Skip Navigation Bar
NLM logo

NLM Launches “Fire and Freedom: Food and Enslavement in Early America”

October 14, 2016

Special Display, Traveling Banner Exhibition, and Online Exhibition Open November 3

The National Library of Medicine (NLM) announces Fire and Freedom: Food and Enslavement in Early America, a special display, a traveling banner exhibition made available free of charge to cultural institutions across the country, and an online adaptation available to the world.

The special display will be open to the public in the NLM History of Medicine Division (HMD) Reading Room on the first floor of the National Library of Medicine, Building 38 on the Bethesda, Maryland campus of the National Institutes of Health, November 3, 2016- January 13, 2018.

Psyche Williams-Forson, PhD, noted historian, author, educator, and guest curator of Fire and Freedom, will deliver a lecture to coincide with the opening of the new exhibition. Her lecture will take place on Thursday, November 3 from 2:00pm to 3:00pm, in the NLM’s Lister Hill Center Auditorium (Building 38A). Dr. Williams-Forson will discuss the process of curating the exhibition—the triumphs and challenges—of telling this story when the information about the history of American slavery is limited in scope and very often narrowly focused, primarily on the 19th century. She will tie this larger discussion into using foodways—the intersection of food, culture, and economics—as a lens through which to talk about the lives of African Americans during enslavement. More importantly, Dr. Williams-Forson will illustrate why this narrative is important today. This lecture is open to the general public and will be live-streamed globally and subsequently archived, by NIH VideoCasting.

Fire and Freedom: Food and Enslavement in Early America looks at the Chesapeake region, during the early colonial era, where European settlers survived by relying upon indentured servants, Native Americans, and African slave labor for life-saving knowledge of farming and food acquisition. Without this knowledge, Europeans suffered poor nutrition, in addition to widespread illness caused by the lack of medical care. Despite their perilous position, the colonists used human resources, the natural environment, and maritime trade to gain economic prosperity. But it is through the labor of slaves, and Fire and Freedom focuses on life at George Washington’s Mount Vernon plantation, that we can learn about the ways that meals transcend taste and sustenance.

“The history of medicine is fundamentally the history of life—in all its complexity. And the National Library of Medicine has one of the world’s largest and richest collections of materials related to medical history. Through collaborations with researchers of a variety of disciplines who explore and interpret our collections, the NLM’s Exhibition Program shines a light on the most human of stories—and Fire and Freedom is the latest initiative in a diverse, expanding, and popular portfolio of important projects,” said Jeffrey S. Reznick, PhD, Chief of the NLM’s History of Medicine Division.

The online adaptation of Fire and Freedom incorporates a Digital Gallery of 18th-century materials on food, botany, health, and housekeeping from the NLM collection. Education resources are also featured in the online exhibition, including K-12 lesson plans, a higher education module; an online activity and a robust selection of resources, including K-12 suggested readings. In addition, the web feature, Related Resources at NLM, includes a selection of 18th-century items from the NLM collection on disease in colonial North America, digitized public health posters about nutrition and food, and journal articles that discuss foodways, race, medicine, and health disparities, available through PubMed Central.

The traveling banner adaptation of Fire and Freedom: Food and Enslavement in Early America will be traveling to 50 sites across the country over the next four years. Please visit the Traveling Exhibition Services Web site to see the tour itinerary and find this exhibition near you.

Visitor Information

Located on the Bethesda, Maryland, campus of the NIH, the National Library of Medicine is open Monday through Friday (except federal holidays) from 8:30 AM to 5:00 PM. Admission to all onsite NLM exhibitions is free. For more information, visit: To arrange a group tour, call 301.594.1947.

History of Medicine Lecture Series

Dr. Williams-Forson’s presentation is part of NLM’s History of Medicine Lectures for 2016. The lecture series, sponsored by the NLM History of Medicine Division, promotes awareness and use of NLM and other historical collections for research, education, and public service in biomedicine, the social sciences, and the humanities. The series also supports the commitment of the NLM to recognizing and celebrating diversity.

All lectures are free and open to the public. They are also live-streamed globally, and subsequently archived, by NIH VideoCasting.

Complete details are available on the web site of the NLM’s History of Medicine Division.


Images from Fire and Freedom: Food and Enslavement in Early America

Color illustration of a portion of a coffee plant, showing both the beans and leaves.

Plate illustration of coffee from An Historical Account of Coffee. ..., John Ellis, 1774

Courtesy National Library of Medicine


Woodcut of a goose ready to be cooked.

Detail from The Prudent Housewife, Or compleat English Cook...Lydia Fisher, 1800

Courtesy National Library of Medicine


A teacup in a bowl shaped saucer with floral decoration and gilding.

Tea bowl and saucer (owned by George Washington), 1779-1782

Courtesy Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association


A woodcut showing several people at work in a large kitchen.

Frontispiece of The guide to preferment: or, Powell’s complete book of cookery, B. Powell, 1785

Courtesy National Library of Medicine


Title page of an eighteenth century printed book

A little book of rare receipts for the cure of several distempers, …, Giles Parson, 1710

Courtesy National Library of Medicine


White man on a horse talking with an African American field worker, house in distance.

Washington at Mount Vernon, 1797, Nathaniel Currier, 1852

Courtesy of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association


The National Library of Medicine (NLM) is a leader in research in biomedical informatics and data science and the world’s largest biomedical library. NLM conducts and supports research in methods for recording, storing, retrieving, preserving, and communicating health information. NLM creates resources and tools that are used billions of times each year by millions of people to access and analyze molecular biology, biotechnology, toxicology, environmental health, and health services information. Additional information is available at

Last Reviewed: October 28, 2016