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Black History exhibit at Oly exposes ‘cruel irony’

Members of the public and Central Kitsap School District employees view the U.S. Capitol Historical Society’s exhibit, “From Freedom’s Shadow: African Americans and the United States Capitol.” The exhibit is available for viewing at select times until March 19 at Olympic High School. - Photo by Jesse Beals
Members of the public and Central Kitsap School District employees view the U.S. Capitol Historical Society’s exhibit, “From Freedom’s Shadow: African Americans and the United States Capitol.” The exhibit is available for viewing at select times until March 19 at Olympic High School.
— image credit: Photo by Jesse Beals

By PAUL BALCERAK

Staff writer

Central Kitsap School District board members, employees and educators had the tables turned on them Wednesday night.

It was their turn to learn as they got one of the first looks at the U.S. Capitol Historical Society’s traveling exhibit, “From Freedom’s Shadow: African Americans and the United States Capitol.”

The exhibit, a production of the U.S. Capitol Historical Society, offers insight into one of the better kept dirty little secrets in American history: that the U.S. Capitol was built with help from black slave labor.

The exhibit put front-and-center a jarring truth which the historical society’s Web site called a “cruel irony.”

“It’s a real tangible experience of the history that most people don’t know,” Olympic Principal Bob Barnes said.

Barnes admitted unawareness of the history before being introduced to the project during the plan to bring it to CKSD last year.

“In mainstream history, you get little snippets of things, but you don’t really get a feel (for what things were actually like),” he said. “There are lots of little facts out there that our history, as it’s written, doesn’t necessarily reflect.”

Documents showcased at the exhibit cover a period from 1794-1800 and shed light on some of the people history has forgotten. People like Philip Reid, a slave who, ironically, helped cast the five sections of “Freedom,” the statue that sits atop the Capitol, in bronze.

The title of the exhibit is in reference to the statue itself.

It wasn’t easy unearthing stories such as Reid’s, as evidenced by the work exhibit curator Felicia Bell and her colleagues did to bring the exhibit to life.

“It was a lot of primary source research, but also secondary source research (to understand the context of the primary sources),” Bell said.

Also director of education and outreach for the historical society, Bell has spent countless hours at the National Archives, Library of Congress and various historical societies searching for any remnants of information that could contribute to the exhibit. Some of it is scant, but striking; Bell showed off an old timecard used to track all workers’ hours that used an “N” next to slaves’ names to denote them as “negroes.”

The small document offered a blunt lesson: even timecards were segregated.

“It’s chilling, but I think it’s important to understand so we don’t make those mistakes again,” CKSD Curriculum Specialist Jeni Zapatka said.

Zapatka was responsible for discovering the exhibit and pushing to have it brought to CKSD. Thanks to donations from UPS, the exhibit is shipped across the country for free and the only cost to the district was to bring Bell to the area to showcase the exhibit.

“It’s fun to see how students from various locations and various backgrounds react to the exhibit,” Bell said. “I think that it was kind of an eye-opener for students and adults.”

She has traveled with the exhibit to various locations around the United States. It’s arrival at Olympic, however, marks the first time either have ever been to the West Coast.

The exhibit is now in the hands of students at Olympic, who spent Thursday being trained as docents by Bell. They’ll be the ones to pass information along to the public, which has a few opportunities to see the exhibit between now and March 19 (see gray box).

Students were equally outspoken and struck by the exhibit during their training day.

“I never knew anything about the Freedom statue and all the things the enslaved people had to go through to build the Capitol,” junior Amanda Vincent said. “As it stands now, this exhibit being here is top rate for me.”

“I like that it’s at our school because our school, in the district, is kind of known as the most diverse,” junior Kylee McWilliams added.

The exhibit got high marks from those who saw it Wednesday and several involved expressed excitement for the project’s value to students and the public.

“I’m just sorry we don’t have it in a place that will be open more hours,” school board member Christy Cathcart said. “There was ... quite a lot of introspection going on (at Wednesday’s showing).

“Everyone went away with some knowledge that they didn’t have before.”

‘From Freedom’s Shadow’ public viewing times

March 3, 5-7 p.m.

March 11, 6-9 p.m.

March 19, 6-9 p.m.

The exhibit is located in the Olympic High School library.

The exhibit also can be previewed online at uschsonline-exhibits.uschs.org/freedom (no “www.”).

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