(Photo by Bobbi Booker)
Although their path was fraught with difficulties, Black residents of Philadelphia often empowered themselves with a shared belief in persistence, hard work, focus and sacrifice.
The story of these residents, including their forebears and descendants, are the focus of the new exhibit at the Library Company of Philadelphia (LCP) titled “From Negro Pasts to Afro-Futures: Black Creative Re-Imaginings.” According to the exhibition’s press materials, the exhibit “reflects the resiliency, faith, dignity, creativity and political activism of African Americans as seen through their own eyes — from the fragments, the rituals, the writings and the prayers they left for us.”
The LCP — founded by Benjamin Franklin in 1731 — houses the nation’s most important collection of African American literature and history from before 1900, and has formalized its study of African American history in early America with its Program in African American History (PAAH) — which includes fellowships, internships, outreach and a program to enhance and facilitate careers in history for scholars from underrepresented groups.
The 2019 exhibition is the first one launched after the successful completion of an endowment campaign that raised $2 million. Dr. Deirdre Cooper Owens, director of the Program in African American History at the LCP, utilized the non-profit’s extensive African Americana collection — which ranges from the mid 16th century into the early years of the 20th century — to curate the exhibit.
“When I initially was hired as the director and told me they would like me to curate the exhibition, I remember wanting to do something that was different than a lot of cultural institutions and museums tend to do with artists from the Black past,” Cooper Owens said. “Often we would see the curation of objects from the perspective of white people who sometimes owned Black people.”
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Instead, Cooper Owens said, she wanted an exhibit of artifacts produced and created by Black people.
“You’re not going to see people in blackface and a lot of stereotypical images [in this exhibit],” Cooper Owens said. “When you look in the past — and I don’t care from 100 years ago, or 200, or 250 — the ways that Black people then wrote about their lives was in a kind of ordinarily beautiful way…. You might have someone who was living in 1830 Philadelphia, and they know that they’re living in the midst of a country that is really enveloped by slavery and anti-blackness, and yet they’re illustrating and drawing pictures, writing love poems and doing things that show them as human beings. [It] was really important for me to be able to have my students, coworkers and interns all on the same page about showing the kind of ordinary creativity and beauty of Black people in the past.”
The exhibit showcases some seldom seen and extremely rare artifacts. For example, the Amy Matilda Cassey friendship album is one of only five such items known to exist in the world. Cassey was a middle-class African American woman active in the anti-slavery movement. Her collection of poems, watercolors, essays and more allowed her and her girlfriends to think about relationships and heed communal advice — #blackgirlmagic, centuries before the invention of the hashtag.
A 1969 Library Company exhibition titled “Negro History” served as the foundation for the current exhibit, with the addition of many more artifacts from African American women and girls, as well as from the African Diaspora. “From Negro Pasts to Afro-Futures: Black Creative Re-Imaginings” runs through October 2019.
“I hope that our visitors will leave knowing that the everyday lives and actions of early African Americans were worthy, beautiful, and purposeful. They helped to shape the good parts of what became the United States of America,” Cooper Owens said.-30-
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