When Mélisande Short-Colomb found out that she was the descendant of two enslaved families that the Maryland province of the Society of Jesus sold in 1838 to ensure the solvency of what is now Georgetown University, she thought: “Oh my goodness!”
It was late July in 2016 when Short-Colomb, a New Orleans chef, received a message from the Georgetown Memory Project informing her that her “third and fourth great-grandparents,” Mary Ellen Queen and Abraham Mahoney, were among the 314 enslaved people who were part of that 19th-century sale.
“I imploded and exploded at the same time,” Short-Colomb says, adding that she had general knowledge of her family’s history, but the Jesuits were not part of their oral tradition. A year later, the then 63-year-old became one of two undergraduates accepted into Georgetown when the university invited the descendants from the families to apply for “preferential admission consideration.”
“Over the course of four years, I brought my family and my family’s legacy back to the institution and the country they created,” Short-Colomb explains. “My family and families like my family are the involuntary founders of not just the edifice of Jesuit education across America, but the very institution that is the United States of America.”
Artifacts from Short-Colomb’s journey, including her freshman gown, are now part of the new exhibition: “Make Good the Promises: Reconstruction and Its Legacies” at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC).
In the museum’s 4,300-square-foot special exhibition gallery, the show features more than 175 objects, 14 media programs and 300 images. In the aftermath of the Civil War, during the Reconstruction Era, more than four million newly freed Black Americans sought fulfillment of the promises laid out in the U.S. Constitution, including everything from the right to vote, to own land and to raise their families safely. It was a period, too, when white Americans responded with deadly violence ranging from lynching to voter intimidation and unlawful incarceration.
Museum curator Paul Gardullo says that the Reconstruction Era needs to be reclaimed from myth, ignorance and occlusion. “There has been a willful misreading of the history of our nation that demeans, dehumanizes and decenters African Americans from the narrative of freedom and making America into a place that its founding documents promised and continue to promise that it will be,” Gardullo says.
He explains that the museum wants to shine a light on the visions of freedom that millions of African Americans shared, and helped bring into being in the decades following the Civil War. Gardullo believes those visions reshaped far more than just the nation’s politics.
“Those visions of freedom had to do with questions of land and labor, questions of community building, issues of civil rights and human rights,” Gardullo says, adding that the African American community provided a model for the struggles other communities faced throughout the 20th and 21st century.
Gardullo says Reconstruction is both a historic period, and an unfinished process that is bent on making America a more equitable and just nation. He notes that many who worked within the civil rights movement refer to that era as a "Second Reconstruction," and others consider the present moment to be a third.
The battle for freedom has been fundamental to the African American community long before the Civil War, and Gardullo thinks of the word reconstruction as defining what he calls the fight for “full freedom.”
“When we wrestle with challenging issues from voting rights to racial violence to questions of repair and reparations, we need to realize that these things are part of a longer history and we need to help people connect the dots so that they are not unmoored from history,” he says. The exhibition is trying to illustrate that this nation is living with Reconstruction's legacies, both positive and negative. That includes continued oppression, voter suppression and racial violence, but there is also the ongoing fight for voting and economic rights and the debate over birthright citizenship.
Gardullo and Kinshasha Holman Conwill, the museum’s deputy director, coedited a companion volume, Make Good the Promises: Reclaiming Reconstruction and Its Legacies. The book—with a foreword by the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Eric Foner, a preface by historian and former museum director Spencer Crew, and essays from leading scholars including Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw—examines the legacies of Reconstruction that continue to affect modern society. It also tells stories of the Black men and women, like Frederick Douglass and Hiram Rhodes Revels, who helped to reshape a nation.
“The shadow of Reconstruction is a long shadow, and if we want to look at the ways in which that shadow is evidence, [look at] the Black freedom struggle, which began with the first time an African tried to be free, the first time someone defined him or herself by their personhood and not by their status as a shadow, and that reaches all the way across enslavement, the Civil War, emancipation, Reconstruction, the civil rights movement and the current period that we’re in,” Conwill says.
