Exhibit seeks to 'shift your gaze' toward black experience in Revolutionary War

Staff writer

With a combination of one-of-a-kind artifacts and modern art, the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown tells the story of African Americans during the Revolutionary War in “Forgotten Soldier,” a special exhibition that opens Saturday.

Central to the exhibit is the theme of shifting one’s gaze away from the familiar white faces of Founding Fathers and toward the mostly forgotten free and enslaved black people on both sides of the conflict that birthed the United States.

“Shift your gaze to see the faces of enslaved African Americans who heard the words ‘all men are created equal’ and wondered if those words applied to them. Shift your gaze to see the faces of the African Americans who surrendered to Washington at Yorktown and the African Americans who stood behind him in the Patriot lines,” special exhibitions curator Katherine Gruber said. “These are the faces of ‘Forgotten Soldier.’ ”

During a special media tour of the exhibit’s space inside the American Revolution Museum Thursday, historians and artist Titus Kaphar, who collaborated with the museum on the exhibition, reflected on how the artifacts and artwork further develop the American story by exploring the hidden experiences of African Americans.

At the center of the gallery space is “Forgotten Soldier,” a commissioned sculpture by Kaphar.

The sculpture is almost 8 feet tall and depicts the image of a black soldier superimposed on glass in front of a mold of George Washington. The sculpture is made of reclaimed wood, resin, glass and LED lighting.

“I found the mold, that is the absence of the sculpture, to be a really important metaphor,” Kaphar said. “It speaks to potential. What we’re seeing here is the absence of the figure, not the figure itself. At once the absence is all the potential but none of the realization.”

Choice is another theme of the exhibition. Freed and enslaved black people, like white inhabitants of the American colonies, had to decide which side of the conflict they would support. Often the decision came down to what an individual thought was the best chance of personal freedom, which led some African Americans to side with the British.

“People are making different decisions. Where can I get my freedom? Where can my children have their best future?” said Harvey Bakari, a historical consultant who assisted with “Forgotten Soldier.”

Both original documents and digital interactive activities allow visitors to get a closer look at the decrees and treaties that framed the world of African Americans in the American colonies.

Among them is Dunmore’s Proclamation of 1775 in which Virginia’s last royal governor promised freedom to all enslaved blacks owned by Patriots who would fight for the British. Also on display is Article Seven of the Treaty of Paris, which ended the American Revolution. The article ordered British forces to withdraw from the newly independent colonies “without causing any Destruction, or carrying away any Negroes or other Property of the American inhabitants.”

There’s also the British “Book of Negros” and the American “Inspection Roll of Negroes No. 1.” The companion documents created to partially meet requirements of Article Seven of the Treaty of Paris and to record the names and some details of about 3,000 African American men, women and children who escaped to the British in search of freedom. The documents are reunited for the first time since 1783 in the exhibition, museum curator Martha Katz-Hyman said.

“These, as much as anything else, bring to life who these people were, what they wanted and what their lives were,” she said.

‘Forgotten Soldier’ exhibition

When: Saturday through March 22, 2020.

Where: American Revolution Museum at Yorktown.

Cost: The exhibition is free with paid admission to the museum. Residents of York County, James City County and Williamsburg, as well as College of William and Mary students receive free admission with proof of residency.

Jack Jacobs, 757-298-6007, jojacobs@vagazette.com, @jajacobs_

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