Journey to Justice Exhibition at the International Slavery Museum

On the third floor of the Merseyside Maritime Museum at the Royal Albert Dock in Liverpool is the International Slavery Museum. Opened in 2007, the museum aims to increase understanding of the transatlantic slave trade and its continuing impact, but also draws attention to contemporary slavery. From the 5th of October 2018 until the 7th of April 2019, the Museum is playing host to the travelling Journey to Justice exhibition, designed by an organisation of the same name that uses the arts and education about human rights movements to try and inspire people to take action for social justice.

The Journey to Justice exhibition focuses on some of the lesser-known stories of the American civil rights movement, highlighting what motivates people to get involved and stay active in social justice campaigns. Unlike a lot of museums, the temporary exhibition space at the International Slavery Museum is not clearly separated from the permanent exhibitions, so Journey to Justice almost merges with the museum’s section on the contemporary impacts of the transatlantic slave trade. This is quite effective, highlighting the links between the legacies of the slave trade and the civil rights movement.

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The Journey to Justice exhibition, which is currently at the International Slavery Museum in Liverpool (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

The exhibition features a number of ‘bus stops,’ each one telling the story of an individual or small group of people who took a stand against injustice during the civil rights movement. It starts with a map, detailing the dates and locations of 21 important moments in the civil rights movement during the 1950s and 60s. As a Geographer I may be biased, but I always find maps a really helpful way of contextualising examples and getting my head around the bigger picture.

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The ‘bus stop’ about Elmore and Peggy Nickleberry. Elmore was a sanitation worker in Memphis who took part in a strike of more than 1000 sanitation workers for better pay and conditions (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Each ‘bus stop’ features text, images, quotations, and recorded interviews or a poem written by local schoolchildren in response to the exhibition. The final example represents the Greensboro Sit-ins, when four black students sat at the lunch counter in an all-white restaurant and refused to leave. It also encourages visitors to interact with the exhibition, filling out labels about how they can take action for social justice. There is also a map of the UK labelled with important social justice campaigns which visitors are asked to contribute to. These interactive elements highlight the importance of properly maintaining exhibitions; the labels for people to write on had run out, which meant that no one else could contribute. It is a minor issue, but demonstrates that a museum’s work isn’t finished once the exhibition opens.

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The lunch counter section of the Journey to Justice exhibition encourages visitors to sit and reflect , and interact with the exhibition by writing down and displaying their responses (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

There is also a section for radical zines, self-published magazines that are frequently produced by activists. The Represent! exhibition at the People’s History Museum in Manchester (open until the 3rd of February 2019) also has a section for zines; perhaps this is an emerging trend amongst museums. It is also quite common now for exhibitions to feature sounds, speech, and/or music played out loud, so the visitor has no choice but to listen. The Journey to Justice Jukebox plays songs associated with the civil rights movement. I find speech played out loud in museums distracting, as I struggle to listen to one set of words and read another at the same time, but music I can deal with. In this case it adds an extra dimension to the exhibition, illustrating the relationship between the civil rights movement and popular culture, and highlighting the role music can play in motivating and inspiring activists.

Journey to Justice is a small exhibition with ambitious goals. It aims to use the history of the civil rights movements to encourage people to take their own stand for social justice. Whilst I am not convinced that a museum exhibition is an effective method of creating activists, I do think it is a thoughtful and interesting exhibition that is well worth a visit. The exhibition will continue to tour the country when it’s stint in Liverpool finishes, visiting London, Edinburgh, Leeds, and Leicester over the next few years, so don’t worry if Merseyside is a little too far for you to travel!

 

Book Review: American Uprising- The Untold Story of America’s Largest Slave Revolt

American Uprising Front cover straight

American Uprising by Daniel Rasmussen.

Daniel Rasmussen. American Uprising: The Untold Story of America’s Largest Slave Revolt. New York: Harper Collins, 2011. RRP $15.99 paperback.

Earlier this year, I visited New Orleans. It is a wonderful city, but it’s history of race relations is troubled, to put it mildly. An area called the German Coast sits just a few miles north-west of the city, on the banks of the Mississippi River. In the nineteenth century, it was some of the richest and most fertile agricultural land in America. The most common crop was sugar, and the owners of the plantations along the river grew incredibly rich from it. But it was a system built on slavery. By 1810, 75% of the local population were slaves. Faced with a daily assault of cruel, dehumanising, and violent treatment, it is no surprise that slaves found subtle ways to resist the system. Occasionally, this resistance took the form of armed rebellion. In January 1811, between 200 and 500 enslaved men undertook an armed uprising on the German Coast. American Uprising: The Untold Story of America’s Largest Slave Revolt tells the story of this revolt, and makes a convincing argument for its significance in the development of the modern United States of America.

This is a story about slave revolutionaries: their lives, their politics, and their fight to the death against the planters and their militia. Above all, this is a story about America: who we are, where we came from, and how our ideals have at times been twisted and cast aside for the sake of greed and power.

Rasmussen, 2011, p. 3

As author Daniel Rasmussen himself argues, the German Coast Uprising has received limited attention from historians over the years. In addition, because the participants were slaves, archival documents relating to the uprising are scarce–accounts from the perspective of the slaves themselves are almost non-existent. Even the names of most of the participants are unknown to us. As a result, Rasmussen has to be creative in the way that he reconstructs the story of the revolt. For example, he uses the accounts of other enslaved people, such as Olaudah Equiano and Solomon Northup (who’s story of slavery formed the basis for the 2013 film 12 Years a Slave), to give the reader an idea of what life would have been like for the slaves who participated in the revolt.

