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Commemorating African American History Month, National Library of Medicine Hosts Exhibition,
Within These Walls: Contraband Hospital and the African Americans Who Served There

In celebration of African American History Month, the National Library of Medicine (NLM), the world's largest medical library and an arm of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), will host Within these Walls: Contraband Hospital and the African Americans Who Served There, a panel exhibition, weekdays through March 31, 2010, 9:00 AM-4:00 PM. It will be displayed inside the interior glass doors of the first floor lobby of Building 38A, the Lister Hill Center, on the Bethesda, Maryland campus of the NIH. The exhibition is free and open to the public. It was curated by Jill L. Newmark of the NLM History of Medicine Division.

This unique exhibition brings to light a story not known to many Americans, about Contraband Hospital in Washington, DC, which provided care to fugitive slaves and African American soldiers during the Civil War. Through personal stories, observations, photographs and historical documents, Within These Walls documents the efforts of unsung Africans American surgeons and nurses to provide care and comfort to black soldiers and civilians.

NLM will host a special program, Tuesday, February 23, 2010 at 11:00 AM in its Lister Hill Auditorium, near the exhibition site. The event will feature:

  • Remarks by assistant director and curator of the African American Civil War Memorial and Museum, Hari Jones, a retired Marine Corps captain and historian specializing in African American military service history;
  • A special presentation by members of the African American Ladies of the Civil War's group, Female RE-Enactors of Distinction (FREED), affiliated with the African American Civil War Museum. Dressed in period costume, actresses will bring to life: Elizabeth Keckley, an African American seamstress who, among other achievements, opened her own business in Washington and became First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln's dressmaker and friend (and who, on the night of Abraham Lincoln's assassination, was summoned by Mrs. Lincoln to Petersen House, where he lay dying, for comfort); and Hallie Quinn Brown, a prominent African American activist, educator and elocutionist; and
  • Exhibition tours, following the program.

Washington, DC became a beacon of freedom after President Lincoln signed the DC Emancipation Act in April 1862, freeing all slaves in the District of Columbia. Not surprisingly, large numbers of fugitive slaves, known as "contraband," escaped to the nation's capital for a taste of freedom. To meet the needs of the growing contraband population, the Union Army established the Contraband Camp and Hospital in Northwest Washington, DC.

Contraband Hospital employed seven of the 13 African American surgeons (many of whom were trained in Canada or Great Britain) who served the Union Army during the war. These included Alexander T. Augusta, the first African American commissioned as an officer in the US Army. Many African American men and women served as nurses at Contraband, including celebrated abolitionists Sojourner Truth and Charles B. Purvis.

Sample Images (available upon request in JPG and TIFF formats):

Image of Anderson R. Abbott

Anderson R. Abbott was a contract assistant surgeon who served at Contraband Hospital from 1863 to 1866. Canadian born and trained, Abbott followed in the footsteps of his mentor and fellow African American physician, Alexander T. Augusta, by joining the fight for freedom as a surgeon to black soldiers and civilians. (Courtesy of the Toronto Public Library.)


Image of fugitive slaves known as contraband

These women and men were fugitive slaves known as contraband. They worked for the 13th Massachusetts Infantry of the Union Army and represent the thousands of African Americans who served as hospital workers during the Civil War. (Courtesy of the Commandery Military Order of the Loyal Legion and the US Army Military History Institute.)

For more information about the exhibit and to schedule tours, contact Erika Mills, Exhibition Coordinator, NLM, and 301.594.1947.

Directions, security, parking, etc.: //