(The Dallas Examiner) – Citizen: a native or naturalized person who owes allegiance to a government and is entitled to protection from it, according to Merriam-Webster.com. For post-slavery Black Americans, it took decades to realize the true definition of the word citizen, particularly the “entitled to protection” portion. It’s been said that the realization has still yet to happen.
Black Citizenship in the Age of Jim Crowis an exhibit organized by the New-York Historical Society and displayed at the Dallas Holocaust and Human Rights Museum to explore the plight of Black Americans from Reconstruction to World War I.
The exhibit is displayed in what’s known as the special exhibition space of the museum. The space hosts exhibit that are detailed, in depth and give visitors a deeper-level view of history.
“We give visitors a glimpse of a complex 50-year portion of Black American history – the ebbs and flows of life for Black citizens during that time. Certainly not all men or women were treated equally, but the repair process is what some Americans are still currently trying to promote,” said Mary Pat Higgins, CEO of the museum.
Visitors to the exhibit could take a visual trip through history by way of artifacts and photographs ranging from slave shackles cut from the ankles of a 17-year-old to a mini replica of thriving 1920’s Harlem. There are also detailed graphics depicting important court cases throughout the Jim Crow era.
The earliest time period represented in the exhibit is 1857, with an oil painting of Dred Scott, who first sued the Missouri state court, and then sued the U.S. federal court, arguing that he was free since his slaveowners had briefly taken him into territory where slavery was illegal at the time – Wisconsin and Illinois.
In what is now known at the Dred Scott Decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ultimately ruled that people of African descent were not intended to have rights or privileges and living in a free state or territory did not entitle him to be free. Therefore, as an enslaved individual, he could not claim citizenship and could not sue anyone in Federal Court, according to Archives.gov.
Further into the exhibit, the Civil War era is displayed. A text graphic discusses the attempts that African Americans made to join the Union army. Those attempts were all rejected until then President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. This resulted in African Americans enlisting in the Union Army and Navy, and by the end of the Civil War, Black men made up 10% of the army.
Graphics displayed further into the exhibit explain that later into the 1860’s, Republicans sought to solidify equality and ensure citizenship for African Americans. During this process, the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified, granting all citizens equal protection under the law.
Gaining fair employment and owning property post-1860’s still proved difficult for Black people even with the progress that had been made to expand human rights. One display in the exhibit explained that landowners/employers would oftentimes tip scales in their favor when weighing crops and calculating what sharecroppers had earned. In the early 1900s, African Americans began an influx into Harlem, N.Y. But this was not without push back from White residents.
However, African American entrepreneur Philip Payton had the means and the courage to form a resistance. When a White property owner began to evict Black tenants to try to stop more Black people from moving into a particular Harlem neighborhood, Payton purchased two nearby buildings, evicted the White tenants, and allowed the previously displaced Black residents to move back into the neighborhood. By 1920, Harlem began to expand with Black migrants from the South and the Caribbean, becoming the largest Black urban community in the U.S.
Higgins explained that the exhibit also exudes the “incredible resilience of the human spirit” during times of turmoil. She went on to say that the exhibit “helps illustrate the need for more people standing up for their rights in this country.”
Prior to the exhibit, the space hosted an LGBTQ rights exhibit. Next, it will host a women’s rights exhibit.
The Black Citizenship in the Age of Jim Crow exhibit runs through Dec. 31.