SOLDIERS FOR EQUALITY: From Phillis Wheatley to the 20th Century

This exhibition, utilizing material from a variety of collections among the Center's holdings, traces the African American experience from slavery and emancipation to activism and personal achievements in the 19th and 20th centuries.

The exhibition begins with a rare first edition copy of Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral by Phillis Wheatley, "Negro Servant to Mr. John Wheatley of Boston, in New England." Published in London in 1773, it serves as a rare example of an enlightened family's acceptance and nurturing of a young woman's talent. The book was widely distributed, and Phillis was released from her servitude long before the idea of emancipation had gained momentum. Shown with the book are scans of several of the actual poems, as well as a watercolor and pencil drawing of the poet, dated 1827, obviously modeled after the frontispiece portrait that appears in the original book.

From there, the exhibition moves on to a number of "slave narratives." These inexpensively-produced paperbound books, written in first-person form, document the lives of escaped slaves. The Narrative of Henry Watson, A Fugitive Slave, published in Boston in 1849, is one notable example. There are several original documents from the period that deal with slavery in a very direct manner. Such an example is a bill of sale for a "Negro boy named Jack," sold to a J. Thomas of Marshfield, Massachusetts in 1727. Boston was a stronghold of the abolitionist movement and press. Many of the books on display in the early part of this exhibition were published in Boston. Included in their number is The Narrative of Sojourner Truth, a Northern Slave (1856) and an early two-volume edition of Uncle Tom's Cabin, or Life Among the Lowly by Harriet Beecher Stowe (1852).

The period of emancipation is represented by a printed version of the Emancipation Proclamation, issued January 1, 1863, and formally identified as General Orders, Number 1. There are several items related to William Still's documentary work on The Underground Railroad (1888) and the official Report of the Decision of the Supreme Court of the United States, and the Opinions of the Judges thereof, in the Case of Dred Scott versus John F. A. Sanford (1857), which documents the case of slave Dred Scott, who sued unsuccessfully for his freedom..

The exhibition shifts to the 20th century and explores the African American experience through the collections of several prominent members of the community in Boston. First is Julian Steele, Harvard-educated social worker and activist. Steele served as "Head Worker" at the Robert Gould Shaw Settlement House in Boston's South End and went on to work with the newly formed Greater Boston Branch of the N.A.A.C.P. His collection is rich in photographs, official reports and printed ephemera from the period documenting the work of activists in Boston, particularly in the late 1920s and 1930s..

Dr. Alfred P. Russell graduated at the top of his class from the Harvard Dental School in 1908. He worked as a dentist, but was also active in community politics and was friends with William Monroe Trotter, crusading editor of Boston's Guardian newspaper. The correspondence on display between Trotter and Russell brings a special insight into some of the racial issues of the day. There is also a file copy of a letter dated 1913, signed by Russell and several other members of the St. Marks Church Musical and Literary Union, protesting the "exclusion of colored boys" from bathing in the pool at the new YMCA on Huntington Avenue.

The final portion of the exhibition examines Boston University's history with the philosophy of Personalism and its impact on two prominent African American alumni: John Wesley Edward Bowen, the first African American to earn a Ph.D. at Boston University (1887), and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The exhibition concludes with material from the collection of Edward O. Gourdin, the first African American appointed Justice of the Superior Court of Massachusetts (1958).

Located in the Gotlieb Memorial Gallery on the first of Mugar Memorial Library. The Exhibit can be viewed during regular library hours.

Alan Cumming
Slave Ship