July 10, 2013
Known for the long sentences–93 years on average–its residents serve, the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola has many different meanings, according to New York Times reporter Patricia Cohen, including as a symbol of “one of the most brutal and corrupt institutions in the post-Civil War South, the nearest kin to slavery that could legally exist.” After negotiations with the prison, the National Museum of African American History and Culture will now include this history in its collections, highlighting the enduring legacy of slavery in post-Civil War incarceration practices, with an early 20th-century concrete guard tower from the Angola prison. The museum also acquired a cell from another section of the prison that was built on former slave quarters.
The prison officially opened in 1901, but the site of it had long been used as plantations which drew some of its labor directly from the state’s prisons in a common post-Civil War penal labor practice known as convict-leasing that allowed private individuals to “lease” prisoners.
Curator Paul Gardullo told the New York Times, he credits the prison for its willingness to donate the items, allowing the museum “to portray a history that gets into some of these dark corners of American history” from a “place that still carries the legacy of slavery with it.”
The Serbian inventor was born 157 years ago today, July 10, in what is now Croatia. To honor that genius that helped bring us alternating current as well as countless other inventions, we’re offering an excerpt from a new biography, Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age, by W. Bernard Carlson. A former fellow at the Smithsonian’s Lemelson Center, Carlson stopped by the American History Museum in June to discuss Tesla’s many innovations, including some on display at the museum. Tesla’s popularity has received a boost recently with everything from comedy sketches, operas and car companies made in his honor. In the following excerpt from Carlson’s new biography, read up on Tesla’s experiments with automatons and radio controlled boats.
Tesla’s interest in automata dates back to his childhood. As a boy, he suffered from nightmares that he overcame by developing his willpower. Struck by the fact that the frightening visions were often the result of some external stimuli that he could identify, Tesla concluded that all thoughts and emotions were the result of outside factors and that the human organism was no more than a “self-propelling machine, the motions of which are governed by impressions received through the eye.” His efforts to understand and control his intense visions, as he explained in his autobiography, “led me finally to recognise that I was but an automaton devoid of free will in thought and action and merely responsible to the forces of the environment.” But if he were merely an automaton, wondered Tesla, why not build one as well?
Excerpted from TESLA: Inventor of the Electrical Age by W. Bernard Carlson. Copyright (c) 2013 by Princeton University Press. Reprinted by permission.
June 26, 2013
In time for the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, the National Portrait Gallery‘s newest exhibition, “One Life: Martin Luther King, Jr.” looks at the inspiring career of the civil rights leader, from his childhood all the way up to his unfinished Poor People’s Campaign. The show’s curator, Ann Shumard, says she wanted to offer visitors a glimpse of the man beyond the momentous speech he delivered at the March on Washington. King is remember too often only for his “I Have a Dream” speech, cast as an awesome orator but not the man of action that he truly was. In fact, only one portrait in the exhibit captures King in a formal pose. The rest show him either with his family or at work, linking arms with fellow protestors, riding a recently desegregated bus after a successful boycott or rallying from the pulpit. The one-room exhibition opening Friday shows the highs and lows of a career cut short.
The exhibit, “One Life: Martin Luther King, Jr.” opens June 28, 2013 and runs through June 1, 2014 at the National Portrait Gallery.
June 11, 2013
To commemorate the unification of the Hawaiian islands under a single ruler, floats, trolleys, marching bands and dancers parade through the streets of Hawaiian towns every year for King Kamehameha Day, June 11. In downtown Honolulu, thousands of residents celebrated the day a little early Saturday, June 8, with the annual King Kamehameha Floral Parade. The event included a float with a giant red aloha shirt, princesses on horseback representing each island and riders from the Sons of Hawaii motorcycle club.
The first European to set foot on the islands, Captain James Cook, was killed in 1779 as he tried to take a local leader hostage. The islands would remain free awhile longer, though not united. King Kamehameha fought for nearly 20 years to bring the islands under his rule, succeeding in 1810. He created a single legal system and protected the territory’s newfound status by prohibiting land ownership from non-Hawaiians while still opening trade to Europeans and Americans. But just one year after his death in 1819 Christian missionaries and European traders arrived in force, bringing with them disease that devastated the native population, as well as a new economic order.
