A special exhibition open at the Grand Rapids Public Museum (GRPM), Changing America: The Emancipation Proclamation, 1863, and the March on Washington, 1963 examines the relationship between two great people’s movements, which both grew out of decades of bold actions, resistance, organization and vision.Changing America is only open through Sunday, October 13.
One hundred years separate the Emancipation Proclamation and the March on Washington, yet they are linked in a larger story of liberty and the American experience – one that has had a profound impact on the generations that followed.
Created by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture and the National Museum of American History, the exhibit was toured nationwide by the American Library Association’s Public Program Office. The Changing America exhibit is now a possession of the GRPM.
In presenting and hosting it, the GRPM has enhanced it for West Michigan by including artifacts and stories from a local perspective. In addition to artifacts from the GRPM Collections, many artifacts on display are on loan from the Grand Rapids African American Museum and Archives (GRAAMA). Local stories are told through the eyes of our community, including oral histories. The exhibition includes a place for visitors to share their own stories, which are then added to the GRPM’s digital archive found at grpmcollections.org.
In addition to the exhibition, the GRPM collaborated with several community groups to offer community programming as part of the exhibition. Collaborations with local partners included Grand Rapids African American Museum & Archives, Grand Rapids Urban League, Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia, Inclusive Performance Strategies, Westside Collaborative, Mosaic Film Experience, City of Grand Rapids Community Relations Commission, George Bayard, Jamiel Robinson, Rob Yob, Michael Curtis, Ellen James, Senita Lenear, and Cynthia Bailey.
GRAAMA curated a corresponding exhibit 1863-1963 American Freedom at its 87 Monroe Center, Grand Rapids, location featuring local civil rights activists, quilts, and interviews. For more information, visit graama.org.
Changing America at the Grand Rapids Public Museum is open through October 13, 2019, and is free with general admission. Kent County adult residents receive reduced general admission and Kent County resident children aged 17 and under receive free general admission to the GRPM thanks to the county-wide millage passed in 2016.
Changing America at the Grand Rapids Public Museum is sponsored by the David and Carol Van Andel Family Foundation, the Grand Rapids Community Foundation, and Steelcase Inc. The media sponsor for Changing America is Magic 104.9.
About the Exhibition
Emancipation from slavery was not the product of one act but of many. In the 19th century, enslaved and free Americans chipped away at slavery through daily acts of resistance, organized rebellions, and political pressure on politicians, generals, and the U.S. government. Finally, on September 22, 1862, Abraham Lincoln issued the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, which ordered that as of January 1, 1863, all enslaved individuals in all areas still in rebellion against the United States “henceforward shall be free,” and under the protection of the military.
The Emancipation proclamation was limited in scope and revolutionary in impact. It committed the nation to ending slavery. The U.S. Congress responded with Constitutional amendments abolishing slavery, expanding citizenship rights, and giving black men the right to vote. These acts changed the political landscape, but the new freedoms were stripped away in the following years. However, on each Emancipation Day anniversary, Black Americans organized parades and speeches reminding the black community and the entire nation of a commitment that remained unfulfilled.
These local Emancipation Day celebrations and many other actions set the stage for the national push for freedom in the 20th century. On August 28, 1963, an estimated 250,000 Americans gathered at the Lincoln Memorial in the District of Columbia to mark the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. People traveled from every state, united across race, class, and ideological lines, and representing organizations, unions, churches or simply themselves. The prayers, electrifying speeches, and stirring music of that day served to remind Americans of the nation’s commitment to fulfill its founding principles of liberty and equality for all.
In the months following the march, demonstrations and violence continued to pressure political leaders to act. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were turning points in the struggle for equality. The bills outlawed segregated public facilities and prohibited discrimination in employment and voting. The success of the March on Washington and the achievements of the modern struggle for civil rights have provided a lasting model for social change.
The exhibition has traveled to 50 venues across the nation, accompanied by public programming designed to help audiences understand and discuss the relationship between these two great people’s movements.
The National Museum of African American History and Culture
The National Museum of African American History and Culture was established as a Smithsonian museum by an Act of Congress in 2003. It is the only national museum devoted exclusively to the documentation of African American life, art, history and culture. Groundbreaking for the $500 million museum took place in February 2013 in a ceremony featuring remarks by President Barack Obama; former First Lady Laura Bush, a member of the museum’s advisory council; and Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) who submitted the legislation that created the museum. For more information, visit www.nmaahc.si.edu.
The National Museum of American History
The National Museum of American History collects, preserves and displays American heritage through exhibitions and public programs about social, political, cultural, scientific and military history. Documenting the American experience from Colonial times to the present, the museum looks at growth and change in the United States. For more information, visit www.americanhistory.si.edu.
National Endowment for the Humanities
Created in 1965 as an independent federal agency, the National Endowment for the Humanities supports learning in history, literature, philosophy and other areas of the humanities. NEH grants enrich classroom learning, create and preserve knowledge and bring ideas to life through public television, radio, new technologies, exhibitions and programs in libraries, museums and other community places. Additional information about the National Endowment for the Humanities and its grant programs is available at www.neh.gov.
Grand Rapids Public Museum
The Grand Rapids Public Museum is an invaluable, publicly-owned institution that is home to more than 250,000 unique artifacts that tell the history of Kent County and beyond, houses the only planetarium in the region, and is responsible for protecting The Mounds, a national historic landmark. The Grand Rapids Public Museum is accredited by the American Alliance of Museums, with its main location in downtown Grand Rapids, MI at 272 Pearl Street, NW. For additional information including hours of operation, admission fees and exhibit/event listings, please visit www.grpm.org.