Inspired by recent film ’12 Years a Slave’

March 3, 2014 - Helen Hayden

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Hearty congratulations to Steve McQueen and John Ridley on the success of their recent film 12 Years a Slave. The film was awarded the Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture – Drama, and in February BAFTA recognised the film with its Best Film award and lead actor Chiwetel Ejiofor won Best Actor. Even more recently the Oscars awarded Lupita Nyong’o for Best Supporting Actress, John Ridley for Best Adapted Screenplay and the film won the hugely sought after Best Picture Oscar.

Inspired by the film, here are twelve points in the Museum which relate to African-American history; take a good look during your next visit and remember how far we’ve come in the last 150 years…

Textiles were a status symbol and were preserved and recycled as much as possible.  Many enslaved Africans who were brought to North America were skilled craftspeople and brought these talents with them.  Needlework was one of these skills and throughout the 19th century many quilts were made on plantations by groups of enslaved women who had inherited the craft from female their mothers and grandmothers.  Our Chalice Quilt (above) was made by enslaved people on the Mimosa Hall Plantation in Marshall Texas c.1860, for the use of the Anglican Bishop of New Orleans. Each year, the Bishop would tour the region’s cotton plantations to perform baptisms and marriages. After the Bishop’s departure, the quilts made for his visits were given to the enslaved people on the plantation.


The Episcopal priest, Francis X. Walter, came across the rural African-American community of Gee’s Bend, Alabama, while working on his document about Civil Rights abuses in the 1960s. Recognising an opportunity to help this isolated community receive income and modern necessities, he established the Freedom Quilting Bee with the women he saw producing quilts. The quilts were sold in New York City, and enabled Gee’s Bend to purchase washing machines, indoor plumbing, and the tuition payment needed to send the great-grandaughter of a slave to college.


Our American Heritage Exhibition interprets the tale of Slavery and the Civil War. With hand-cuffs and leg-irons on display to remind visitors of the shackles which once bound man, and served as a physical reminder of the freedom denied to the enslaved.

The word boards familiarise visitors with the Underground Railroad and one of its most active conductors – Harriet Tubman. Born into slavery herself, Tubman escaped and undertook at least nineteen railroad missions to rescue 300 enslaved people, including her own parents. Tubman was ruthless – drawing  a gun on the very people she was helping if they were exhausted or had second thoughts, saying “Live north, or die here.” Tubman played an active role in the abolitionist movement, and served a a nurse and Union spy during the Civil War.

Black doll

Since European porcelain dolls were luxury items available only to the very wealthy, many Americans (including slaves) chose to make their own dolls. Often these figures were crafted from discarded clothes, so they were called ‘rag dolls’. The American Museum’s collection includes black ‘mammy’ dolls dressed in bandanas, aprons, and earrings. These figures celebrate the diversity of traditions that helped shape African-American identity. 1967.80-DanB42

Nancy Burns worked for the Van Cortlandt family until the end of her life. Nancy was born into slavery and we still don’t know how she became free, but she entered into work for the Van Cortlandts as a free woman and became an important part of their household. It would appear that she was highly valued and loved, so much so that they had a portrait painted of her.


In London in 1876, W. Charles May made this painted cast metal bust of ‘Uncle Tom’ who was in real life the Reverend Josiah Henson. On the base of the statue is a small plaque depicting a scene from Uncle Tom’s Cabin with Tom and Eva, the young daughter of his master. The novel is concerned with what makes a good Christian. Both Tom and Eva are cast in sacrificial roles within the story, with Eva having a vision of heaven as she dies from illness and Tom forfeiting his life so that others might live free. Although the novel was embraced by American abolitionists campaigning for an end to slavery it has also been criticised for popularising a number of stereotypes of African Americans.


This portrait was painted in Baltimore by Joshua Johnson, who was born enslaved but was granted his freedom at the age of 19.  Freedom could be granted by an owner and sometimes purchased by an enslaved person themselves if they had found a way to earn and save money.  There is a lot we still do not know about Johnson’s life and how he came to be a skilled portrait painter – the very fact that, as an ex-slave, he appears to have been invited into the homes of wealthy slave-owning families to paint their portraits is very unique. Interestingly, by comparing the facial features of the subject of this portrait with another, confirmed likeness, it is now accepted that he is Daniel Coker (1780 – 1846), a prominent cleric of Baltimore who helped found the African Methodist Episcopal Church and publicly contrasted the ideals of the Declaration of Independence with the continuance of slavery in the US.


The Museum’s New Orleans room represents a plantation bedroom in 1860, on the eve of the civil war.  Lousiana was among the southern states that did not want to see the end of slavery.  Their economy and all of the cotton and sugar produced on their plantations was heavily dependent on slave labour.  Most slave owning families had house slaves who worked within the home carrying out domestic duties and acting as maids to the women.  This room demonstrates the extreme wealth that was being made by the plantations and is the kind of room where an enslaved female might have tended to the daughter or wife of her owner.

George Washington’s Mount Vernon Garden

In the grounds we have a formal garden based on that of Mount Vernon, Virginia, home to the first President of the United States, George Washington. Washington struggled with slavery, had been a slave owner for fifty-six years, beginning at eleven years of age when he inherited ten enslaved people from his deceased father. Washington’s thoughts on slavery were contradictory and changed over time culminating with a directive in his will that his slaves would be freed upon his wife’s death.

There is also a Lewis and Clark Trail within our arboretum, focusing on plants and trees ‘discovered’ on the expedition West in 1803-05. The explorers were accompanied by William Clark’s man-servant, York. York was a large, strong man who shared the duties and risks of the expedition, and was the only enslaved African American among the Corps of Discovery. Assignments given him attest to his skill in scouting, hunting and field medicine. He used a firearm to hunt game such as bison, as well as for “protection”. The native nations treated York with respect, and he “played a key role in diplomatic relations” because of his appearance. After the expedition returned to the United States, every other member but York received money and land for their services. York asked Clark for his freedom based upon his good services during the expedition, which he got… eventually.

Sitting proudly on our South Lawn, looking up at Claverton Manor, is a bust of Abraham Lincoln. The sixteenth President of the United States brought to fruition the Emancipation Proclamation in January 1865 at the start of his second term in office and only four months before an actor from the South, John Wilkes Booth, pulled the trigger and assassinated Lincoln in Fords Theater, Washington DC. The man who freed the slaves truly believed the words written in the Declaration of Independence and quoted them in his Gettysburg Address; “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” Lincoln head

2 Replies to “Inspired by recent film ’12 Years a Slave’”

  1. I wondered if you had any of the other quilt patterns used in the film? thank you

    1. Kate Hebert says:

      We have over 250 quilts in our collection. We are in the process of uploading information about them to our website. We will launch our online collections this spring and will add more quilt records throughout the year. Keep checking back to see what we have. You could also take a look at our publication ‘Classic Quilts from the American Museum’, which features 50 of our star quilts.

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