They say that you can’t know where you are going unless you know where you’ve been. History helps shape who we are. It’s often hard to take a look at the Black experience in the United States and not think of things like slavery, discrimination and the civil rights struggle.

A new exhibition at the Library Company of Philadelphia wants people to realize that Black history is more than those dark times.

Philadelphia is known as the birthplace of freedom but did you know that also holds true for post-Civil War Blacks. Philadelphia had the North’s largest free Black population in antebellum America.

“From Negro Pasts to Afro-Futures: Black Creative Re-Imaginings” tells the story of free African Americans in the 19th and early 20th centuries. It also commemorates the 1969 Library Company exhibition called “Negro History,” which focused on the great men of African-American history — both Black and white.

The exhibit, which runs from May 24 through mid-October, shapes the narrative through the artifacts, rituals, writings and the prayers they left behind. You’ll be able to see artifacts related to the arts, religion, politics, ephemera and race.

The exhibit’s curator Deirdre Cooper Owens says she wanted to make the people represented in “From Negro Pasts to Afro-Futures: Black Creative Re-Imaginings” were shown as full people and not just characters in the story that is African-American history.

“There is a way that slavery has been taught that has flattened historical actors, you never see them change over time. This upcoming Philadelphia Library Company exhibition will allow us to fill in the gaps. They had desires and wants. These were real people,” she said.

Cooper Owens brought together an amazing collection to breath new life into our history. The collection includes items that are very rare and not often seen by the general public.

The Amy Matilda Cassey friendship album is one of only five such items known to exist in the world. Cassey was a middle-class African-American female active in the anti-slavery movement. Her collection of poems, watercolors, essays and more allowed her and her girlfriends to think about relationships and heed communal advice.

The overall theme of this exhibit is “connection,” connecting with our heroes and connecting with our past in new ways. Cooper Owens said it best, “These people, our heroes, were just people and they dealt with struggles just like us.”

For more information on this exhibit and other programs at the Library Company of Philadelphia, go to www.librarycompany.org/.

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