A new exhibit featuring artifacts and history from the mid-19th century opens Friday at the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), marking the museum’s fifth anniversary.
“Make Good the Promises: Reconstruction and Its Legacies” explores the African American experience in the decades directly following the Civil War during the time known as the Reconstruction era.
Paul Gardullo, the museum curator who directed the project, said the exhibit recontextualizes a “misunderstood” portion of American history and aligns the events of Reconstruction with contemporary issues such as voting rights and criminal justice reform.
“The period of Reconstruction ... was a period of enormous possibility of what would freedom and citizenship mean for all Americans, especially those who had been enslaved,” Gardullo said. “We want to shine a light on the visions of freedom that millions of African Americans shared and brought into being in those decades.”
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The exhibit also seeks to explicitly juxtapose the past and the present. In a section focused on Reconstruction, a 54-foot scroll containing thousands of names of Black civil rights activists from 1865 sits on public display for the first time ever.
In a later section is the dress Stacey Abrams wore on the night she lost the Georgia gubernatorial election in 2018. The artifacts connect the past and present, helping people understand voting rights then and now and how the presence of Black politicians has changed over time, Gardullo said.
“We ask people today, our visitors, to bear witness to our times in order to subsequently think about and actively reflect on ... what work is to be done to make things better today, to reconstruct America today,” Gardullo said.
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The exhibit is accompanied by a book, co-edited by Gardullo and featuring several essayists, that takes a deeper dive into modern American issues and how they were impacted by the Reconstruction era.
The 4,300-square-foot exhibit will run through Aug. 21, 2022. Here’s a look at what you’ll see inside.