This exhibition explores the complex story of slavery and freedom which rests at the core of our nation’s shared history. The exhibition begins in 15th century Africa and Europe, extends up through the founding of the United States, and concludes with the nation’s transformation during the Civil War and Reconstruction. 

Through powerful objects and first person accounts, visitors encounter both free and enslaved African Americans’ contributions to the making of America and explore the economic and political legacies of the making of modern slavery. The exhibition emphasizes that American slavery and American freedom is a shared history and that the actions of ordinary men and women, demanding freedom, transformed our nation.

Priceless objects provide the visitor with a personal experience with the past. One cannot view Harriet Tubman’s shawl, Nat Turner’s Bible, the small shackles made for the fragile ankles of a child, or a slave cabin without contemplating the individuals who owned or encountered such objects. Such powerful artifacts bring to life the stories of inhumanity and terror, and of resistance, resilience and survival. Objects open up conversations and dialogue and provide a space for Americans to reach out beyond themselves to recognize a shared past.

Main Messages:

  • Slavery is a shared story resting at the heart of American political, economic, and cultural life.
  • African Americans constantly and consistently created new visions of freedom that have benefited all Americans.
  • African American identity has many roots and many expressions that reach far back into our past.
Silk lace and linen shawl given to Harriet Tubman by Queen Victoria, ca. 1897

Silk lace and linen shawl given to Harriet Tubman by Queen Victoria, ca. 1897
Gift of Charles L. Blockson, 2009.50.39

Exhibition Experience

The exhibition explores the following themes:

  • The Making of the Atlantic World (15th -18th centuries)
  • African Peoples
  • European Peoples
  • Trade and Contact
  • The Middle Passage and the Transatlantic Slave Trade
  • Colonial North America
  • The American Revolution
  • The Paradox of Liberty and The Founding of America
  • Free Communities of Color and the Limits of Freedom
  • Slavery and the Making of a New Nation
  • The Domestic Slave Trade
  • African American Freedom Struggles
  • Abolitionist Movements
  • Slave Resistance
  • Everyday Acts of Rebellion
  • Life and Work during Slavery
  • The Civil War and the Coming of Freedom
  • Emancipation and Reconstruction
the welcome screen of the Searchable Museum website as shown on a laptop monitor

Searchable Museum

The Museum  launched its newest digital initiative, The Searchable Museum in November 2021. The project’s first digital exhibition to be shared is Slavery and Freedom, a foundational feature from the museum’s David M. Rubenstein History Galleries, entirely reimagined for the digital space.

Explore More about Searchable Museum
Identification buttons used by Thomas Porter II and David Baillie, ca. 1820s
Scale, Akan Artist, 18th to late 19th century. On Loan from the National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution
Freedom papers and handmade tin carrying box belonging to Joseph Trammell, 1852. Gift of Elaine E. Thompson
Cabin from Point of Pines Plantation in Charleston County, South Carolina, 1800-50
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