No people submit to slavery or to second-class citizenship without coercion. American tools of oppression are well-represented among the artifacts — shackles and collars, lynchings and laws that enforce one group’s dominion over others.
Slavery and the spread of Europeans into what they called the New World went hand in hand. The peoples who lived in the Americas were forced to cede their lands, and many were killed by germs, swords and guns. Land opened to occupation required labor to be economically productive. People were taken by force from Africa to provide that labor and over time the practice expanded, driven by the profits free labor produced.
Methods to justify and enforce the system grew. How does an enslaver make sure men and women won’t run away or revolt or simply refuse to work? How do you control a father or mother while their child is exploited and abused?
People who see Coopersmith’s collection are particularly moved by the sight of two sets of shackles. One pair is sized for an adult, the other for a small child.
Enslaved people might be forced to wear a metal collar for weeks to show what could happen to anyone who resisted their oppressors. Spikes sticking out from the collar made it difficult to flee, and part of the torture was that it was impossible to lie down.
Slavery was also enforced through emotional blackmail, such as threats to sell family members to a distant plantation. The collection includes plaintive letters written or dictated at the end of slavery by people seeking relatives who had been sold to far-away slaveholders.
The end of legal slavery did not end the repression and subjugation of black Americans.
The collection includes postcards featuring photos of lynchings — sometimes a body surrounded by a large crowd of white people enjoying a picnic.
Lynching wasn’t just about the person who was killed, it was terrorism meant to send a message about who was in control and how far they would go to keep control. That’s why bodies were often mutilated and displayed.
The past haunts our present. Black people, even children, are still disproportionately punished by schools and the criminal-justice system. In our time, cellphones capture black bodies lying on the ground.