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400 Years 

An exhibit at Virginia Museum of History & Culture explores the struggle for black equality in America.

click to enlarge One of the exhibit rooms from “Determined: the 400-Year Struggle for Black Equality” running through March 29 at the Virginia Museum of History & Culture.

Virginia Museum of History & Culture

One of the exhibit rooms from “Determined: the 400-Year Struggle for Black Equality” running through March 29 at the Virginia Museum of History & Culture.

It's fitting that "Determined" begins with a clock set to shortly after high noon.

And not just any clock, but the one that once hung over Thalhimer's Sixth Street door where, in February 1960, hundreds of Virginia Union University students marched into the department store's whites-only lunch counter for a sit-in to protest segregated spaces.

By August of that year, the lunch counter was integrated and the entire store followed in January 1961.

The Virginia Museum of History & Culture's new exhibit "Determined: the 400 Year Struggle for Black Equality" is timed to coincide with the commemoration of the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first enslaved Africans to U.S. shores.

Dividing the history into four color-coded periods arranged chronologically, plus a gallery dedicated to the future, the exhibition uses stories of 30 black Virginians to show the determination, heroism and agency of people fighting for freedom, equal justice and access to opportunity. 

There's a lot to unpack with the long history of blacks brought to America. The first section begins in the colonial period with the arrival of the first blacks and continues until 1775, tracing the development of the Virginia colony to its position of political power thanks to the rise of tobacco and the requisite slave labor to work it.

Here you'll see a 19th century whipping post from the Portsmouth jail yard and a punishment collar — an iron circle with two upright, pronged pieces on either side — that was locked onto the neck of a slave for promoting insurrection. The collar, designed to torment and dehumanize the wearer, could never be taken off under penalty of hanging.

The next section is referred to as "slavery at high tide" and represents the years from 1775 through 1865, years in which the paradox of a young country based on the principles of liberty had to deal with the reality of slavery. The facts are tough: Virginia had the largest enslaved population and sold more people than any other state.

Highlights in this gallery include a rare opportunity to see two enormously important documents, both signed by Lincoln: the Emancipation Proclamation and a handwritten copy of the 13th Amendment. Less flashy, perhaps, but no less moving is a check used to purchase the freedom of Anthony Burns, one of two totaling $1,300, raised by a free black preacher after Burns escaped and was sent back to Virginia.

The flourishing of postwar black culture is paralleled by the white backlash trying to re-assert authority in the third section chronicling the progress and regress of Reconstruction through 1950.

"That was the great curatorial challenge covering 400 often painful years," explains the museum's curator of exhibitions, Karen Sherry. "We're hoping this whets people's appetites to learn more."

Here, the visitor will encounter what the exhibit calls four doors of opportunity, actual doors that, when opened, help explain the struggles of women's rights, housing, higher education and labor rights during this period. Also on display are a Tuskegee Airman's leather helmet and leather jacket, the latter personalized with Bugs Bunny and the serviceman's nickname, "Windy."

Technology enters the picture in the section devoted to 1950 through today, with a screen showing snippets of key moments in the continuing struggle. Martin Luther King Jr. speaks, as does President Lyndon Johnson before signing the Civil Rights Act. A 1992 interview with Arthur Ashe shows him poignantly explaining to his interviewer that as a black person, he must struggle against racism 24 hours a day, even with his level of fame. L. Douglas Wilder is seen being sworn in as the first elected black governor in the country and Portsmouth native Missy Elliott talks about finding her niche. Here you'll also find a stool from the Woolworth's lunch counter sit-in.

The final gallery is labeled "To Be Determined" and offers visitors a chance to reflect or engage on the subject of equality. An inspiration wall allows visitors to share who inspires them, while a graffiti wall has question prompts to create a community-wide conversation.

One entire wall is given over to the visually striking Blackwell family tree, which can be traced back to 1735 when an enslaved woman was brought to Virginia and includes Arthur Ashe.

"As a society, Americans still very much struggle with racism and oppression based on skin color," Sherry says. "We're still feeling the reverberations of the arrival of blacks on our shores. This exhibit helps us appreciate and understand that history so we can move forward."

"Determined: the 400 Year Struggle for Black Equality" runs through March 29 at the Virginia Museum of History & Culture, 428 N. Arthur Ashe Blvd., virginiahistory.org.

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