By: Jada Monet
HS 129, Summer 1, 2009
Last Saturday (May 30, 2009), I went to the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of African American History and Culture. I was really skeptical about going, because I really wanted to go to the National Great Blacks in Wax Museum, located in Baltimore, Maryland. I’ve never been to either, but I’ve heard positive comments about the National Great Blacks in Wax Museum. In fact, when I asked my friends and family if they knew of an African American Museum that relates to African American history before 1865, almost all of them said, with authority, “The National Great Blacks in Wax Museum, in Baltimore, Maryland.” So when my aunt picked me up and headed towards Baltimore, I was surprised that she did not arrive at The National Great Blacks in Wax Museum. Apparently, there was a misunderstanding as to which museum I wanted to go when I asked if she could take me to the African American museum in Baltimore. It never dawned on me that there were other African American Museums in Baltimore.
Regardless, I had to settle for the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of African American History and Culture, which I’ve never heard of. To make matters even worst, upon entering, I was unhappy to hear that cameras were prohibited. I immediately panicked because I was unsure of how I would go about completing my project. As a result, I had to find images on the web that coincided with those at the museum.
While touring the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of African American History and Culture, I stumbled upon a section located on the third floor that depicted life of the African American slaves during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The dimly lit room was comprised of several items associated with the daily work and conditions of African American slaves. Amongst all, the caulking tools and wrist shackles were most appealing; I was familiar with both but had never seen either. Amazed, I hurried over to examine them.
Much different than present day caulking tools, the caulking tools used by the slaves in the early seventeenth century had simplistic designs, were made of heavy iron, and required more strength to handle. The caulking tools contained a circle similar to the head of a nail, but much bigger. The caulking tools narrowed and flattened as it reached the bottom. Modern caulking tools are usually associated with bathtub fixes. However, in the early seventeenth century, caulking was a skilled trade, used to maintain a ship’s structure. The museum had an interactive display of caulking tools, which allowed visitors to manipulate the tools and experience the hard work and strength required for caulking. As I banged the caulking tools against the wooden surface, I imagined that I was a slave working on a ship on a hot and sunny day like Frederick Douglass. I couldn’t fathom how one could work tirelessly, around excessive loud noise, with minimal breaks completing such a task. The idea alone left me perturbed.
I then proceeded to walk towards the wrist shackles. I realized that I would not have the opportunity to have the hands-on experience of handling the museum’s only set because they were confined to a clear boxlike display. Nevertheless, I observed the shackles from several angles, noticing its thickness, structure, and overall condition. (See attached image of shackles). From its appearance, it was obvious that the shackles were tightly fitted and could cause skin irritation to those who wore them. I’ve always known that it wasn’t uncommon for African American slaves to be bound, but to see the actual shackles made my encounter all the more surreal. I realized then that my doubts of going to the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of African American History and Culture instead of another African American museum were ludicrous.
Wrist shackles were essential for slave owners to maintain control over African American slaves. Shackles symbolized the lack of authority African Americans had in their own lives and the oppression they endured as slaves. Without shackles, slaves could attempt to escape their owners or possibly form rebellions. The shackles were especially beneficial during the Atlantic Slave Trade, which began around the sixteenth century, in which slaves were captured and traded throughout several countries. On the slavers, which carried the slaves from one location to the next, slaves were separated in groups and bound together by shackles. The ships were “tightly packed” with many men being chained by shackles, leaving little room to move. The attached image shows how tight the shackles would fit. On land, shackles kept the slaves in order as they worked as human manufacturers or as potential buyers inspected them. The use of wrist shackles exemplifies the plight of African American slaves and demonstrates how freedom for African American slaves was far-flung.
Caulking tools provided African American slaves with jobs while on the slavers. The ships required daily maintenance to uphold its structure. Therefore, caulking was a necessity. The task, itself, was difficult, requiring patience, steadiness, and a substantial amount of force. The fact that white Americans, slave owners, or overall authoritative figures would have slaves work on slavers in such a skilled trade as caulking reveals the inevitable need of slaves in multiple areas. However, those involved in caulking were considered skilled and consequently, had the opportunity to somewhat gain independence. These slaves often “hired their time” and was even able to leave to get their own tools.
The use of shackles to keep the slaves confined is of relevance today and will continue to be in the future. For example, currently, instead of shackles handcuffs are used in jails and prisons around the world. They, however, are not limited to only African Americans. Since shackles were used in the earlier centuries and handcuffs are used in the present, it is evident that history really does repeat itself. Those incarcerated are limited in what they can do; their food, clothing, and schedule are chosen for them. Most interestingly, like in the past, those individuals of the poor classes are most commonly incarcerated. Thus, it is important that current and future generations become familiar with artifacts that are exhibited in the museums or of locations of great significance.
It is amazing how items from the past can be linked to the future. If current and future generations take note of what is occurring during their time, they could almost always find a connection with the past. I will never know, firsthand, the ill-treatment African American slaves experienced. Yet since these items provided me with a glimpse of the lives of slaves, I am certain that I have a better comprehension of their struggles.
Hine, Darlene Clark, William C. Hine, and Stanley Harrold. The African-American Odyssey Volume One: To 1877. 3rd. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2006. Print.
Jean Boudriot Hitchcok, “Hitchcock” 06 June 2009 http://hitchcock.itc.virginia.edu/SlaveTrade%20/collection/medium/H001.JPG
“Live Auctioneers” 06 June 2009
“Maryland Historical Society” 07 June 2009
Williams, Walter E. “Are Americans Pro-Slavery.” “A Minority’s View.” 11 June 2008. 18 June 2009 http://www.gmu.edu/departments/economics/wew/articles/08/AreAmericansPro-Slavery.htm
 See last citation regarding Frederick Douglass.