New museum exhibition explores experiences of free and enslaved blacks in Revolutionary War

Staff writer

In the time of tumult that was the American Revolution, enslaved and free blacks found themselves on both sides of the conflict.

The stories of how African Americans shaped and were shaped by the American Revolution are told in “Forgotten Soldier,” a new special exhibition at the American Revolution Museum that opens June 29.

The exhibition provides a fuller picture of the American Revolution by drawing attention away from the marque names of white generals and statesmen such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, and focusing on the less well-known black people who also lived during those times.

“What we really want to do is shift your gaze to see history though a new lens,” special exhibition curator Katherine Gruber said. “It’s important to tell stories that are rarely told.”

Those stories are told through rare artifacts and documents, interactive exhibits and artwork. Together, they paint a picture of the experiences of African Americans — some siding with the rebels to establish an independent country, and others remaining loyal to the British.

The power and responsibility of choice is a cornerstone of the exhibition — as with Washington and Jefferson, enslaved and free blacks were forced to make choices about how they would navigate a war that nobody could say with certainty how it would end. Oftentimes for enslaved people in the colonies, the choice boiled down to what an individual thought was the best chance for personal freedom, Gruber said.

Among the experiences explored in the exhibition are those of Crispus Attucks, a formerly enslaved sailor who died in the Boston Massacre, and Thomas Carney, who was born free and served in the Continental Army.

Dunmore’s Proclamation of 1775, a document by Virginia’s last royal governor that promised freedom to all enslaved blacks owned by patriots who took up arms on behalf of Britain, is among several significant loaned artifacts included in the exhibition.

Also on view will be 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.”

In the exhibition’s interactive activities, visitors will be able to learn about James Lafayette, an enslaved patriot spy, and objects used to pass spy messages, as well as items used by black soldiers in the Continental Army.

Original artwork by contemporary artist Titus Kaphar will lend a modern flavor to the exhibition. Kaphar, a 2018 MacArthur Fellow, will debut a commissioned sculpture that allows visitors to more fully consider the black soldiers who are often overlooked in historical accounts of the American Revolution.

The decision to include a black contemporary artist was made to tell the story of the people highlighted in the exhibition in a different way.

“This can be difficult history. We were looking for a way for folks to help tell this story,” Gruber said.

Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation, which operates the museum, found a willing partner in Kaphar. Kaphar uses his work to ask the viewer to consider history in a new light, one that places a larger emphasis on the contributions of African Americans to American history. The foundation commissioned the sculpture that appears in the exhibition.

Kaphar’s paintings and sculptures have been featured in exhibitions and permanent collections at institutions like the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery. The artist has also been profiled in The New York Times.

Gruber said the exhibition will hopefully fill a gap in American history, reminding modern-day Americans that the Revolutionary generation was made up of people not dissimilar to themselves, and included people of diverse backgrounds and experiences.

“There’s a serious part of the story that’s missing,” she said.

“Forgotten Soldier” exhibition

When: June 29 to 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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