Learn about Freedom and Liberation with Africa’s Freedom Fighters
Juneteenth is the oldest nationally celebrated commemoration of the ending of slavery in the United States. From its Galveston, Texas, origin in 1865—approximately two and one-half years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation—the observance of June 19 as African American Emancipation Day has spread across the United States and beyond. Today, Juneteenth commemorates African American freedom and emphasizes education and achievement. It is a day, a week, and in some locales a month marked with remembrances, celebrations, guest speakers, picnics, and family gatherings. It is a time for reflection, rejoicing, assessment, self-improvement, and for planning the future. From rural communities to metropolitan cities across the country, people of all races, nationalities, and religions are learning about and acknowledging a period in U.S. history that shaped and continues to influence our society today.
Slavery, Struggle, Freedom and Independence-Voices of the African Diaspora
Juneteenth focuses on emancipation, liberation, and freedom while remembering the African American struggle for freedom and independence. Its observance symbolizes recognition of a shared historical narrative and experience. The National Museum of African Art’s current exhibition Heroes: Principles of African Greatness presents a trajectory of African struggles and triumphs while telling stories that are worthy of celebrating. Heroes reflects on the inherent heroism in struggle and the even more heroic action required in achieving perseverance and survival. From “A Long Walk to Freedom” to “Liberty and Equality,” read about our African heroes and celebrate the legacy of Juneteenth Day!
Be your best. This is the quest that the greatest of heroes model for us. Through their journeys, struggles, and triumphs, exceptional individuals exemplify values that we celebrate in tales of heroic accomplishment.
Through art, artists tell such stories—stories of the world’s current complexity, but also visions of a world that could yet be. Heroes: Principles of African Greatness features artworks from the National Museum of African Art’s permanent collection that tell the story of key heroic principles and personages in Africa’s arts and history. Throughout, core values are considered as each artwork is paired with a specific historic African individual who embodies the value expressed in the selected work.
Discover Africa’s heroes—some well-known, others perhaps surprising—and see artworks in new ways.
South Africa—A Long Walk to Freedom
Nelson Rolihlahla (“Troublemaker”) Mandela’s “long walk to freedom” took him from prison to the presidency—and his people from division to democracy.
- Born to Xhosa-speaking parents in the Thembu royal family, Mandela took it upon himself to study law at university. He and Oliver Tambo established a law firm in Johannesburg in 1952, offering free or low-cost counsel to black South Africans.
- Mandela helped organize the African National Congress (ANC) Youth League, which advocated for nationwide civil disobedience campaigns aimed to highlight the iniquities of apartheid. His growing profile led to arrests and harassment from the state.
- After the Sharpeville Massacre (1960), Mandela was convinced that only armed struggle could end apartheid. He cofounded the ANC’s militant wing.
- Arrested and tried for treason and sabotage, Mandela was sentenced to life in prison in 1963. While subjected to brutal treatment inside prison walls, Mandela became a global symbol of both oppression and hope for those outside.
- Upon his release from prison in 1990, Mandela negotiated with President F.W. de Klerk to organize free and fair elections. He had to strike a balance between keeping dialogue open while maintaining political pressure through the ANC. Mandela and de Klerk shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993.
- As South Africa’s first black president (1994–99), Mandela worked to assure passage of a new constitution—based on majority rule, but guaranteeing minority rights and freedom of expression.
When I walked out of prison, that was my mission, to liberate the oppressed and the oppressor both . . . We are not yet free; we have merely achieved the freedom to be free, the right not to be oppressed. We have not taken the final step of our journey, but the first step on a longer and even more difficult road. For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.
—Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom, 1995
A “rabble-rouser for peace,” Tutu remains a global moral authority as a truth-teller.
- Ordained an Anglican priest in 1961, Tutu rose through the church hierarchy to become general secretary of the South African Council of Churches—a position in which he gained global prominence as an advocate for non-violent resistance to apartheid.
- Desmond Tutu received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984.
- Tutu was elected archbishop of Cape Town in 1986, making him the highest Anglican authority in the country. Not known for holding back his opinions, Tutu earned a reputation for his incisive, wry, and often humorous insights. He also promoted the vision of a democratic South Africa as the “Rainbow Nation.”
- President Nelson Mandela asked Tutu to chair the Truth and Reconciliation Commission from 1996-1998. Promoting a vision of restorative justice and determined to hear from the “little people” whose suffering had been ignored, Tutu was sometimes openly overwhelmed with the emotion of the painful testimony. The Commission took over 22,000 statements.
- Approaching retirement, archbishop Tutu was awarded the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009.
There are different kinds of justice. Retributive justice is largely Western. The African understanding is far more restorative—not so much to punish as to redress or restore a balance that been knocked askew.
—Desmond Tutu, 1996
Without forgiveness there can be no future for a relationship between individuals or within and between nations.
—Desmond Tutu, 2000
To read about more South African heroes, click South Africa—A Long Walk to Freedom (si.edu)
That Liberty and Equality Might Yet Reign
Writer. Actor. Composer. Businessman. Abolitionist. He was 18th century Britain’s symbol black possibility.
- Brought to England in childhood, Sancho learned to read; he devoured books.
- Sancho set up a shop in Westminster with his wife, which allowed him the right to vote in parliamentary elections; he was the first black man to vote in Britain.
- His letters, published posthumously, were one of the earliest accounts of slavery in English, and became a rallying point in the growing abolitionist movement.
I am sorry to observe that the practice of your country (which as a resident I love)…has been uniformly wicked in the East and West-Indies—and even on the coast of Guinea. The grand object of English navigators—indeed of all Christian navigators—is money—money—money…In Africa…the Christians’ abominable traffic for slaves and the horrid cruelty and treachery of the petty Kings [are] encouraged by their Christian customers who carry them strong liquors to enflame their national madness—and powder—and bad fire-arms—to furnish them with the hellish means of killing and kidnapping.
He was the original black liberation leader.
- From a plantation birth to an early life as a wealthy free man, he achieved a wide-ranging education. He took the surname Louverture, from the French term for “opening.”
- Louverture led a slave rebellion from 1791, switching sides and defeating the armies of three world powers: Spain, the United Kingdom, and France.
- Ruling a St. Dominigue freed from French rule, Louverture then codified the abolition of slavery in the new nation, soon to be renamed Haiti.
Brothers and friends, I am Toussaint Louverture; perhaps my name has made itself known to you. I have undertaken vengeance. I want Liberty and Equality to reign in St. Domingue. I am working to make that happen. Unite yourselves to us, brothers, and fight with us for the same cause.
—Toussaint Louverture, speaking at Camp Turel, Aug. 29, 1793
She unveiled the power of Egyptian women.
- Sha’arawi was an Egyptian feminist leader. She founded the Egyptian Feminist Union (1923).
- An anti-colonial activist, Sha’arawi organized Egypt’s largest women-led anti-British demonstration (1919), a milestone in the events leading to Egypt’s independence in 1922.
- Sha’arawi refused to wear the hijab in public after 1922.
Men have singled out women of outstanding merit and put them on a pedestal to avoid recognizing the capabilities of all women.