Black Citizen & Service Digital Exhibits

The Black Citizenship & Service collection of exhibits attempts to make known what citizenship looked like in pre-twentieth century Boston for the Black community. Citizenship is implicitly defined in relation to personhood. But it wasn’t until the14th Amendment (ratified in 1868) that African Americans were legally defined as equal citizens. W.E.B Du Bois’ theorization about Black citizenship and his notion of double consciousness speaks to  the duality of the Black subjectivity as both a racial and national subject. This collection of exhibits speaks to that tenuous and complex relationship between Blackness and citizenship in the United States of America. 

This collection attempts to make visible the significant  role Black people played in the fight for freedom, despite not being granted full humanity in the eyes of the law. In challenging the passivity often associated with women — Harriet Tubman served as a  “strong, assertive military and underground railroad operative” (NPS). The resistance and community shown is emblematic of collectivity associated with Black citizenship that the US often tried to strip. There was often resistance to allowing Black soldiers to fight “a white man’s war.” Yet, a clause in the emancipation proclamation allowed for an uprise in Black regiments (NPS). Consequently, the Massachusetts’s 54th Regiment was formed on March 13th, 1863 by John Andrew as one of the first Black regiments of the Civil War (NPS). Abolitionist and social activist, Harriet Tubman, is not known for her American Civil War services – Tubman led the Combahee River Raid, which freed over 800 enslaved people (NPS). Even after the disastrous outcome of Fort Wagner, it is often unknown that abolitionist and social activist, Harriet Tubman, served meals and nursed several soldiers. 

This exhibit explores how patriotism in pre-war and post-war America, touched the lives of Black Bostonians between 1770-1830. Manifestations of Black patriotism changed throughout the course of the Revolutionary era, particularly when it became clear that the battle for American freedom did not encompass Black American freedom.

The 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment played a critical role in African American history as the first African American unit to fight for the Union during the Civil War. The legacy left behind by the 54th Regiment is largely associated with Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, though it is also crucial to also remember the other individuals who sacrificed their lives fighting for the freedom of their race.