The United States of America was born with the declaration that “all men are created equal.” Yet this statement would not ring true for people of African descent who were brought here as enslaved laborers during the colonial period. Though freedom and liberty were its ideals, the young nation continued to depend heavily upon slave labor to fuel its economy. When delegates met at the Constitutional Convention in 1787, the document that was created actually protected the institution of slavery.

As America expanded in the nineteenth century, sectional differences between the North and South grew, and by 1860 the nation was plunged into civil war. The principal cause of the conflict was slavery. President Abraham Lincoln did not want the bloodshed to be in vain, so in 1862 he first proposed the idea of emancipation. The policy took effect on January 1, 1863, when Lincoln signed his formal Emancipation Proclamation ordering freedom for all those in bondage in the rebellious South.

After the Civil War, the 13th Amendment to the Constitution officially ended slavery everywhere in America, but legal equality would be elusive for the newly freed slaves and their descendants for another 100 years.

The documents included in this exhibition—the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation written by President Abraham Lincoln and issued on September 22, 1862, and the Centennial Address written by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. 100 years later— stand as important examples of the path to freedom for African Americans and the nation.