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A snapshot of history

African Americans: from slavery to freedom

UMBCs new gallery exhibit explores the unheralded places instrumental in the battle for African American freedom. Photos by William Earle Williams provide a powerful manifestation of their journey.

   “All persons held as slaves are, and henceforth shall be free,” Abraham Lincoln said in the famous Emancipation Proclamation that set this country on a new journey for equality. But the journey that preceded it – a journey from slavery to freedom – was a hard fought battle that was deservingly won.

William Earle Williams attempts to capture the emotion and impact of the Civil War through his collection of black-and-white silver gelatin print photographs. Located in the Albin O. Kuhn Gallery, black and white photos encased in white frames adorn the powder blue walls. The small white cue cards next to each photo bear the name of the piece, as well as the location and the year the photo was taken.

Some examples of the photographs displayed include: Forks in the Road, Slave Market Site, Natchez, Mississippi, 2004; Exterior, Slave Cabin, Oakley Plantation, Saint Francisville, Louisiana, 2004; and Slave Graveyard, Booker T. Washington National Monument, Wilmington, Delaware, 2006.

The stark solitude of the gallery – the very quiet that makes it feel as though it is a completely separate entity from the library – works to enhance the power of such a compelling topic. Some of the pieces have an overpowering characteristic that seems to immediately haunt audiences.

A photograph that exemplifies this is titled Earth Works, Battle Site, Fort Pillow, Tennessee, 1999. At this location, on April 12, 1864, a group of African–American soldiers were slaughtered while surrendering at a battle they had already lost to the Confederacy. The massacre included women and children.

Fort Pillow, Tennessee is the home of the mass grave for those killed in the attack, though the bodies were later removed and buried at the Memphis National Cemetery. The photograph that captures the current condition of the grave site reveals the blatant disregard for humanity that existed back then, as well as the cruelty that humans are capable of: it is palpable and halting.

Precisely placed throughout the open floor plan are stand–alone walls displaying archived newspapers from the 1700s and 1800s plastered with ads and rewards:

Nov 23, 1796: the Columbian Centinel held an ad offering a $50 reward for the return of a negro man named Peter, about five foot, five inches and 35 years of age.

June 21, 1845: The New York Herald noted the arrival of new slaves and the new slave convention.

Sept 12, 1831: The United States Telegraph had an ad offering a $600 reward for the return of “three runaway black negro men.” The owner of Robert, his brother Nealy and another man named William posted this ad, claiming:

“These negroes have been well treated and much indulged by me, and they have ran away from me without any provocations whatever.” It advertised the three slaves as 33, 24 and 35 years of age, respectively, and that Robert and Nealy were literate.

These photographs, along with the archived newspapers, show the audience America’s troubled and violent past, and the cultural scars it has left.