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Extraordinary Lives

An ambitious exhibition aims to put African-American women back into history

Photo: State Archives of Florida, License: N/A

State Archives of Florida

Mary McLeod Bethune stands at the head of a line of girls from the Daytona [Fla.] Literary and Industrial School for Training Negro Girls, Circa 1905.

The Freedom’s Sisters exhibit at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum delivers its raison d’être right at the entrance. As the door opens, a video begins playing. A woman interviews young children, asking them to identify their heroes. One boy chooses Abraham Lincoln. Others name superheroes, with Superman a popular choice. Not one child names a woman.

This exhibit, developed by the Cincinnati Museum Center and the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service, aims to remedy that. Freedom’s Sisters, which is coming to the end of its three-year nationwide tour, celebrates the accomplishments of 20 African-American women, ranging from the famous—Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, Coretta Scott King—to the less well known, such as Sonia Sanchez, Charlayne Hunter-Gault, and Mary Church Terrell. In the case of the former, the exhibit manages to breathe life into stories that have over the years become two-dimensional. For the latter, it serves as an introduction to the lives of women who have not been sufficiently recognized. Many, though active in the civil rights movement, were overshadowed by men in the media portrayals of the time and the history books that came after, as exhibition materials point out.

Panels with photographs and brief written descriptions make up much of the exhibit, with most women receiving one panel of explanation. With only 20 women and the whole of American history with which to grapple, Freedom’s Sisters dispenses with chronology. The result can be a little disorienting: The panel on Coretta Scott King, for instance, is sandwiched on the back of Harriet Tubman’s display. The chosen women, long left out of our national story, are thus not so much inserted back into it as celebrated as a thing apart. While some panels include small sidebars that provide some context—a description of the Black Panthers accompanies the panel on Kathleen Cleaver (Eldridge Cleaver’s wife), for example—many do not. In other places, though, the historical setting is better depicted. The section on activist and educator Septima Poinsette Clark is accompanied by an in-depth description of the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee—the training ground for civil rights activists where she taught—and the literacy centers known as Citizenship Schools, which she established. As a result, one comes away with a much fuller picture of Clark than, say, of Frances Watkins Harper, an early female abolitionist speaker who gets a pretty bare bones treatment.

In general, the written descriptions tend to be a bit too textbookish, complete with bulleted lists of “Major Accomplishments.” But many displays also include interactive or multimedia elements: buttons to push, levers to pull, audio or video to take in. And it is these elements that make a given portrayal either a gem or a dud. Harriet Tubman, perhaps the most famous African-American woman of all time, comes vibrantly to life once more through the power of a touch screen. The multimedia material focuses on her role as a spy for the Union Army during the Civil War, and provides everything from a lesson on the era’s torpedoes to a game—navigating a boat around those torpedoes—to a verbal history of the Combahee River Raid, which Tubman led, resulting in the release of nearly 800 slaves. This story is told in vivid detail, the way history should be. The speaker (in Tubman’s own words) talks of rescuing “a woman with a pail on her head, rice a-smoking in it,” children hanging all about her and a pig suspended from a bag on her back.

The Rosa Parks section is the other standout. Visitors can sit in a cross section of a bus and examine documents pasted in the windows: the police complaint that resulted when Parks refused to give up her seat, her fingerprints, newspaper articles of the time. A 1956 mimeographed sheet of “Integrated Bus Suggestions” from the Montgomery Improvement Association (of which Martin Luther King Jr. was president) counsels blacks on proper behavior in the newly integrated buses: “Be quiet but friendly; proud, but not arrogant; joyous, but not boisterous.” These original documents are powerful, and in conjunction with the documentary that plays nearby—an excerpt from Mighty Times: The Legacy of Rosa Parks—correct some misapprehensions about Parks. Contrary to popular belief, she was active in civil rights long before the bus incident. And, as the documentary makes clear, when she refused to give up her seat to a white man, she was actually sitting in the “colored” section of the bus.

Most of the displays are less elaborate, but those that include the actual words of the woman being honored are by far the most powerful. Fannie Lou Hamer’s 1964 testimony to the Credentials Committee of the 1964 Democratic National Convention on the difficulties she faced registering to vote makes the heart swell; the photograph of her brave, pained face as she did so, accompanied by a recording of her voice, makes the moment immediate in a way the text does not.

But some of the interactive elements detract rather than add. A snarling replica of a German shepherd barking at passersby is meant to evoke the horrors of police brutality during the civil rights movement, but ends up feeling flip when situated right next to Hamer’s stirring words. These sorts of missteps in the exhibit seem to come from a confusion about the age of the intended audience. While the text blithely throws around terms like “SNCC” (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) without further explanation, odd little blurbs on each panel deliver platitudes aimed at children, like this one for Septima Poinsette Clark: “She learned courage from her mother and honesty from her father.” Actual detail on this casual phrase might have yielded something memorable.

And as the name suggests, Freedom’s Sisters is many parts hagiography, with a tendency to gloss over controversy. But the exhibit as a whole has a power that makes these just minor quibbles. With all its faults, Freedom’s Sisters drives home the point that we should already know all about these women. By the end, this writer had a lump in her throat, in fact. Why was I never taught about many of these tough, confident, world-changing women when I was in school? Here’s hoping that special exhibits about black women in history will one day be obsolete. Until then, bring your little girls to this one.

Admission to the Reginald F. Lewis Museum is $5 Jan. 15-17, with a full lineup of events celebrating Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Visit african for more details.

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