A More Complete History

by | Jul 11, 2019 | RICHMOND POLITICS

Virginia Museum Of History and Culture’s Determined exhibit sheds light on four hundred years of black Virginians’ struggles to be seen as equal.

The Virginia Museum of History and Culture’s latest exhibit, Determined: The 400 Year Struggle for Black Equality, sets out to educate and inspire the public by highlighting the hardships, resiliency, and triumphs of African Americans throughout history. 

“African American history, black history, is American history. And the way that we teach that history is inadequate (and) inaccurate,” said Virginia Governor Ralph Northam on Saturday, June 22, during the dedication ceremony for Arthur Ashe Boulevard. “(That) makes exhibits like this all the more important as we continue the work to rewrite the narrative.” 

The exhibition is part of American Evolution, a 2019 statewide commemoration of the events of 1619 in Virginia. These included the arrival of the first enslaved Africans in English-occupied North America to Fort Monroe. The opening of Determined coincided with the dedication of Arthur Ashe Boulevard on June 22, and will remain on display until March 29, 2020. 

During his speech at the dedication, Ashe’s nephew David Harris Jr, shared his thoughts on the museum’s new exhibit. 

“There are many who avoided this building right here behind me because of what is inside,” said Harris, referencing the fact that parts of the museum were originally built in 1913 as a shrine to Confederate dead. “I want you to consider this building as now fully integrated by the city of Richmond.” 

Photo via Virginia Historical Society/Facebook

The exhibit features approximately 100 artifacts, as well as text, graphics, and an interactive section. Throughout the exhibit, historical information is punctuated with questions designed to prompt visitors to reflect upon the reality of slavery, racism, and the systemic oppression of black Americans. 

“Black history in Virginia is very complex and multifaceted,” said Karen Sherry, the curator at the Virginia Museum of History Culture.

“One unifying thread across this long chronology is that black people have been fighting for freedom from enslavement and oppression,” said Sherry. “[African Americans] have been struggling for equal rights and equal justice and equal access to opportunities” and “other forms of equity and full consideration of their humanity.”

Sherry said arriving at the title of the exhibit was a not an easy task. 

“Coming up with a word like ‘determined’ that encapsulates 400 years of African American history in Virginia, that was a big challenge,” she said. 

Then, over the course of her research, Sherry came across the text of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s final speech, where he discussed the need for the civil rights movement. 

“[King] said that the civil rights movement was not about getting into arguments with anybody,” said Sherry. “He talked about how ‘we are determined to gain our rightful place in God’s world. . . we are determined to be people.’” 

Photo via VirginiaHistory.org

She said King’s use of the phrase ‘determined’ “resonated” and “struck” her.

“‘Determined embodies the strength, the resilience, the courage, the agency of black people across history,” said Sherry. “The word also connotes a sense of predetermination, of the way that a person’s position and status in American society is often determined by the color of one’s skin.” 

According to Sherry, the exhibit is organized chronologically so visitors can “see the development of certain historical forces over time… track changes, and compare” progress from generation to generation. 

An important theme of Determined is the struggle for social and political equality. The exhibit is organized into four eras: “First Generations,” covering the years from 1619 to 1775; “Slavery At High Tide,” from 1775 to 1865; “Progress and Backlash,” from 1865 to 1950; and “Equality Achieved?,” from 1950 to present day.  Determined also includes an interactive section, in order to broaden the scope of the exhibit and create room for visitors to share their own stories.

Furthermore, Sherry said, the exhibition focuses upon 30 “key individuals” who are representative of  the “diversity of black Virginians” as well as their experiences and accomplishments. 

“These 30 individuals have what I think are very inspiring and incredible individual stories,” said Sherry. “Yet they are stories that also reflect broader historical trends and phenomena.”

A few examples of the individuals included in the exhibit are: 

  • Angela, one the first Africans brought to Virginia in 1619. 
  • Anne Spencer (1882 – 1975), a well-known poet and activist. During the Harlem Renaissance, Spencer was often visited by prominent humanitarians and activists, such as W.E.B. DuBois, Zora Neale Hurston, and Langston Hughes. 
  • Zyahna Bryant (2002 – ), a student who, when a freshman at Charlottesville High School, began a petition to the City Council asking the city to remove a monument dedicated to Confederate general Robert E. Lee. Because of this petition, white supremacist groups held rallies in Charlottesville that culminated in the Unite The Right event that left Heather Heyer dead in 2017.
Photo by Morgan Edwards

“We recognize that one exhibit cannot cover the full richness and complexity of 400 years of black history in Virginia,” said Sherry. “We want people to think about today and tomorrow, what we need to do as a nation to push ourselves to be better, to push ourselves to a state of true and meaningful equality.”

Determined is the first exhibit Sherry has curated at the Virginia Museum of History and Culture, and she hopes that visitors will walk away with a sense of new or renewed appreciation for African American history. 

“Despite the phenomenal progress we’ve made as a society, despite the phenomenal achievements of black Americans, we are still faced with daily reminders that inequities still exist,” said Sherry. “America is a society that still struggles with systemic racism [and] socioeconomic disparities between white people and people of color.”

During the dedication of Arthur Ashe Boulevard, Governor Northam, who was embroiled in his own scandal earlier this year after a racially offensive college yearbook photo of him surfaced, said that exhibits like this are necessary in order to better educate and empower the public. 

“I am grateful for the Virginia Museum of History and Culture for taking up this important conversation,” said Northam. “We need to continue to have this kind of dialogue — because when we know more, we can do more.”

“I very much hope that visitors who come through the exhibition (are) inspired and determined to continue the fight and to continue pushing our society towards our ideal of universal equality,” said Sherry. 

Determined: The 400-Year Struggle For Black Equality is currently on display at the Virginia Museum of History and Culture, located at 428 N. Arthur Ashe Blvd. The exhibit is open 10 AM to 5 PM daily, and will be on display through March 29, 2020. A piece of advice for all those planning to visit the exhibit – make sure you bring a notebook along so you can fill it up with information that has been left out of Virginia’s history textbooks.

Top Photo by Morgan Edwards

Jayla McNeill

Jayla McNeill

Jayla McNeill is a journalism student at Virginia Commonwealth University and contributor to RVA Magazine. Her writing includes politics, diversity, art, culture, and social issues.

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