A letter from President Lincoln guaranteeing Frederick Douglass' safety, Malcolm X's Quran and diary, and Muhammad Ali's robe from the "Rumble in the Jungle" are among the artifacts in a new touring black history exhibition.
"America I AM: The African American Imprint" will open at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia on Jan. 15, Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday. Presented by TV personality Tavis Smiley, the show includes more than 200 items from every period of U.S. history. It will travel to nine more cities over the next four years.
Other artifacts on display include the key to King's jail cell and the stool on which he sat in Birmingham, Ala., where he composed his famous "Letter From the Birmingham Jail"; the "Doors of No Return," through which Africans trod before boarding slave ships in what is now Ghana; the desk that literary pioneer Phillis Wheatley used to write "Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral," which was published in 1773; and Mary McLeod Bethune's walking cane, which once belonged to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and was given to Bethune by former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt.
Many of the individual artifacts have been previously seen in various museums, libraries or personal collections, but "America I AM" is a rare opportunity to see many important objects in one place, said John Fleming, executive producer of the exhibition and director emeritus at the Cincinnati Museum Center.
Fleming said he hopes visitors will gain a new understanding of what it means to be an American.
"To be an American is not just to have roots in England or Europe," he said. "The roots also go back to Africa, and are as deep as those that come out of Europe. Those things that came out of Africa, combined with a culture from Europe, created this new nation. (We hope) people will have a greater appreciation of who we are and how we became what we are today."
The exhibition also includes an interactive component that encourages visitors to leave video messages. Organizers hope this will grow into the largest recorded oral history project in U.S. history.
Tickets go on sale Thursday at http://www.AmericaIAm.org.