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Traveling Exhibition on Emancipation to Visit Bessie Smith Cultural Center in 2013

As the 150th anniversary of the Civil War gets into full swing, the Tennessee Civil War National Heritage Area has enlarged its traveling exhibition on emancipation.  The enhanced exhibition will be on view at the Bessie Smith Cultural Center in August and September 2013.

Entitled “Free at Last!” the 4-panel exhibition emphasizes the significance of emancipation as a result of the Civil War.  The first two panels give an overview of emancipation and Reconstruction in Tennessee.  The second two panels focus on how the Union army served as a catalyst for emancipation during the Mississippi Valley campaign in West Tennessee, where a groundbreaking contraband camp was established at Grand Junction in November 1862.

The exhibition calls attention to the agency of former slaves in bringing about their freedom.  “Freedom for former slaves was a key outcome of the Civil War, and it was the slaves themselves who made it happen once the Union army arrived,” says Antoinette van Zelm, historian for the Tennessee Civil War National Heritage Area.  “They took advantage of the presence of the occupying Union army to break down the bonds of slavery.”

“Free at Last!” provides an introduction to the joys and challenges shared by African Americans in Tennessee during the aftermath of slavery. The Reconstruction years were crucial to the development of African American communities throughout Tennessee.  Former slaves founded scores of schools and churches. “Free at Last” highlights some of the emancipation communities that are wonderfully preserved in our state.

The exhibition debuted in February 2007 and has since traveled to more than sixteen museums and historic sites across the state.  “Our goal is to tell the whole story of the Civil War and Reconstruction in Tennessee,” says Laura Holder, federal liaison for the Heritage Area. “These venues are terrific places to tell the emancipation story.”

The Tennessee Civil War National Heritage Area receives funding from the National Park Service and is administered by the Center for Historic Preservation at Middle Tennessee State University.  For more information about the exhibition, please contact Antoinette van Zelm at (615) 217-8013.

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