American colonists quickly took control of the sugar-based economy and in 1898 the country annexed Hawaii. The territory’s final ruler, Queen Lili’uokalani, relinquished the throne and Hawaii’s sovereignty only after an American invasion. She believed eventually the injustice would be corrected. Writing in 1893 she said, “I do, under this protest, and impelled by said forces, yield my authority until such time as the Government of the United States shall, upon the facts being presented to it, undo the action of its representative and reinstate me in the authority which I claim as the constitutional sovereign of the Hawaiian Islands.”
Set against this history, King Kamehameha remains a figure of pride for the islands, a reminder of a unique past. In a ceremony in D.C. celebrating the sovereign Sunday, June 9, Senator Mazie Hirono told the gathered crowd, “He laid the foundations for modern Hawaii by protecting the traditions and culture of his ancestors even as the kingdom grew and interacted with Western nations. His strong leadership during this period of great change inspires us all to work together to ensure our shared traditions and history can be celebrated for generations to come.”
May 13, 2013
UPDATE: Curator interview reveals more historical information about the cabin.
Point of Pines Plantation on Edisto Island, South Carolina, had more than 170 slaves before the Civil War working in the fields to pick Sea Island cotton. Not much evidence of the slaves’ daily toil exists now, though, except for a couple one-story, dilapidated cabins–the last physical reminders of the brutal and degrading living conditions of the enslaved, as well as an emblem of the strength and endurance of the nearly four million Americans living in bondage by the time of the war.
Today, the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) announced the acquisition of one of these 19th-century cabins, which was donated by the Edisto Island Historic Preservation Society last month after they received it from the plantation’s current owners. The cabin will travel to its new home at the Smithsonian to preserve the story it stands for.
Slave cabins are held in other museums and collections around the country. However, NMAAHC focused on acquiring one from Edisto Island, says curator Nancy Bercaw, who is in South Carolina this week to oversee the relocation project, is that the Point of Pines plantation was one of the first places where slaves “self-emancipated” themselves before the Emancipation Proclamation. South Carolina’s coastal islands, Bercaw says, were the earliest territories overtaken by Union troops. Point of Pines became a Union stronghold in 1861, and the African Americans living on the plantation, along with other slaves from around the area who had left their owners, declared themselves free.
Museum representatives just arrived at the plantation this morning to begin the week-long process of taking the cabin apart, piece by piece, and driving it up to the Washington, DC area. Officials say that every board and nail will be carefully numbered and packaged for shipment. The cabin eventually will be reconstructed inside the African American History and Culture Museum, which is scheduled to open in 2015.
Already, dismantling the cabin and examining the site has revealed details about the plantation’s slave community, says Bercaw. The cabin is now understood to have been part of a larger “slave street,” which consisted of up to 25 similarly small dwellings built in a row along a road. Bercaw and her team are working with Low Country Africana, too, to interview local descendents of the slaves. Their stories will supplement the documentation of the community’s history.
“The Point of Pines slave cabin will help us share the living history of a place and the resilience of the people, who, in the darkest days of slavery, built the cabin, cleared the land, worked in the fields and raised their families there,” says Bercaw. “The cabin will be one of the jewels of the museum positioned at its center to tell the story of slavery and freedom within its walls.”
Lonnie Bunch, the museum’s founding director, says: “Slavery is one of the most important episodes in American history, but it is often the least understood. By exhibiting this cabin, NMAAHC will ensure that the rich, complex and difficult story of the enslaved will be made accessible for the millions who will visit the museum.”
The cabin will be the focal piece of the museum’s exhibition “Slavery and Freedom,” which examines slavery’s role in shaping America and its lasting impact on African Americans.
The Museum currently is in the early stages of construction, but stop by its recently opened onsite Welcome Center to preview what is to come.