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From 1619 To 2019, New Exhibition Documents Ongoing Struggle For Black Equality

Black experience exhibition at the Virginia Museum of History & Culture
“Determined” chronicles 400 years of black history through the individual stories of 30 Virginians -- some well known and some lesser known. The exhibit closes with interactive pieces where visitors can answer questions about what equality means to them and what they are determined to do, as well as share stories of black historical figures they’ve found inspiring. Allison Bennett Dyche/WCVE

A new exhibition at the Virginia Museum of History & Culture is taking a closer look at the history of the black experience. “Determined: The 400-Year Struggle for Black Equality” is told through the stories of 30 individuals from Virginia. WCVE Intern Allison Bennett Dyche has more.

Museum curator Dr. Karen Sherry says the name of the exhibit, “Determined,” was derived from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s final speech before his assassination. “What I really like about that word is that it embodies the strength, the perseverance, the agency of black people across four centuries of time,” Sherry said.

This history is told through the stories of 30 individuals, all from Virginia, starting in 1619 and continuing through the present day.

“One of the first key figures that visitors will encounter is a woman named Angela,” Sherry said. “She was among the first captive Africans who were brought to Virginia shores in 1619.”

Although there are few records about her life, historians do know that Angela was living and working in the home of Captain William Pierce, one of the leaders of the Jamestown Colony. The display includes a 17th century cooking pot and a gardening hoe. “Hopefully these help visitors try to imagine what her life was like and to understand a little bit about her experience, despite the many gaps in the historical record,” Sherry said.

The Civil War section includes the story of Dangerfield Newby, who joined John Brown’s Raid in Harper’s Ferry. Where Brown’s reason for fighting was deeply religious, Newby’s reason was personal. He joined the revolt after many failed attempts to buy his wife and children out of slavery. His story of fighting for freedom had a tragic end, however. On October 16, 1859, Newby was one of the first men killed in the fighting.

The exhibit reviews progress after the Civil War, including the story of Peter Jacob Carter, one of 100 African Americans elected to the General Assembly in the late 19th century. With that progress came backlash from the white establishment that wanted to reassert its power. “And it does so through new oppressive measures, such as Jim Crow segregation and the disenfranchisement of the black vote,” Sherry said.

An early visitor to the exhibit was Leah Walker, the director of equity and community engagement at the Department of Education.

“The purpose of understanding our history is not so that we can regurgitate facts and figures,” Walker said. “It’s so that we have context to understanding our current way of life.”

Leah Walker was at the grand opening for "Determined." Walker, who works for the Department of Education, called the exhibition “amazing” and said she couldn’t wait to bring her children back to see it. (Photo: Allison Bennett Dyche/WCVE)

Richmond’s role in the Civil Rights era is depicted through a 1958 letter from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to Wyatt Tee Walker. Sherry says King described his friend as the greatest mind of the movement. They were so close that Dr. King signed the letter “Mike.” Sherry says only his closest friends and associates called him Mike.

Nearby is a small tin cup. Though humble looking, it’s a significant artifact and one the museum choose as a reminder of the role of women in the Civil Rights movement. The cup was used by Walker’s wife, Theresa, while in prison. She was arrested in Jackson, Mississippi, during one of the Freedom Rides. 

The exhibit also includes one of the museum’s permanent holdings: a clock from the Richmond department store, Thalheimer’s. For this exhibit, the museum put the piece in a different context -- the February 1960 protests against the store’s segregation policy. A black and white photo shows a well-dressed black woman getting arrested for her peaceful protest against racism. White police officers, one pulling a german shepherd dog, drag Ruth Tinsley across the street.

Eight years later, segregation was still a problem. The “Ashe ‘68 Virtual Reality Experience” gives people the chance to walk in Arthur Ashe’s shoes during the U.S. Open tennis championship of 1968. Visitors can put on a headset and watch spectators’ reactions to a black man walking through a traditionally white club. Viewers can also experience Ashe taking his winning shot.

Sherry says the multimedia component helps bring history alive, and helps visitors identify with some of the historic figures featured in the exhibit.

"Determined" brings the story to the present with videos of modern day figures, including hip hop artist Missy Elliott of Virginia Beach, and 12-year-old activist Naomi Wadler of Alexandria.

Educator Leah Walker says the exhibit shows individual stories of black history that are most often left out of the classroom. She adds moving forward requires a better understanding of the past. “We can’t get there if we don’t recognize and honor all of the history of America, good and bad, painful and celebratory,” Walker said.

The end of the exhibition features interactive pieces, including a wall in which visitors can answer the question, what are you determined to do?

The “Determined” exhibition is on display through March 22, 2020 at the Virginia Museum of History & Culture. The “Ashe ‘68 Virtual Reality Experience” is on view through Sept. 2, 2019.

VPM News is the staff byline for articles and podcasts written and produced by multiple reporters and editors.
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