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African Americans' Maritime history
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Black Hands, Blue Seas : Seaport offers glimpse of African Americans'
By ERICA GRADECKI
Mystic - Matthew Henson and Lewis Temple: not exactly household names, but perhaps they should be.
Matthew Henson was one of the first adventurers to reach the North Pole with famed explorer Robert E. Peary in the early 1900s. Lewis Temple was instrumental in the innovation of the toggle-headed harpoon, a big advance for the whaling industry in the 1840s.
And what do these two men have in common? They were both African American.
On Oct. 29, the exhibit "Black Hands, Blue Seas: The Maritime Heritage of "African Americans" opened at Mystic Seaport. The exhibit zeroes in on maritime heroes who happened to be African American.
"This is the third new exhibit this year, part of an overall goal of the museum to continue giving the area something new and different," said Michael O'Farrell, publicist for Mystic Seaport.
Besides Matthew Henson and Lewis Temple, the exhibit honors the
Frederick Douglass is also among the honored, having spoken right here in Mystic at the Central Hall Block in 1868.
"Let the black man have a fair chance...If he wants to work in your ship yards, let him work. If he wants to go to Congress, let him go to Congress.
Other parts of the gallery are divided into sections marked "Waters of
The sections include actual artifacts, artwork and documentation depicting the African American maritime experience. Examples of artifacts include one of Matthew Henson's 19 dogsleds that he built himself, on loan from the Berkshire Museum of Pittsfield, Mass., and the foul-weather jacket of William Pinkney, who was the first African American to sail alone around the world in 1992, and the first to sail the Amistad after it was built at the Seaport in 2000.
What makes the exhibit unique is the audio and video interactions that focus on different elements of African American maritime history, past and present. With the press of a button, a short video in four different areas addresses subjects such as African Americans serving in the military, the history of the Amistad and whaling.
One of the most intricate pieces of artwork in the gallery is a wall quilt created in 1991 by textile artist Carolyn Mazloomi, on loan from the National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center. Entitled "The Water Brought Us Here... The Water Will Take Us Back...," the work refers to a legend that had a group of West African Ibo captives linking arms and walked into the ocean rather than face slavery, declaring "The water brought us and water's gonna take us away."
According to Herma Kluck, staff member of Mystic Seaport, small figurines of skeletons lying on red patches of cloth represent those who died while on the Middle Passage.
"The fabrics of the different colors come from Africa," Kluck said. "The (three) shields there represent warriors who lost their manhood when they were taken away (from their homes) and the triangles are symbols of the different villages."
The exhibit was made possible by a grant from the Connecticut Humanities Council with additional funding from the Edgard and Geraldine Feder Foundation and the Community Foundation of Southeastern Connecticut.
Elysa Engelman, researcher and developer for "Black Hands, Blue Seas," has worked on the exhibit for the past two years and noted that the Seaport has been interested in researching African Americans and their maritime experiences.
"So much research has been done by staff and scholars that have visited," Engelman said. "I feel that the exhibit will cause people to become very moved by it...it's like the underwater railroad."
"Black Hands, Blue Seas: The Maritime Heritage of African Americans" will be on display until September 2006. For more information, contact Mystic Seaport at (888) 973-2767 or visit www.mysticseaport.org.