American Uprising does a good job of  telling the story of the revolt in an engaging and accessible way. But Rasmussen also goes beyond this narrative, to explore how the uprising was represented and interpreted, both immediately afterwards, and later by historians. The uprising was quickly depoliticised by those in authority, its participants portrayed as animalistic and violent criminals in a narrative that is still frequently used in relation to riots and other violent protests.

As the map at the beginning of the book demonstrates, the United States of America was still very much a work-in-progress in 1811; Louisiana had only been part of the Union since 1803, and it didn’t obtain statehood until 1812. Rasmussen explains how the uprising played an important role in justifying the necessity of statehood for Louisiana, and helped pave the way for further American expansionism over the next few decades. This is one of the key points in Rasmussen’s argument that the uprising deserves much more attention than it currently gets.

I bought American Uprising whilst I was in Louisiana in order to learn more about the state’s history of dissent. I got much more than that; the book explores the significance of the uprising far beyond the local area, putting it in the context of the development of a nation. American Uprising is well-written and enjoyable, and I would recommend it to anyone interested in the history of protest, slavery, race relations, or imperial expansionism.

Turbulent Londoners: Mary Prince, 1788-?

Turbulent Londoners is a series of posts about radical individuals in London’s history who contributed to the city’s contentious past, with a particular focus of women, whose contribution to history is often overlooked. My definition of ‘Londoner’ is quite loose, anyone who has played a role in protest in the city can be included. Any suggestions for future Turbulent Londoners posts are very welcome. This post is about Mary Prince, a woman who escaped slavery to become a key figure in the campaign to abolish slavery.


Mary Prince Plaque

There are no surviving images of Mary Prince, but this plaque, on Senate House in Bloomsbury, commemorates her (Source: sgwarnog2010).

In 1807, the Abolition Act abolished the slave trade, marking a great victory for abolitionists. They had won a significant battle, but had not yet won the war; the slave trade was gone, but slavery itself was not. Slaves, and any children they had, remained indentured. Women were over a century away from winning the vote in Britain, but they found other ways to influence politics and were key to the success of the abolition movement. As the main food purchasers, they were ideally placed to organise boycotts of slave-grown sugar in the 1790s, 1820s, and 1830s. Mary Prince was both a slave and a woman, significant disadvantages in the early nineteenth century. However it was these characteristics that made her such a powerful tool for the abolition movement.

Prince was born to an enslaved family in Bermuda in 1788. She was passed between owners and suffered from awful treatment. In 1815 she was bought by the Wood family, her last owners, for $300. In December 1826, Prince was in Antigua when she married Daniel James, a former slave who had bought his freedom. She did not seek permission from the Wood family, and they badly beat her as punishment.

Despite a deteriorating relationship with the Woods, they took Prince with them when they travelled to England in 1828. She ran away, but was legally only free in England. The Woods refused to emancipate or sell her, so if she returned to her husband in Antigua the Woods would have been able to claim her as their property once again. She petitioned Parliament to grant her freedom, but this too failed.

History of Mary Prince Title Page

The title page of Mary’s biography (Source: Yale Center for British Art).

Prince got a job with Thomas Pringle, an abolitionist writer and Secretary of the Anti-slavery Society. With the help of the Society, she published an autobiography entitled The History of Mary Prince: A West Indian Slave (1831). It was the first account of a black woman’s life published in Great Britain. The book went through three printings in its first year; Mary’s personal story helped to raise awareness of how bad conditions still were for those in slavery.

Nobody knows what happened to Prince after her book was published. In 1833, the Slavery Abolition Act was passed, which banned slavery in the British Empire. Colonies were given time to allow their economies to adapt, so slavery was abolished in Bermuda in 1834 and the West Indies in 1838. If she was still alive, Prince could have gone back to her place of birth or to her husband.

Mary Prince was not seen as a campaigner in her own right, not even by her supporters; as a black, working class woman her social status was about as low as it could get. Nevertheless, her powerful and shocking narrative played an important role in maintaining the momentum of the abolition movement. Sarah Salih, who edited a recent edition of Prince’s book, argues that Mary was a defiant woman; her illicit marriage, and her tendency to defend herself and others both verbally and physically, hinted at a rebellious streak that culminated with the publication of her History. Mary may not have been respected in her lifetime, but she certainly deserves our respect now.

Sources and Further Reading

100 Great Black Britons. “Mary Prince.” No date, accessed 25th May 2016. Available at  http://www.100greatblackbritons.com/bios/mary_prince.html

Abolition Project, The. “Mary Prince (1788-c.1833): The First Woman to Present a Petition to Parliament.” No date, accessed 25th May 2016. Available at  http://www.theguardian.com/uk/2007/oct/19/race.historybooks

Hochschild, Adam. “The Unsung Heroes of Abolition: Mary Prince.” BBC History. Last modified 17th February 2011, accessed 25th May 2016. Available at  http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/abolition/abolitionists_gallery_04.shtml

Simkin, John. “Mary Prince.” Sparacus Educational. Last modified August 2014, accessed 25th May 2016. Available at http://spartacus-educational.com/SprinceM.htm

Wajid, Sara. “‘They Bought Me as a Butcher Would a Calf or Lamb.'” The Guardian. Last modified 19th October 2007, accessed 25th May 2016. Available at   http://www.theguardian.com/uk/2007/oct/19/race.historybooks

Wikipedia. “Mary Prince.” Last modified 11th May 2016, accessed 25th May 2016. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_Prince