The artifacts in a new exhibit tracing four centuries of black history in Virginia range from the painful to the poignant: leg shackles and chains used during slavery, a letter from a fugitive slave describing the joys of his newfound freedom and a stool from a Richmond lunch counter where students held a sit-in to protest segregation.
"Determined: The 400-Year Struggle for Black Equality" is set to open Saturday at the Virginia Museum of History & Culture in Richmond. The exhibit begins with the 1619 arrival in Virginia of the first enslaved Africans in English North America and continues all the way to the present day.
"That's a very long and complex swath of history," said Karen Sherry, the museum's curator of exhibitions.
"What I hope is a unifying theme of the exhibit is showing how this multidimensional struggle for equality has had a profound impact on American society."
As the new exhibit opens Saturday, the city of Richmond will also hold a ceremony to officially dedicate a city street that has been renamed for tennis star Arthur Ashe Jr., a native son who broke through racial barriers to become the first African American to win the men's singles at Wimbledon, the U.S. Open and the Australian Open. The museum is located on Arthur Ashe Boulevard.
Congressman John Lewis of Georgia, a renowned civil rights activist, will be the keynote speaker.
While revisiting disturbing chapters in Virginia's history, the exhibit also celebrates some pivotal black figures from the state who influenced American history through their fight for freedom, equality and justice.
Mary Peake was a teacher who started a school for the children of former slaves in Hampton in 1861.
Jane Minor was a slave who won her freedom after she helped care for Petersburg citizens during an epidemic in 1825. She continued to work as a healer and used her earnings to purchase the freedom of at least 16 slaves.
Wyatt Tee Walker was a preacher who organized boycotts and marches during the civil rights movement. The exhibit includes a letter the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote him in 1958 referencing a planned march in Richmond against Massive Resistance, a movement aimed at stopping the desegregation of public schools in Virginia.
"The Virginia story is unique and regionally specific, yet it also reflects broader nationwide trends and attitudes about race and race relations in our country," Sherry said.
On the steps of the museum, a largescale artful graphic installation will be displayed, featuring the names of approximately 11,000 enslaved African Americans.
The exhibition is a legacy project of 2019 Commemoration American Evolution, a statewide effort to mark the 400th anniversaries of key historical events in Virginia in 1619, including the arrival of the first enslaved Africans and the formation of the Virginia General Assembly, the longest continuously operating legislative body in the Western Hemisphere.
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