The silhouette is more than a shadow in a museum exhibit. Its voice, in the form of a quotation floating on the wall above its female profile, is a revelation of what it meant to be African American during the Civil War and Reconstruction period.

Fannie Berry is the person behind the visuals that lead visitors through the “Enacting Freedom: Black Virginians in the Age of Emancipation” exhibit at the American Civil War Museum in Appomattox, Virginia.

“Glory! Glory! Yes, child, the negroes are free, an’ when they knew that they were free, they — Oh! Baby! — began to sing,” Berry exclaimed. “You are free, you are free. Such rejoicing an’ shoutin’ you never heard in your life.”

While doing research for the exhibit, a faculty-and-student team from the Virginia Center for Civil War Studies discovered the formerly enslaved woman’s interview transcripts from the 1937 Federal Writers’ Project of the Works Progress Administration. Berry lived through the Civil War and Reconstruction, and her words reveal what it felt like to be freed.

“I kept thinking about Fannie Berry,” says Paul Quigley, director of the center and the James I. Robertson, Jr. Associate Professor of Civil War History at Virginia Tech. “But when the team realized she could be a guide for the exhibit — she could be the one element to pull the exhibit together — that was a magical moment.”

To help bring Berry’s story to life, along with the history of emancipation in Virginia, the team launched a crowdfunding campaign to underwrite additional display materials. The Appomattox exhibit will run through April 2020.

“Those 4 million formerly enslaved people worked every day of Reconstruction and beyond to make freedom meaningful in their own lives,” says Caitlin Verboon, a postdoctoral associate in the Department of History. “Learning how they did that and what they thought was important can help us even today understand the larger meanings and legacies of the Civil War and Emancipation.”

Written by Leslie King