Calinda Lee, the Atlanta History Center’s vice president of historical interpretation and community partnerships, curated the Atlanta aspects of “Black Citizenship in the Age of Jim Crow.” CONTRIBUTED BY Miguel Martinez
The show was created in 2018 by the New York Historical Society in collaboration with the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Atlanta is the exhibition’s third stop on its national tour. It runs from now through June 30.
Because of Atlanta’s role as an incubator of African American progress, Lee, who is also lead curator of the show in Atlanta, expanded the show to incorporate that history. She collaborated with the Woodruff Library at the Atlanta University Center, the Spelman College Archives and the Clark Atlanta University Art Museum to include photographs, documents and artwork from their holdings. All are institutions that represent education’s role in the fight.
In one of those photos from the early 1900s, a group of 11 black women sits on the front steps of a home. They are all well-heeled, their legs all crossed at the ankles, a bygone show of ladylike modesty. At first glance, it would be easy to mistake the women for a social club. But they are members of the Neighborhood Union, started by Lugenia Burns Hope, who was first lady of Atlanta Baptist College, which would become Morehouse College.
The Neighborhood Union became one of the first social work organizations serving African American communities near the college. While it provided daycare, health care and social activities for families, it also served as a locus for community activism. It stepped into the breach created by legal segregation and served as one of Atlanta’s early social work organizations.
The bulk of the exhibition, however, explains why organizations like the Neighborhood Union were necessary: the broken promise of Reconstruction. Reconstruction began immediately after the Civil War when federal troops were sent South to keep order as the South rejoined the Union. Troops were to help emancipated black people live their new lives safely, which included the right to vote (for men only). Some troops ran Freedmen’s Bureau Schools. Progress began to take shape. Black men were elected to state legislatures. Had the troops remained in the South longer, African American’s tenuous hold on their new citizenship might have strengthened.
But troops were pulled out in 1877, and the violent campaign began to run blacks out of office, off their newly purchased land and deny them their new constitutional rights.
A chilling reminder of how that reign of terror was enforced stands in the Nicholson Gallery. It’s a colorful costume, a brown robe accented by a tall brown cap with a white mask attached the front. The front of the mask is appliqué with black eyes, nose, beard and mustache. Red flower patches and a matching belt complete the costume. This is the replica of an early Ku Klux Klan uniform from Tennessee. A sign next to it says it’s based on an original that was likely sewn by family members of the robe’s owner.
Charly Brown from Colorado examines a replica of an early Ku Klux Klan robe on display in the “Black Citizenship in the Age of Jim Crow” at the Atlanta History Center. CONTRIBUTED BY Miguel Martinez
From state to state, the North and South, anti-black laws were passed to legally augment the violence. Also on display in the gallery is a facsimile of “Lynch Law in Georgia,” by pioneering journalist Ida B. Wells-Barnett. Now an icon to many black women, she was an African American who devoted her career to documenting and campaigning against racially motivated murders of black people. The subtitle of her pamphlet reads: “A Six-Weeks’ Record in the Center of Southern Civilization as Faithfully Chronicled by the ‘Atlanta Journal’ and the ‘Atlanta Constitution.’” Newspapers often covered lynchings, and the tone of the stories was usually supportive of the lynch mob.
But Wells-Barnett’s document represents not a glorification of black trauma, but is an example of black agency, Lee said. For as difficult as some of the moments are in the show, they explain the difficult fight for equal rights that in some ways is still being battled today.
“This is not an easy story to tell,” Lee said. “But this is about our shared history.”
VISUAL ARTS PREVIEW
“Black Citizenship in the Age of Jim Crow”
10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Monday-Saturday; noon-5:30 p.m. Sunday. $9-$21.50.
Atlanta History Center, 130 W. Paces Ferry Road NW, Atlanta. 404-814-4000, atlantahistorycenter.com.