In the center of the life-sized portrait, a woman wearing glasses stares directly into the camera. She is surrounded by men and women, some seated, others standing, all wearing their finest clothes. A staircase and doorway serve as a backdrop.

The woman’s name and those with her have been lost, but they are some of the first faculty members of Atlanta’s Morris Brown College, a private, historically black college founded in 1881 by members of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. The portrait is part of the exhibit, “Black Citizenship in the Age of Jim Crow,” which runs through June 30 at the Atlanta History Center in Buckhead.

A life-sized portrait of early Morris Brown College faculty members is part of the Atlanta History Center’s exhibit, “Black Citizenship in the Age of Jim Crow.” (Atlanta History Center)

“I feel like you are getting in the face of these people and they are changed from caricatures to real people,” said Calinda Lee, vice president of Historical Interpretation and Community Partnerships with the Atlanta History Center. “These large images are humanizing.”

The exhibit, created by the New-York Historical Society in collaboration with the National Museum of African American History and Culture, takes a closer look at the 50 years following the Civil War, after slavery was abolished and the promises of equality and full citizenship are made but repeatedly broken.

The Atlanta History Center expanded the exhibit with two final sections curated by Lee that explores the broader story of Atlanta during Reconstruction and the era of Jim Crow.

One section focuses on the social impact of the Atlanta University Center complex, the largest group of historically black colleges, that became a place not only for learning but also a place organizing and training social justice activists. The final section is a small art exhibit featuring prominent African American artists whose works were in response to their struggles.

The years between 1865 and 1877, known as Reconstruction, include the passage of the 14th and 15th amendments to the U.S. Constitution as Congress tries to heal a divided nation. African Americans are now considered citizens and gain the right to vote. But many white southerners could not accept a black person as their equal and a harsh backlash ensued.

Many cities and states passed and enforced “Jim Crow laws” that legalized discrimination. Those laws were named for a character created by a white performer who wore blackface in minstrel shows. The laws segregated schools and public facilities and forced blacks to take obscure tests before casting a ballot. At the same time, the Ku Klux Klan reestablished itself and numerous black people were lynched across the country.

But it was also a time when African Americans shined, particularly in Atlanta and Georgia, Lee said.

Tunis Campbell, Aaron Bradley and Henry McNeal Turner were elected to the Georgia Legislature in 1868, only to be expelled by the white majority. W.E.B. Du Bois helped form the Atlanta University Center in the West End, the largest consortium of historic black colleges and universities in the nation. And interracial neighborhood unions begin meeting, their pictures featured in the Atlanta newspaper.

A picture in The Constitution newspaper in 1931 shows an interracial coalition of women who organized to combat lynching in the state. The group was part of the Neighborhood Union, an African American, women-led organization started in 1908 by Lugenia Burns Hope. (Atlanta History Center)

“This exhibit speaks the lie that black southerners were not deeply and fully and creatively engaged in a fight for their full participation in American democracy as citizens,” Lee said.

“It’s a disservice and I, increasingly think, slander to black southerners to suggest they were complacent in the face of their marginalization,” she said. “They built schools, engaged in education with each other, and created communities to serve their needs that were entirely neglected by the state and municipalities.”

African Americans also filed lawsuits to fight the discriminatory laws and disrupt white supremacy, Lee said. Journalist Ida B. Wells investigated lynchings and discovered many black men were hanged because white men envied what little prosperity they achieved in business, Lee said.

“So many people took incredible risks,” Lee said.

“If people don’t take anything else away from this [exhibit], let a word never be spoken by anybody of any color … that suggests these incredible black southerners were not deeply courageous and focused and tenacious in accessing their full human rights and dignity.”

The Atlanta History Center exhibit’s timeframe closes as World War I is beginning in 1914. Black men fought in the Civil War and continued to enlist and fight in World War I for a country that rejected them, Lee said.

“One of the ways African Americans struggled to prove their fitness and patriotism for full participation in American democracy was choosing to become soldiers, to fight in war … in the face of a nation that fundamentally characterized them as less than human,” she said.

Tunis Campbell, an abolitionist at the forefront of fighting for equality for African Americans, was elected to the Georgia legislature in 1868, shortly after black Americans gained the right to vote following the end of the Civil War. (Atlanta History Center)

The African American struggles and successes after the Civil War to be recognized as human beings goes to the core of exhibit’s message, Lee said.

“In many ways, this exhibit is about showing African American agency in the face of that,” she said. “Jim Crow was a significant challenge to that expression … but this exhibit focuses on the realities of people who continued again and again to push for full inclusion in the American experience.”

Complete and unfettered access to American citizenship is what they strove for, but that still has not been achieved. For example, there is still voter suppression that is aligned with race, Lee said. But black southerners experienced success and paved a path for future struggles that continue today.

“Laws that amplify and reinforce racial disparities still exist,” Lee said. “This exhibit reminds us that until the race is won, it is worthwhile and necessary to keep raising your voice.”

For more information about the exhibit, see atlantahistorycenter.com.

This story has been updated to clarify that the Atlanta History Center expanded the New-York Historical Society’s “Black Citizenship in the Age of Jim Crow” with separate sections that focus on Atlanta-specific stories from Reconstruction.