published Thursday, August 1st, 2013

"Free at Last" exhibit at Bessie Smith Center — Now until Oct. 1

Among the items in the exhibit is this photo of Pikeville Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, which was once a school for ex-slaves.
Among the items in the exhibit is this photo of Pikeville Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, which was once a school for ex-slaves.
Photo by Contributed Photo /Chattanooga Times Free Press.


• What: “Free at Last” exhibition

• When: Aug. 1-Oct. 1 (10 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Friday, noon-4 p.m. Saturday)

• Where: Bessie Smith Cultural Center, 200 E. M.L. King Blvd.

• Admission: Free with museum admission ($7 adults, $5 seniors/students, $3 children ages 6-12)

• Phone: 423-266-8658

• Website:

Area residents can get a glimpse at how slaves helped secure their freedom during the Civil War at a new exhibit at the Bessie Smith Cultural Center.

"Free at Last," a four-panel exhibition that features photographs, maps, prints, documents and text, may be viewed through Tuesday, Oct. 1.

"Many of the slaves created their own freedom by leaving their homes and going to Union lines," says Antoinette van Zelm, historian for the Tennessee Civil War National Heritage Area.

Essentially, the slaves became contraband of war since the rules of war allowed for the seizure of property, which is what slaves were considered before the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863, she says.

Two panels in the exhibit focus on how the Union army served as a catalyst for emancipation during the Mississippi Valley campaign in West Tennessee. Two other panels give an overview of emancipation and Reconstruction in Tennessee.

Among the pieces in the exhibit that highlight the tentative freedom are a print, "Washing in Camp," that shows black laundresses at a Union Army camp, and a photographic image of a contraband camp near Fort Pickering near Memphis.

The exhibit, according to van Zelm, also describes how former slaves founded scores of schools and churches in the aftermath of the war.

Pieces that deal with that include a photo of Jubilee Hall at Fisk University, so named because of the freeing of the slaves; a photo of Pikeville Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, a still-existing congregation that once was a school for ex-slaves; and a photo of Promise Land, a community in Dickson County founded after the war by former slaves.

While the overview of emancipation and Reconstruction has elements of East, West and Middle Tennessee, van Zelm says, the military campaign represented in the exhibit is only that of the Mississippi Valley campaign in West Tennessee and does not include information of the battles of Chattanooga.

The exhibition debuted in February 2007 and has traveled to nearly 20 museums and historic sites across the state.

Although it has been at a Civil War Preservation Trust summer teaching institute in Chattanooga, it has never been on public display locally.

Contact staff writer Clint Cooper at or 423-757-6497. Subscribe to his posts online at

about Clint Cooper...

Clint Cooper is the faith editor and a staff writer for the Times Free Press Life section. He also has been an assistant sports editor and Metro staff writer for the newspaper. Prior to the merger between the Chattanooga Free Press and Chattanooga Times in 1999, he was sports news editor for the Chattanooga Free Press, where he was in charge of the day-to-day content of the section and the section’s design. Before becoming sports ...

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