The objects behind the locked, protective glass cases are old and look fragile because they are. The items displayed are rare, infrequently displayed and highly prized.

  • Personal correspondence with fold marks clearly etched in the thin paper.
  • Legal documents with official seals.
  • Loopy cursive handwriting, written with a fountain pen dipped in ink.
  • Bills of sale and a last will and testament.
  • A first edition printing of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”
  • Sepia-tinged photographs.

Spread among four glass cases, these and other totems of history silently greet visitors entering Northwestern University’s Deering Library.

Marquis Taylor, a Ph.D. candidate in history at Northwestern University, on the right, curated the exhibit items, assisted by Charla Wilson, the inaugural archivist for the Black Experience at Northwestern and a member of the Charles Deering McCormick Library staff. Credit: Wendi Kromash

The are part of an exhibition that opened June 6 at the Library titled Freedom for Everyone: Slavery and Abolition in 19th Century America.

The exhibit is inspired by Northwestern’s commitment to using “reparative descriptions” or redesciptions, throughout all of its libraries. Redescription removes outdated and offensive descriptions in “finding aids” and revises them using language that is historically accurate, while removing language that is offensive, racist or dehumanizing.

The exhibit, sourced from the objects from the Deering Library of Special Collections and University Archives and the Melville J. Herskovits Library of African Studies, was curated by Marquis Taylor, a Ph.D. candidate in history at Northwestern, with assistance form Charla Wilson, inaugural archivist for the Black Experience at Northwestern and a member of the library staff. 

“Archivists create a finding aid, which is a guide to the collection that provides contextual information for researchers to note this is a collection they’d like to utilize. We provide a description of content and an inventory,” said Wilson.

The majority of the items in the exhibit come from two collections recently “redescribed,” according to Taylor: the newly formed Frederick Douglass Collection and the “Slavery, Enslaved Persons, and Free Blacks in the Americas Collection.”

Douglass is one of four sections in the exhibit, chosen because Taylor wanted to show the breadth of change during his lifetime and selected abolition, slavery and freedom as the other sections.

Frederick Douglass engraving
From the Northwestern’s Deering Library exhibit titled “Freedom for Everyone: Slavery and Abolition in 19th Century America.” Credit: Supplied

In the Douglass section, there is a portrait of the famed abolitionist and social reformer from an engraving of Men of Our Times by Harriet Beecher Stowe published in 1868. The exhibit note beside the photograph reads, in part, “He believed that photography served as a conduit to create and reinforce positive images of Black manhood, especially to counter the disparaging stereotypes that white newspapers often perpetuated. He only wanted to be photographed in settings that displayed accomplishment, nobility, and power.”

There is also a portrait of his wife, Anna Murray Douglass.

Also Hugh Auld’s copy of the legal transfer bill of sale of Douglass from Thomas Auld to his brother, Hugh, in 1845. There is correspondence to Auld notifying him that Anna Richardson had legally purchased Douglass and promptly freed him. 

The correspondence from Douglass to Auld is extraordinary. It brims with love, friendship and forgiveness, and attempts to repair whatever hard feelings may have lingered in the nearly 20 years since Douglass ran away from his enslavement and escaped, living as a fugitive until he was officially freed. 

“I love you, but hate slavery,” Douglass wrote in an 1859 letter to Hugh Auld, the man who had enslaved him.

Curating enslavement articles

Taylor said it was challenging dealing with issues of enslavement in the materials, but he saw it as an opportunity to illuminate how those owning slaves were able to rationalize what they did.

He said, “Slavery was a frequent institution – it was everywhere. It was not just a Southern thing. It was a Northern issue, it was an American issue … Juneteenth celebrates Black freedom, but to understand Black freedom we have to understand the conditions that necessitate that freedom.”

The exhibit honors the first year of the University’s observance of Juneteenth as a federal holiday. Juneteenth celebrates the day in 1865 that a group of enslaved people in Texas were informed they had been free since Jan. 1, 1863, when President Abraham Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation.

“Juneteenth isn’t a Texas thing. It’s not a Black thing. We’re talking about freedom for everyone.” – Opal Lee, the “grandmother” of Juneteenth, from a tape made on June 17, 2021, at the White House.

The Abolition section highlights anti-slavery sentiments and texts from the United States and other parts of the world. 

The Slavery section displays bills of sale and other documents that treat the enslaved individuals as chattel. The cruelty is on full display. 

The final section, Freedom, nudges the viewer to think about Emancipation and the change it has made in the lives of so many. It also highlights some extraordinary Northwestern graduates:

  • Ferdinand Lee Barnett, a graduate of the law school in 1878, started the first Black newspaper in Chicago, married Ida B. Wells and became the first African American Assistant State’s Attorney, a position he held from 1896 to 1910. 
  • Daniel Hale Williams III was Northwestern’s first African American medical school graduate in 1883. He founded the first Black-owned hospital, Provident Hospital and Nursing Training School in Chicago. In 1893, he became the first doctor in the world to perform a successful open-heart surgery.

Wilson said that working on this exhibition and reading about the “incomprehensible” concept of people owning other people made her realize how important accessibility to and awareness of the collection is, especially for those pursuing genealogical research. She was excited to list the names of the enslaved people included in the documents.

Prior to working on the redescriptions, these individuals had been anonymous, overlooked and lost. Now their names are publicly available and their stories can be told.

The exhibit will run through fall quarter in the Deering Library and is open to the public.

Wendi Kromash is curious about everything and will write about anything. She tends to focus on one-on-one interviews with community leaders, recaps and reviews of cultural events, feature stories about...