Babz Rawls-Ivy, who came from New Haven for the opening of the Fairfield Museum and History Center's "Promise of Freedom" exhibit Saturday night, was deeply moved by the photographs and documents that trace America's struggle to live up to its Constitution.
"It's overwhelming," Rawls-Ivy said of the exhibit, which includes rare copies of the Emancipation Proclamation, 13th Amendment, Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution, along with historical artifacts, newspapers and photos. "It is the real history, right up in your face."
"I'm African-American. I'm deeply rooted in the history of the country, the future of the country and the richness of the country," she said. "These are real artifacts, and it's moving, and it takes your breath away."
Akintunde Sogunro, one of about a dozen African-Americans who read the Emancipation Proclamation at the event, said he "felt empowered by the voices of history; of what this state and this country stand for, what it stood for and what it will stand for."
The exhibit celebrates the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, President Lincoln's declaration that freed slaves in Confederate states during the Civil War, and includes artifacts, documents and photographs from the time of slavery through the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s, along with a video of Dr. Martin Luther King's famous "I Have a Dream" speech in 1963.
Many of the historic documents and artifacts are on loan for the Fairfield Museum exhibit, which runs through Feb. 24. Seth Kaller, president of Seth Kaller Inc. of White Plains, N.Y., arranged for historical documents to be loaned to the museum. He said the Emancipation Proclamation displayed Saturday night is one of only 26 copies signed by Lincoln known to exist today. He said the 13th Amendment on display dates to February 1865 and is one of only five copies known to exist today that are signed by Lincoln, his vice president and members of the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate.
The copy of the U.S. Constitution on display, Kaller said, appeared in a Connecticut newspaper in October 1787, before the U.S. Constitution was ratified, and is probably one of only 20 copies of that newspaper, and the Declaration of Independence is a facsimile from 1833, when 4,000 copies were printed in an effort to preserve the language. "The original is now so faded you can't even read it," he said of the Declaration of Independence in the National Archives in Washington, D.C. "Most of the names are gone, most of the text is gone. You couldn't tell from looking at the manuscript now what it is."
The exhibit also includes local history, including original documents about the sale of slaves in Fairfield in the 1700s and quotes from Fairfield native Benjamin Silliman and Fairfield resident Roger M. Sherman, who favored "colonization" -- sending slaves back to Africa -- instead of allowing them to stay in the Unites States as free men and women.
Artifacts from Gideon Nichols and Charles Thorp II, Fairfield residents who fought in the Civil War, are displayed and include swords, a Colt revolver, a military jacket and a pocket watch. Photographs of Capt. John Morehouse, considered Fairfield's greatest Civil War hero, also are displayed.
Craig Kelly, former president of the NAACP in Bridgeport, loaned the museum an illustrated rendering of a slave auction from 1861, a whip, slave shackles, a Ku Klux Klan robe and a copy of an abolition newspaper.
Kelly, who runs the website www.originalancestors.com, said the exhibit represents the "progression of change" experienced by African-Americans -- from slavery through the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. "This exhibit talks about the human spirit of human beings coming together collectively to make a difference and changing the ... course of history," he said. "Every child should see this. Every adult should see this."
Pamela Ringold, who came from North Plainfield, N.J., said she didn't know what the exhibit was about before she arrived. She said she came to support her son, Marcel Ringold, a senior at the University of Bridgeport and member of the university's Chamber Singers, which performed songs from the times of slavery and the Civil Rights movement.
"This was a surprise, a very nice surprise," Ringold said of the exhibit. "There's really something to be said about the history and actually witnessing what has been captured. It's a very moving and telling story."
Opening night also included songs performed by Fairfield University students known as the Bensonians.
In his remarks to the gathering, Gov. Malloy spoke of Connecticut's leadership role in urging Lincoln to run for president, supporting his re-election, and by sending troops and homefront support for the Civil War. "We come from good stock. We've done great things," he said.
Sen. Blumenthal, referencing the four national historical documents on display, said America is great because of those documents and the spirit behind them. "We are an exceptional country, unique in the history of the world," he said.
Rawls-Ivy agreed, saying the Emancipation Proclamation and 13th Amendment are "both equally compelling and equally amazing."
A Family Day for the exhibit will take place from noon to 3 p.m. Sept. 30. The Family Day is free with the price of admission to the museum. For information, check the website, www.fairfieldhistory.org