On November 11, the Library Company unveiled our newest exhibition, which documents African American political and social activism in the North in the decades after Emancipation. “The Genius of Freedom: Northern Black Activism and Uplift after the Civil War,” Curator of African American History Krystal Appiah’s first major exhibition since joining the Library Company in 2012, will run through June 26, 2015. Collection materials on display include rare documents from nineteenth-century Colored Conventions, political activism and civil rights organizing across the North, and movements to reclaim history and instill racial pride, “Genius of Freedom” turns the spotlight on the relatively less-studied Northern States in the period of Reconstruction.
The end of the Civil War and the subsequent abolition of Southern slavery were a source of jubilation for African Americans throughout the United States. Black activists and their white allies were instrumental in the passage of federal laws that expanded civil rights for African Americans. African Americans in the North, however, learned that local laws and social customs often still left them on the fringes of citizenship and success. As a result, Northern blacks sought to empower their communities through political protest and uplift initiatives that emphasized equality, self-reliance, and pride.
As the 19th century progressed, the domestic parlor became an increasingly important symbol of middle-class respectability in the US. African Americans in the North expressed racial pride and celebrated their new citizenship status by decorating their homes with inspirational pictures and texts of black life and accomplishments. Visit the exhibition to view large-scale lithographs of black political and social leaders and editions of the first histories of the contributions made by Americans of African descent written by black people, among the many other documents of the struggles and triumphs of Reconstruction.
At the opening reception, Dr. Kali N. Gross of the University of Texas, Austin, gave a talk entitled "Race, Sex, and Criminal Economies in Turn-of-the-Century Philadelphia," which looked at the socioeconomic backdrop to expressions of crime, sex, and violence by black women to propose that they may sometimes have been unique opportunities to exercise agency. A former fellow at the Library Company, Dr. Gross is the author of Colored Amazons: Crime, Violence, and Black Women in the City of Brotherly Love, 1880-1910.