New museum makes case for everyone's rights
Alongside a display of the Declaration of Independence at the Museum of the American Revolution, a separate display tells the story of Mumbet. She is an enslaved black woman in Massachusetts. Upon hearing the document read aloud, she announced that its proclamation that "all men are created equal" should also include her.
In response, her master hit her with a frying pan. Mumbet sued him. She won her freedom in court. She changed her name to Elizabeth Freeman and became a nurse. Her case set an example. Slavery was prohibited in Massachusetts.
The story is a reminder. During the struggle for our nation's liberty, the 400,000 African Americans who lived in slavery in 1776 also longed to be free.
Such stories are found throughout the museum. It has opened in Philadelphia. The stories coincide with the 242nd anniversary of the battle at Lexington and Concord, the "shot heard 'round the world" that began the Revolutionary War in 1775. The more inclusive, clear-eyed view of the country's turning points is an intentional departure from the whitewashed story America has often told itself and the world.
Instead, the museum seeks to show visitors that the Revolution was a set of ambitious ideas. The Revolution was founded on equality, individual rights and freedom. These remain relevant today, said president Michael Quinn.
"These ideas rallied people from all walks of life. And they took those ideas to heart," Quinn said. "What unifies us as a people is our shared, common commitment to these ideas."
At several points throughout the museum, visitors are forced to confront the contradictions of the high-minded ideals of the framers of the Constitution and the realities of their time. These include slavery and the second-class status of women. Slavery, for example, would expand for nearly another century after the Revolutionary War ended. And despite arguing for their liberty at the start of America, women in the United States would fight for suffrage into the early 20th century.
The message: The ideals of the American Revolution belong not only to the founding fathers long revered by our country. Those ideals also belong to the founding generation of Americans who first heard them. And the generations that have come since.
"For over two centuries, if you said the words 'founders of this country,' the image that would pop to most people's minds would be a white man," said Scott Stephenson. He is vice president of collections, exhibitions and programming. "Increasingly, we at museums have realized we have got to tell a broader story."
One exhibit features the story of the Oneida Indians. The tribe was one of the first allies to support the budding America. They fought and died alongside the colonist soldiers. Also on display is the active role of African-Americans, enslaved and free, in the war. They fought with both the Continental and British armies. The museum shows that blacks were patriots also fighting for their own freedom.
Historical interpretations conjured from diaries and letters of the lives of five men and women who took various routes to freedom during the war are presented in an interactive digital installation. In paintings, dioramas and exhibits, the stories describe figures including poet Phillis Wheatley and William Lee, valet to Gen. George Washington. They challenge the idea of who could claim the title of "revolutionary."
Visitors are asked to consider the question, "Freedom for whom?" said Adrienne Whaley. She is the museum's manager for school programs.
"The struggle to become free predates the Revolution. And it continues after the war is over," she said. "The promise of America is defined by the ways in which we treat these people."
CRITICAL THINKING QUESTION
Why is it called the “shot heard ‘round the world?"
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