National Archives' exhibit shows struggles for equality

By Curt Yeomans


Here's a trivia question for history buffs.

Barack Obama is the first African American to serve as president of the United States, but who was the first black man to run for vice president?

A hint is to think about pre-20th Century, famous African Americans. Stumped? You can find the answer below, which brings us to the wealth of information that can be found at the National Archives.

The National Archives at Atlanta, which is located at 5780 Jonesboro Road, in Morrow, is hosting a traveling exhibit called "Documented Rights," through Feb. 23, 2010. The exhibit is a collection of photographs and documents showing the struggles that various minority groups, ranging from African Americans, to women, to Asian-Americans, to Native Americans have gone through to exercise their rights as U.S. citizens.

Items in the exhibit have been gathered from across the National Archives system, which includes the main archives in Washington D.C., and 13 regional branches, including the one in Morrow, said Mary Evelyn Tomlin, the public programs specialist for the National Archives at Atlanta.

"This is the story of the struggles of various groups of people for [their] civil rights," Tomlin said. "It consists of documents that come from all of the National Archives' regional offices ... What the [13 regional offices] hold are documents that are related to their specific part of the county.

"What we have here [in Morrow], for example, are documents that are related to slavery," Tomlin added. "We don't have a lot of documents that deal with Asian Americans, but our [Pacific region] office in [San Francisco] California has lots of them."

Among the documents are several stories, such as then-U.S. Army 2nd Lt. Jackie Robinson's refusal in 1944 to move to the back of a bus for a white enlisted man three years before he broke Major League Baseball's color line, and the acquittal of black passengers who had been charged with murdering crew members aboard the schooner Amistad in 1839.

Thursday marked the 141st anniversary of the ratification of the U.S. Constitution's 14th amendment, which declared that any person born in this country is a U.S. citizen, and the exhibit includes court records from a time when the amendment's strength was tested.

Court records from the three-year-long case of Wong Kim Ark -- a San Francisco-born man, who was the son of Chinese immigrants and went on a trip to China in 1894, but was then denied re-entry into the U.S. -- are included as part of the "Documented Rights" exhibit.

In 1896, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California ruled that Ark had been "illegally restrained of his liberty" by U.S. customs officials.

On an appeal by the federal government, the U.S. Supreme Court also ruled, in 1898, in Ark's favor, citing that he was indeed a U.S. citizen by birth under the 14th Amendment, said Lisa Royse, the National Archives' national museum programs coordinator from Washington D.C., who is traveling with the exhibit as its curator.

"They said if you are born in the United States, it doesn't matter who your parents are - you are a U.S. citizen," Royse said.

In another section of the exhibit, are the five court cases dealing with desegregation of schools that the U.S. Supreme Court bundled together - including the landmark 1954 Brown v. (Topeka, Kan.) Board of Education case, which ended with the nation's highest court ruling that students could not be segregated into separate schools based on race.

The other cases that were bundled with Brown v. Board were Briggs v. Elliot, from South Carolina; Bolling v. Sharpe, from Washington D.C.; Belton V. Gebhart, from Delaware, and Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County (Va.).

Among the details contained in these documents is the fact that Thurgood Marshall, who would, 13 years later, become the first African American appointed to a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court, represented the group of African-American parents who were the plaintiffs in the Briggs v. Elliot case.

Royse said this is the first time the national archives has presented documents from all five cases in the same location, because the cases are spread across their respective regional archives facilities. "People just think of it as one single case, but in reality, it was five separate cases," Royse said. "It shows this [school segregation] was a widespread problem. It was not confined to one specific area."

And, in case trivia buffs are still wondering, Frederick Douglass became the first black man to be nominated for the position of vice president of the United States, according to Royse, as a representative of the Equal Rights Party in 1872.