September 1 - December 19, 2011
Human Rights Institute Gallery

Above: Sighting Through a Transit, Photographer unknown. (Civilian Conservation Corps enrollee, Beltsville, MD, May, 1940)

Many Americans associate African American freedom with well known historical events: the Emancipation Proclamation; the post-Civil War constitutional amendments ending slavery and establishing definitions of citizenship; the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision ordering school desegregation; and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and ’60s.

Taking a fresh look, this exhibition shows that many African Americans claimed significant new freedoms during the Great Depression of the 1930s. The New Deal programs that President Franklin Roosevelt designed in response to the economic ravages of the Depression did not challenge segregated schools, hospitals, or other forms of institutionalized racism. Nevertheless, the New Deal-era photographs in Claiming Citizenship illustrate a number of ways that African Americans took opportunities opened up by government programs in the 1930s to claim their status as dignified persons and citizens, in some respects laying foundations for the Civil Rights Movement. 

The people in these photographs might well have been the parents of civil rights activists of the 1960s. Many African American beneficiaries of New Deal programs surely passed on to their children and grandchildren their determination to possess full citizenship rights.

Rickie Solinger
Exhibition Organizer