and the revived national debates on social justice and systemic racism. The COVID-19 pandemic delayed its arrival in Austin.
Now exhibited in the upper rotunda gallery, "Black Citizenship" is simple, direct, factual and chronological. Designers have paced the constituent historical elements in a measured manner, and they have employed blessedly large display type.
Unlike the Bullock's 2017 exhibit, “Purchased Lives: The American Slave Trade from 1808 to 1865,” originally conceived by the Historic New Orleans Collection, "Black Citizenship" is as straight and unswerving in its basic storyline as a school textbook. Yet therein lies its value for our times — this is settled history.
If you've got a basic grasp of history, you might not discover much new information here. Nevertheless, contemplated through the lens of our times, this show is a solid reminder of a century during which Black American citizenship was denied.
A detailed look at Black citizenship exhibit
After a brief preface that recalls Martin Luther King Jr.'s reference of an "unpaid debt" during the 1963 March on Washington, the show lays the solid basis for its topic by revisiting the infamous 1857 Dred Scott decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, which deemed that no Black person, free or enslaved, could ever be a U.S. citizen.
None. Let that sink in.
The show quickly moves on to the pre-Civil War conflicts between free and slave states over the expansion of slavery to the western territories. This section includes two telling artifacts — "Gospel of Slavery: A Primer of Freedom" and "The First Dixie Reader" — textbooks that demonstrate how schoolchildren in the North and the South learned quite different foundational views about slavery.
All too abruptly, we encounter images of Black soldiers who served in the Union Army and, right after that, the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, which freed enslaved people in the Confederacy.
This show does not slow down.
The next section attempts to break down the contrasts among the military, presidential and congressional versions of Reconstruction (1865-1877). Despite their radically different goals and strategies, all three aimed, to one extent or another, to reauthorize the priorities of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, as well as democracy and equality.
Two amendments to the U.S. Constitution were meant to carve these liberties in stone: the Fourteenth Amendment, ratified in 1868, guaranteed U.S. citizenship to all persons born or naturalized in the U.S. It also granted them federal civil rights; the Fifteenth, passed in 1870, decreed that the right to vote could not be denied because of "race, color or previous condition of servitude."
These breakthrough guarantees were immediately challenged during campaigns of devastating violence against African Americans and their white allies in the South. The show displays only two images of lynchings, but even without graphic details, they are disturbing.
Despite the promise of federal protections, subsequent conservative Supreme Courts interpreted those civil and voting rights amendments narrowly.
I did learn in this exhibit that an 1871 law that had shut down the Ku Klux Klan was ruled unconstitutional in 1883. Still, I wanted to know more about the arguments before the court.
Meanwhile, the exhibit also displays images of interracial juries and African American support of Republican candidates.
More off-putting is a physical Klan robe, which, while it is likely historically accurate, looks more clownish than threatening.
One winces at the panel about the Compromise of 1877, the political deal with the devil that ended with the withdrawal of troops from the South — meaning there would be no authority on the ground to guarantee citizenship for African Americans.
In 1877, Reconstruction ends and Jim Crow begins. This dark time is described by sociologist, historian and civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois: "The slaves went free; stood for a brief moment in the sun; then moved back toward slavery."
This section covers the virtual servitude of sharecropping, the fight against terrorist lynchings, and the growth of convict labor — especially convict leasing — that was as close to slavery as imaginable.
There were safe havens: rural freedom colonies of landowning African Americans, as well as schools inspired by Booker T. Washington's Tuskegee Institute, and cities where Black families moved later during the Great Migration — not just to the North, but also to the West and even within the South to communities in Houston, Dallas, San Antonio and Austin. As the exhibit points out, the migrants were often guided by Pullman porters, the Black attendants on trains who knew from firsthand experience where the safe havens might be.
The show does not ignore segregation in the North, nor the destruction of entire Black communities, as happened in Wilmington, N.C., in 1898. It looks closely at stereotypes that degraded African Americans. (Abolitionist Frederick Douglass, a powerful portrait of whom is on display, believed that the photograph was the best way to fight this prejudice.)
Another section is titled "Challenging Jim Crow: 1900-1919." Here we are reminded of the debates that still rage today about the "Lost Cause," racist movies such as "The Birth of a Nation," and the building of hundreds of Confederate symbols to celebrate white supremacy, as well as Black resistance through groups such as the NAACP and the Urban League.
Grouped in a small room at the end of the show's circuit are examples of Black intellectual responses to the clipping of citizenship, which included voter suppression tactics that sound unsettlingly familiar today. It ends with World War I and the anarchy that followed the war, along with another revival of violence against African Americans.
My big question about this timely show: Why does it end in 1919? Jim Crow laws remained in effect in many places until the 1960s. Their profound effect on Black citizenship — the theme of the exhibit, after all — did not end legally until President Lyndon Johnson signed a series of voting and civil rights acts into law. Recently, the U.S. Supreme Court has gutted many of those voting rights guarantees, and states are following behind by setting up more obstacles to voting.
The practical function of this show, to be fair, is to help us unspool one thread of ideas about race and citizenship, seen now, more than 50 years since the official demise of Jim Crow.
'Black Citizenship in the Age of Jim Crow'
Through Nov. 28 at the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum, 1800 Congress Ave., thestoryoftexas.com, 512-936-8746.
Did your ancestors live in a freedom colony? The museum is collecting oral histories to support the Freedom Colony Project based out of Texas A&M University. Go to the museum's website for more information.
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