- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 23, 2003

The plight of blacks as slaves in this country has been well documented in history and literature. A new exhibit at the Smithsonian's Anacostia Museum and Center for African American History and Culture goes a step farther back, however.

The exhibit, "Captive Passage: The Transatlantic Slave Trade and the Making of the Americas," answers questions such as who was captured and brought to the New World, why their labor was needed and how they made the trip.

The answers are not history's proudest moments, but the information is essential. That is why Gloria McGill, a Metropolitan Police officer and youth group leader, brought her middle-school girls to the museum recently.

"It is not enough to say, 'We were slaves,' " Ms. McGill says. "I want the girls to understand why. We have seen images throughout history, but this exhibit breaks it down in another way."

The museum first opened in Southeast Washington in 1967 as one of the nation's first federally funded community-based neighborhood museums. In 1995, it merged with the Smithsonian's Center for African American History and Culture. The museum and its library are devoted to increasing public understanding and knowledge of the historical experiences and cultural expressions of people of African descent, museum Deputy Director Sharon Reinckens says.

The current display, primarily borrowed from the Mariners' Museum in Newport News, Va., begins with a short introductory film, then continues in sections. The first shows how Africans lived in Africa as farmers, merchants, husbands and mothers before traders enslaved them. The exhibit features handcrafted items in bronze and ivory that reflected the culture of, among others, people living in Ghana and the Ivory Coast long ago.

Maps and documents in this section show how the "Triangle Trade" worked. Traders left Europe for West Africa, where they exchanged trade goods for humans. They then made the six-week to 12-week voyage to the Americas, where they sold the Africans in markets. The ships then returned to Europe loaded with American goods such as tobacco, sugar and other staples produced by slave labor.

Figures also show the discrepancy in estimates of how many Africans were affected by the slave trade. Estimates shown at the museum range from 10 million to 100 million.

The next section chronicles the capture of the Africans, the role that guns played in the slave trade, and how the traders traveled farther inland in Africa.

The most difficult section to peruse is "The Middle Passage," which shows how slaves lived on board the ships that took them to the Americas. Through art, audio readings from the era and ship's logs, the deplorable conditions, disease and starvation are chronicled.

Three-dimensional models show how the slaves would have been crammed into the ship's hold for the passage. The Africans were allowed on deck twice daily and forced to exercise. Water was in short supply, and some estimates put the death rate on the ships from disease, punishment and suicide at 10 percent.

The next section chronicles the Africans' arrival in the Americas, from the sale at market, to the jobs they did. The majority ended up on plantations, but many were put to work using skills they learned in Africa as carpenters, metalworkers and coopers. Women primarily worked as domestic servants.

The exhibit points out the contribution of blacks to the New World economy. They cleared forests, built roads and dug canals, which created a world where their owners were allowed to prosper.

One dramatic reminder that slaves were not free is on display in this section. There is an iron shackle that visitors can pick up to feel its weight and hear the sound it would make to alert an owner that a slave was escaping.

The final section shows the struggle for the abolition of slavery and emancipation. There is a copy of the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, which freed the slaves in Confederate territory, as well as portraits and biographies of such influential blacks as Frederick Douglass, Nat Turner and Harriet Tubman. There is a reproduction of an 1827 copy of Freedom's Journal, the first black newspaper to be published in the United States.

"Captive Passage" will be on display until Aug. 31.

The museum also houses special art collections and a library with more than 3,500 books, and close to 100 periodical titles in various formats.

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