After the Civil War, freedom and ... what?

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An engraving of the statue "The Freed Slave" in Memorial Hall, in an illustrated register of the 1876 Centennial Exhibition. (Library Company of Philadelphia)

The Civil War ended, the constitutional amendments abolishing slavery and establishing civil and legal humanity of African Americans passed - a new day dawned in 19th-century America.

Meet the new day, same as the old day. Reconstruction ended in 1877, blacks were disenfranchised, the Supreme Court gave its imprimatur to segregation in 1896; a half-century passed before civil rights dominated the national stage again.

Mostly this story is told as it unfolded in the South.

But what of the North?

"Much of the scholarly attention and public focus is on Reconstruction battles in the South, which . . . does make sense because after the Civil War we have about four million African Americans in the United States, and 90 percent were living in the South," said Krystal Appiah, 41, curator of African American programs and reference librarian at the Library Company of Philadelphia.

"That means 400,000 people were in the North sort of negotiating citizenship and freedom and their new status as citizens."

Appiah, formerly with the Maryland State Archives, has put together an extensive exhibition examining the political, social, and economic milieu of Northern African Americans, "The Genius of Freedom: Northern Black Activism and Uplift After the Civil War," which runs at the Library Company at 1314 Locust St. until June 26.

It is Appiah's first major exhibition since becoming curator of the library's extensive African American collection in 2012. Through use of colorful lithographic prints - Currier & Ives' The Colored Beauty; a loaned painting of a white man lighting the pipe of a black man in Washington Square (illustrating the hoped-for impact of the Fifteenth Amendment); engravings, photographs, and documents - the story told is actually strikingly familiar despite the general unfamiliarity of detail. Change the names and places and the story seems as contemporary as 21st-century America.

The end of the Civil War brought hope to the North's black citizens, but those hopes faded as the community realized it was an island surrounded by a pale sea.

Excluded from most public institutions and places, disenfranchised at the polls, African Americans organized themselves for direct political action. The results of these efforts were spotty, but black political and civil institutions gained strength through self-imposed solidarity, and equal-rights and women's suffrage movements became intertwined with black civil rights efforts.

It was during this period that black heroes, such as Frederick Douglass - already internationally famous - Henry Highland Garnet (militant abolitionist), Hiram Rhodes Revels (first African American elected to the U.S. Senate), and John Mercer Langston (a founder and first dean of the Howard University School of Law) emerged as icons for the broader community.

Lithographers and printers began churning out colorful prints of these men and their deeds - suitable for framing and hanging in the parlors of free blacks across the country.

Interestingly, the end of Reconstruction in 1877, which precipitated the withdrawal of federal troups from the South, was looked at with dismay in the North, Appiah said, but was not seen as the major political disappointment of the era.

For Northern blacks, the bitterest fruit came in 1883, when the Supreme Court overturned the 1875 Civil Rights Act.

"One of the last things [Sen.] Charles Sumner did was to get the Civil Rights Act of 1875 passed, though it was passed right after his death" in 1874, Appiah said. "He and John Mercer Langston worked on the wording of the bill together. It prohibited discrimination in public accommodations and also in [other] private sectors. . . . It was short-lived, but it would have changed the landscape for blacks in the North, in terms of being able to travel freely and have places to stay."

Another civil rights act would not be signed into law until 1957.

On a local level, political action produced both frustration and some achievement. In Philadelphia, African American citizens successfully fought exclusion from the city's streetcars, for instance.

A distinguished group, including William Still, Octavius V. Catto, Caroline Le Count, Harriet Forten Purvis, and U.S. Rep. William D. Kelley, spearheaded protests that led to the 1867 state law barring segregation in streetcars.

The story told in this exhibition, said Richard S. Newman, Library Company director, is emblematic of the nuanced and in-depth nature of the Library Company's African American collection, which now consists of 13,000 books, pamphlets, broadsides, newspapers, and periodicals (currently being digitized and available by subscription); and an additional 1,200 prints, photographs, and maps, with 900 already available online.

"We want to make sure that the program in African American history is not only strong, but vital and in many ways a model for what the Library Company hopes to do over the next 10 or 20 years," Newman said. "We want to open up more than we have before our resources to K-through-12 teachers and the public. . . . We want to make sure that if any of those things appeal to folks out there in the world, that they can access our African American history collections."

 


EXHIBITION

The Genius of Freedom: Northern Black Activism and Uplift After the Civil War

Through June 26 at the Library Company, 1314 Locust St.

215-546-3181 or librarycompany.org.


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