By GAIL FINEBERG
The Martin Luther King Library in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 16 opened the exhibit about slave life on southern plantations that LC dismantled on Dec. 18, only hours after the exhibit was put up in the center core of the Madison Building's sixth floor.
Associate Librarian for Library Services Winston Tabb said on Tuesday, Jan. 2, that the small traveling exhibit will return to the road unchanged except for its title, which several Library employees found offensive. The subtitle of the exhibit will become the main title, "The Cultural Landscape of the Plantation."
Tabb ordered the exhibit taken down at 5 p.m. Monday, Dec. 18, shortly after he discovered its surprise appearance on the sixth floor, but not because anyone requested its removal. Although the exhibit was scheduled for the Library from Dec. 16 through Jan. 28, according to a July 14 article in the Gazette and other early announcements, there had been no recent publicity. The staff was not prepared for the opening of the exhibit, nor were related activities planned, such as the symposium that accompanied LC's showing of Birth of a Nation.
Some 40 Library employees complained the afternoon of Dec. 18, when the exhibit appeared. Some said the main title, "Back of the Big House," was provocative, particularly in light of troubled race history at the Library, which some black employees called "the big house" in the past. Although the 1982 Cook race discrimination class action lawsuit against the Library was settled last fall for $8.5 million in back pay, 40 promotions, 10 reassignments, and a revamped personnel system, the case still awaits federal appellate court action on five plaintiffs' appeals.
Materials for the exhibit are drawn largely from two collections at the Library. Some 80 photographs and illustrations come from the Historic American Buildings Survey collection housed in the Library's Prints and Photographs Division, and captions are based on 1930s interviews of former slaves by the Federal Writers Project. The exhibit's curator is George Washington University Professor John Michael Vlach, who based a book, "Back of the Big House," on the interviews and photographs from LC's collections.
Staff critics objected that the exhibit lacked historical context and critical examination of slavery. However, according to published accounts, Vlach said the thrust of the exhibit was to show that slaves rose above their condition to create a culture of their own. An exhibit brochure, which explains the context for the display and its purpose, was not available to employees at the time the exhibit was set up.
Elena Tscherny, coordinator of exhibits and programs at the Martin Luther King Library, said she welcomes the exhibit.
"We are delighted to have this exhibit coming here," Tscherny said. "This is an appropriate place to have a forum for the exchange of ideas. We collect these materials. Nothing for us is controversial."
The exhibit also is scheduled to appear at the Historical Society of Talbot County in Easton, Md., Feb. 17 through March 31; at the Sam Houston Memorial Museum in Huntsville, Texas, April 20 through June 2; at the Frederick Douglass Library at the University of Maryland, Eastern Shore, in Princess Anne, Md., Oct. 26 through Dec. 8; and at the Virginia Historial Society in Richmond from Feb. 23 through April 9.