This exhibition explores the years following the end of Reconstruction to show how the nation struggled to define the status of African Americans. This period represents a critical era for the United States and for African Americans. It puts to the test whether African Americans would have full citizenship rights after more than 250 years of enslavement. 

Defending Freedom, Defining Freedom: The Era of Segregation 1876-1968 captures the major aspects of that struggle and illustrates how African Americans not only survived the challenges set before them but crafted an important role for themselves in the nation. It also looks at how the nation was changed as a consequence of these struggles and emerged from them more in sync with its pronouncements about freedom, equality, and democracy.

Main Messages:

  • This era is a time of intense pressure on African Americans to take away their rights as citizens.
  • African Americans constantly and consistently resist this pressure.
  • African Americans create their own communities in order to “feed their spirits” and sustain themselves despite the turmoil around them.
Dress sewn by Rosa Parks, 1955-56

Dress sewn by Rosa Parks, 1955-56
Gift of the Black Fashion Museum founded by Lois K. Alexander-Lane, 2007.3.1ab

Exhibition Experience

This exhibition is comprised of four sections:

  • Creating a Segregated Society (1876-1900)
  • Institution Building (1900-1917)
  • The New Negro Steps Forward (1917-1945)
  • “Freedom Now!” The Modern Civil Rights Movement (1945-1968)

Featured Stories and Case Studies

  • Development of Black colleges and universities after the end of the Civil War
  • Ida B. Wells campaign against lynching, 1898
  • The rise of new protest actions and black  organizations after 1900: Niagara Movement, NAACP, Urban league, Marcus Garvey and UNIA
  • Wedding dress of migrant to Los Angeles from Texas     
  • Emmett Till casket
  • Rosa Parks Dress
  • Angola Prison Tower
  • Segregated train car    
  • Greensboro, North Carolina Woolworth’s sit-in stools
  • Tuskegee trainer aircraft
Pew from the Quinn Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church, 1891. Gift of Quinn Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church
Lunch counter stools from Greensboro, North Carolina sit-ins, 1939-1960. Donated by the ICRCM.
Ten shards of stained glass from the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, September 1963
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