Originally created 02/17/99

Smithsonian takes a new look at the promise of America



WASHINGTON -- From the Northeast's industrial revolution to the long struggle back from slavery and the social challenges facing immigrants, a new Smithsonian Institution exhibit chronicles the promise of America.

"As we approach a new millennium, it's important to look back at where we have been," said Mayor Joseph P. Ganim of Bridgeport, Conn., whose city was selected for a profile of the promise of industrialization.

"Communities in a Changing Nation," a permanent exhibit at the Museum of American History, uses Charleston, S.C., and its nearby Lowcountry rice plantations to illustrate life during and after slavery.

"Though the promise is still evolving, this exhibit gives us the opportunity to reflect on the abundant accomplishments of African Americans. And it inspires each of us to keep their hopes and dreams alive," said Vanessa Turner-Maybank, clerk of the Charleston City Council.

The third section of the exhibit looks at the promise of a new life in Cincinnati, focus of a flood of Jewish immigrants from central Europe a century ago.

In the 19th century Cincinnati was a boomtown, a center for immigration, said Mayor Roxanne Qualls. "As a result of the industriousness of the Jewish community at that time, Cincinnati developed many of its best-known industries," she said.

The goal of the new exhibit is to explain the promise of America through specific communities. "We hope it will help many people to remember and rediscover the challenges and opportunities of 19th century America," curator Lonnie G. Bunch III said.

Bridgeport provided a strong example of early industrial development, Museum Director Spencer R. Crew said.

He said the other communities were picked to illustrate less well-known regions -- the rice plantations and free blacks of Charleston rather than the more studied cotton plantations; the Jewish immigrants to Cincinnati instead of the better-known floods of Irish and Germans elsewhere.

After passing an introductory area, viewers begin in Bridgeport with "Owners, Mechanics and Operatives: The Promise of Industrialization."

The Wheeler and Wilson factory is the focus -- inside and outside. On view are an early sewing machine made at the factory, a milling machine and the factory gates.

A tool chest and union badge illustrate the struggles of the working class while the owners formed a new American aristocracy, illustrated by a social register and even an imitation medieval suit of armor, purchased to decorate the library of a grand home.

Turning a corner, visitors enter "Jewish Immigrants: The Promise of a New Life," viewing such artifacts as a peddler's cart, a goldsmith's doll and historic wedding and engagement portraits.

Minhag Amerika, Rabbi Weiss' 1857 prayer book, is on display, reflecting the desire to find compromise between radical reform and more traditional Jews.

And finally comes "African Americans in Slavery and Freedom: Promise Deferred," where shackles hang on the wall and an old slave shack is populated by mannequins of children, recorded voices discussing life on the plantation.

Also on display is city life in Charleston, where free slaves found work and traded. A register of "free negroes" is presented, along with a flag of the 84th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, the black unit that fought in the Civil War.