America has been tainted by the moral stain of slavery since colonial times. Even though the evidence reveals that the presence of enslaved African peoples in North America dates as far back as the early sixteenth century, a consensus around the date of 1619 for the arrival of the first enslaved Africans in the Virginia colony has become firmly established in the current discourse. This year marks 400 years since that fateful turning point, with centuries of exploitation, anti-Black violence, degradation, and cultural genocide trailing in its wake. As we collectively engage in somber remembrance of this shameful period in our history, this exhibition demonstrates the excellence and fortitude of the Black experience, as it rose from the ashes of a war-torn nation. With the goals of the abolitionists reached and the dreams of freedom among the enslaved reawakened in the aftermath of the Civil War, a new generation of poets, historians, preachers, journalists, entrepreneurs, and scholars was born. These visionaries were driven by a passion to be recognized for the citizenship promised to them by virtue of their newly acknowledged humanity. This exhibition explores a rich literary tradition rooted in times so challenging that the very act of becoming literate could result in punishment of torture or death. Drawing attention to a small sample of selections from this robust literary archive, Flowers of Freedom is a compelling look at how far we have come since the bleak period of the slave trade.
Flowers of Freedom is about achievement, but it is also about a network of multigenerational relationships. Such notables as Victoria Earle Matthews and Booker T. Washington had been enslaved in their youth, maturing through their experience of emancipation and Reconstruction by taking an active role in shaping the future of the race. Others, like Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, came from a free-born community that helped to shepherd the nation through the intellectual morass of its hypocrisy and racial injustice. Alice Ruth Moore Dunbar-Nelson and Walter E. Todd were among those just one generation removed from enslavement. This generation managed to achieve amazing feats of literary prowess in vindication of the power of their education. Their successes, however, were achieved through an intricate web of connections that tied them all together. Daniel Barclay Williams wrote the biographical introduction for Irvine Garland Penn’s book on the Black Press. Victoria Earle Matthews, once a friend and colleague of Alice Dunbar-Nelson, published a collection of snippets from Washington’s speeches in the style of a commonplace book. This exhibition is a testament to the many ways in which these men and women were connected through their scholarship, writing, and publishing activities.