This week, the Illinois Holocaust Museum in north suburban Skokie opened a special exhibit that sheds light into the horrors of selling, buying, and trading human beings and the financial profit of domestic enslavement between 1808 and 1865.
The exhibit “Purchased Lives” focuses on the period of time after the international slave trade was abolished. Nearly two million people were displaced during this time, sold and traded like property within the United States.
This exhibit is a painful visit to a chapter in our country’s history not everyone wants to acknowledge.
“One of the most important aspects of this exhibition, it gives people understanding of how fundamental slavery and the enslavement of people was to the American economy,” said exhibit curator Erin Greenwald.
The exhibit showcases original artifacts, including fliers for slave auctions and first-person slave narratives. There were original slave manifests … similar to a cargo list that included the names, ages, and descriptions of slaves, including children as young as 2 years old. There is also a collection of “Lost Friends” ads placed after the Civil War by newly freed African-Americans who were trying to find their families in Illinois.
This part of American history is hard to revisit, and many Americans tend to look away while they celebrate and highlight other parts of this country’s history, said Morgan Elise Johnson, co-founder of Triibe, a digital publication seeking to reshape the narrative of black Chicago.
“We have to own all parts of American history not just the parts we’re proud of,” Johnson said. “And we need to talk about these crimes against humanity … these horrific crimes, and I want people to view this exhibition and try to put themselves in a black person’s shoes.”
“What would it be like if you did not literally know the traditions of your people? If you were stripped away from mother, your father, never to see them again,” Johnson added. “What would that do to your people if this happened for generations to generations?”
Admission for the Holocaust Museum, including this exhibit, will be free on Saturdays during Black History Month.
María Ines Zamudio is a reporter for WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. Follow her @mizamudio.