Gilcrease Museum is committed to presenting works from our collections that illustrate how long-past events continue to impact and influence our lives in the 21st century. The latest endeavor in this effort is the special exhibition Enslavement to Emancipation: Toward a More Perfect Union, a display of three foundational documents from the museum’s archival collection that speak to the history of African slavery in the Western Hemisphere and United States.
1520 letter from Diego Columbus to King Charles V of Spain
In his letter, Columbus, Governor General of Spain’s American empire (and son of Christopher Columbus), asks for a license to begin the importation of Africans into the Western Hemisphere to replace the labor of enslaved Indians. Columbus’s letter is believed to be the first written account of African slavery composed in the Americas and sent back to Europe.
Certified, handwritten copy of the Declaration of Independence
The Declaration not only put the world on notice that the American colonies were separating from Great Britain and were now a free and independent nation, but also put forth the idea that all people are equal. In 1776 this statement was far more aspirational than reality, just as the 1787 Preamble to the U.S. Constitution’s promise of forming “a more perfect union” was, and continues to be. Of the three documents, the Declaration is the essential historical “pivot.” It, and the resulting American Revolution, provided an opportunity to change not only the trajectory of American history, but that of world history as well. It was at least the aspiration of equality that made possible the third document in the display.
Authorized copy of the Emancipation Proclamation
This copy was signed by President Abraham Lincoln in 1864. The Proclamation signaled the beginning of the end of slavery. The actual realization of full freedom and equality, like that promised in the Declaration, was aspirational, and continues to be a work in progress. As the events of the past year have so profoundly demonstrated, the nation continues to be challenged with the legacy of slavery and the resulting inequality that is still an institutionalized reality of American life in the 21st century. Both the Emancipation Proclamation and Declaration are proof that our nation is still striving, while also struggling, toward the goal of becoming the “more perfect union” promised to all Americans.
Included with the presentation of these original documents will be a recorded conversation between Tulsa historian and exhibition consultant Hannibal Johnson and Gilcrease Museum’s Curator of History Mark Dolph discussing these documents in their historical context and the as yet fully-realized aspirations promised in America’s founding.
This special exhibition will open on Thursday, June 17 and run through Sunday, July 4 and is made possible by a generous sponsorship from Bank of Oklahoma.
Watch a discussion about these documents and how they inform our understanding of current events in race relations with Curator of History, Mark Dolph and Hannibal Johnson, a local attorney, author and university professor.