Coming up with a succinct and satisfactory definition of freedom wasn’t easy, according to Susan Saidenberg, but putting together a traveling exhibit on the subject by the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History was about as much fun as a museum curator can have.
“This has been our most popular traveling exhibit, and it was absolutely great fun to work on,” said Saidenberg, director of public programs and exhibitions at the institute in New York City.
“The past is something that shapes us today, and throughout our history Americans have fought and died for freedom. Understanding that legacy is what this exhibit tries to do.”
The exhibit, titled “Freedom: The History of Us,” will be on display at the Mabee Farm’s Franchere Center in Rotterdam Junction. It will be on display for four weeks beginning Tuesday, New Year’s Day. Opening festivities will be held at 2 p.m. that day, the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation.
‘Freedom: The History of Us’
WHAT: An opening reception for the traveling exhibit from the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History
WHERE: Franchere Center, Mabee Farm, 1080 Main St., Rotterdam Junction
WHEN: 2 p.m. Tuesday
HOW MUCH: $5
In conjunction with the traveling exhibit, the Schenectady County Historical Society, which owns and operates the Mabee Farm, will have its own exhibit on slavery in the Mohawk Valley.
“Freedom: The History of Us,” was created by Saidenberg and her colleagues in 2004. It consists of 60 to 70 feet of interpretive panels filled with images and words about freedom, slavery and numerous other topics related to what Thomas Jefferson called our “certain inalienable rights.”
“When we started with the idea of how do you define freedom, we wondered is it a natural right, or is it a civil right?” said Saidenberg. “Is it the right to resist oppression, to live free of bondage, and is it the right to go out and making a living? Is it the right to participate in the life of a nation and vote for elected officials? It can get pretty complex and complicated.”
Included in the exhibit are images of famous people involved in the fight for freedom, as well as copies of several key documents in that fight, such as the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution.
“We also have some of Lincoln’s hand-written notes on his speeches, and letters by people like Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony and Martin Luther King,” said Saidenberg. “It’s not just about slavery and all those issues, but it’s also about the extension of rights for women and civil rights in the 1960s.”
There are also several artifacts in the exhibit, including an abolitionist flag from the 1850s.
“One of the leaders of our organization found this flag at the bottom of a bunch of things they bought at auction a while ago,” said Saidenberg. “It was originally in one of the hideouts of John Brown and his followers, and it’s a great find. It’s a 5-by-10-foot flag with only the stars that represented the free states.”
Saidenberg’s exhibit is divided into what she refers to as “five seminal time periods in our history.” They are “The Founding Era,” “The Young Republic,” “The Nation Dividing: The Firebell in the Night,” “The Union Threatened, The Union Preserved and Emancipation” and “Epilogue: The Price of Freedom.”
The exhibit put together from the Schenectady County Historical Society collection will feature the story of enslaved black men and women in the Mohawk Valley during both Dutch and British rule.
Slavery in New York
“The Gilder Lerhman exhibit talks about freedom from the founding up through 1968, while we’re focusing on slavery here in New York state, the Mohawk Valley and more closely the Mabee Farm,” said SCHS curator Ryan Mahoney.
“We’re going to have information on what kind of jobs the slaves would have had here at the Mabee Farm. At one time, there were probably no more than five slaves at the farm, and the first slave actually wasn’t here until Jacob Mabee bought a slave in 1727.”
The Rev. Horace Sanders Jr., pastor of Mount Olivet Baptist Church of Schenectady, will be the guest speaker at 2 p.m. Tuesday, and Keshon Bailey, accompanied by a choir, will recite the Emancipation Proclamation.
The exhibit will be open Tuesdays through Saturdays, 10 a.m.-4 p.m., from Jan. 2-25.