Conwill points to Crenshaw’s essay “Legacies of Liberation,” a conversation about both race and the intersectional lens of gender that illustrates how the legacy of the status of Black women is a marker for the status of Black people. The essay about the “Legacies of Violence” by the author and scholar Kidada E. Williams discusses not only the fact of violence, but the use of violence as an act to threaten people to make them feel that their rights and desires cannot and should not be honored.
“Americans have created so many falsehoods about Reconstruction that it is hard to blame them for not recognizing the truth, i.e., the idea of Black people enjoying American freedom so offended white nationalists they overthrew Reconstruction by waging war on them and it,” Williams writes.
Conwill thinks both liberation and violence are deeply grounded in the bedrock of this nation.
“Violence is one of the ways that the powerful, in this case white supremacists, exercise and execute their will over other people, and so the Ku Klux Klan and the other racist organizations were able to do what they did. That is terrorize Black communities because they threatened Black communities with death and with all manner of horrors, and the destruction of whole communities,” Conwill says. She cites the example of the 2015 massacre at Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, where a white supremacist murdered nine Black worshippers.
“Those tropes, those visions of Black people as less than human, that scapegoating of Black people, as that murderous person did,… that comes down through history,” Conwill says. “That is the way the blueprint for treating Black people was drawn.”
The essay by NMAAHC curator Mary Elliott “Legacies of Place,” centers on a slave cabin from Edisto Island in South Carolina that is now a centerpiece of the museum’s inaugural exhibition, “Slavery and Freedom.”
The tiny 16- by 20-foot cabin, built in the 1850s on what was known as “slave street” on the Point of Pines plantation, illustrates that battle for post-enslavement land.
Conwill notes that before and after the Civil War the cabin housed generations of Black people.
“Now it is a sacred building. It is a building that echoes with the lives of Black people,” she explains.
“The site where it stood is a part of this country where mostly Black and white family members are still trying to wrestle with the multiracial legacy of descendants, of those who were owned and those who owned other human beings. Those conversations are fraught, they are highly imperfect, but they are part of that desire to look at the arc of the moral universe that is bending toward justice.”
Back at the museum exhibition, curator Paul Gardullo talks about two of his favorite pieces that connect the dots between the past and the present.
A scroll from 1865 from Charleston, with the signatures of thousands of African American men, is on display for the first time. The scroll of names measures 54 feet long and is an extremely fragile object, made from pieces of paper bearing signatures that are taped together.
At the time it was made, restrictive laws known as black codes were being written, to limit the freedom of African Americans. Many states required Black people to sign yearly labor contracts or risk being forced into unpaid labor.
“This is a scroll that was created in the midst of black codes being established and in the midst of the fight for what would become the 15th Amendment, a fight to extend the vote to all people. Thousands of people came out into public spaces, at the very real risk of harm and violence, to sign their names to make sure their voices were heard so their votes would be counted. It speaks to the strongest kind of sense of both bravery and courage,” Gardullo says.
He then draws a connection to contemporary items collected from the 2018 Stacey Abrams Democratic campaign for Georgia’s governor. She was the first Black female nominee from a major party to run for that office in any state.
“It was a campaign that she lost, but a campaign that speaks in some ways to that history and legacy of rights, advocacy, of voting, of the need to support Black candidates,” Gardullo says. “This Black woman candidate is embodied by a dress that she wore on election night.… And so, the connection between the fight in 1865 to 2018 is one that becomes very palpable. Those kinds of connections are ones that are made across the exhibition to bring something very present into the past and to make the past issues seem much more alive and with us for good or ill.”
Along with Mélisande Short-Colomb’s freshman gown from Georgetown is the blue head wrap she wore with it. A photograph depicts her freshman convocation, and a button features an image of her “three times great-grandmother Mary Ellen Queen,” referring to the many generations that separate the two. These artifacts are found at the very end of the exhibition, which carries a deep meaning for Short-Colomb, who now works for the university’s Laboratory for Global Performance and Politics.
“People should center themselves at the end of the exhibit. Embrace who we are. The mythology of equality that we have created, we can make that real,” Short-Combs says. “I internally feel like my grandmothers and my mother and… particularly the 11 generations of women who are in me in this American experience and creation from colonial times through the present: I am representative. We are representative. A family story.”
“Make Good the Promises: Reconstruction and Its Legacies” is on view through August 21, 2022 at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.