Artifacts of injustice

An American history collection

This is American history, the hard-to-digest parts that put a nation dedicated to liberty in conflict with itself from the very beginning.

Slavery was at the center of America’s birth, fueled its economic growth and cost hundreds of thousands of lives in a war that threatened the country’s survival. The cultural, social and financial impacts of that institution ripple through to the present.

On this page you will explore artifacts — some ugly, some inspiring — that take you into that history.

"History matters because it shows our values," says Jeffrey Coopersmith, a Seattle attorney who has collected historical artifacts for the past four decades. His collection tells stories of oppression, resistance and optimism.

Seattle attorney Jeffrey Coopersmith has, over four decades, collected thousands of these historical items that connect our past to our present.

Here you can look through a sample of his rarely seen collection, arranged in three categories: oppression, resistance and optimism.

We hope you spend time thinking about what the items meant to the people they belonged to and what they mean for us.


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.


From the beginning people resisted bondage. Africans fought being taken from their families. People who had been taken fought their captors on slave ships and many chose to end their lives in the deep Atlantic rather than remain in chains.

Some mothers sent their children to the afterlife rather than have them become property.

Throughout the history of slavery, men and women turned on their enslavers, or they fled trying to find a place where they could be free. Some tried to sabotage the system. Once free, people saved money to buy their relatives out of slavery or risked their lives to bring others north. They told their stories to move northern whites to fight for an end to slavery.

“The first line of resistance was escape,” Coopersmith said. He displayed a broadside or poster offering a reward for the capture and return of Eliza, who was 18-20 years old and had been living in the Washington, D.C., area.

The collection includes a letter from a man who escaped to Canada and wrote to his former master in 1829 saying that he fled because he heard he was about to be sold. His wife had already been rented out to another master and the writer is anguished and hoping to see his wife again.

Among the artifacts is “Riots at Alton,” a book that tells of a white publisher who opposed slavery and whose presses were destroyed by proslavery mobs three times. The publisher kept starting over, but the fourth time the mob came for his press, and when he confronted them, they shot him dead. The book in the collection belonged to a former slave.

People not only fled slavery, they also fled the Jim Crow South in the millions during the Great Migration. But authorities used laws and violence to keep their cheap labor force in place. Still, 6 million people moved north and west between 1916 and 1970.

Famous people are represented throughout the collection. “These are Martin Luther King’s handwritten notes as he prepares to break the news to the board at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery that he’s leaving and that he’s going to go to Atlanta,” Coopersmith said.

“And he’s writing in a way that we don’t think of Martin Luther King. He’s expressing the frustrations of having to do so much, the frustration of having been thrust into the spotlight — not by his own choosing, and the fast pace of events. His feeling that he’s inadequate in his work and the strain of being famous. The toll that this has taken on him physically, psychologically, professionally.”

Yet he persisted, as did countless others.


Coopersmith said the message in the artifacts is ultimately one of triumph.

“I hope people see the resilience,” he said. “How even in the face of incredibly daunting odds that people persevere, that they make progress.

“I mean you see that portrait of Phillis Wheatley who was, you know, stolen from her country and her family as a 7- or an 8-year-old and brought over here in bondage. And then she becomes a world-famous poet.” And, he said, there were so many people like her.

“If you look at the collection as a whole, you can see that,” Coopersmith said. “People refuse to break.”

In the collection you see the stories of people who escaped and labored years to buy freedom for loved ones. You see people who fought to end slavery, then to gain the vote, to end segregation, to put an end to lynching, to create opportunities for education, and for the right to be treated with basic human dignity. You see the stories of black and white people, men and women, who put their lives on the line for justice.

On and on through the generations they worked to bring America closer to its professed ideals to the benefit of everyone in the country, and that struggle continues.

We still have a long way to go toward achieving greater equality and justice, Coopersmith said. “There’s no guarantee that we constantly move forward. All of what has been gained has been gained as a result of individuals and families and communities acting together to move forward. So, it’s a precarious thing that we have.”

Each generation faces challenges and has opportunities to play a part in the country’s evolution.

The collection offers lots of role models for taking positive action, no matter how bleak the times seem.