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Exhibit designer explores complex history of slavery in New Haven and Yale

David Jon Walker, designer of Shining Light on Truth: New Haven, Yale, and Slavery at the New Haven Museum.
Eda Uzunlar
/
WSHU
David Jon Walker, designer of Shining Light on Truth: New Haven, Yale, and Slavery at the New Haven Museum.

Walking up the steps of the New Haven Museum to the second floor landing, visitors immediately encounter words at their feet.

“You are here as a participant in the future. Please be advised that this exhibition contains complex and challenging text and images,” the walkway reads.

Above those words hangs a flowing, white banner: “Shining Light on Truth: New Haven, Yale, and Slavery.”

Other cloth banners surround the main fixture, with titles like “Black resistance and community,” and “what could have been” adorning the fabric.

David Jon Walker, the exhibit’s designer and graduate of the Yale School of Art, received some of these materials only days before the exhibit opened in February. He started work on the project in September, after Yale’s Beinecke Library asked him to work with curators from the library and the New Haven community to design the space — a second-floor rotunda in an off-campus museum.

When you walk in, visitors are surrounded by collected histories of free and enslaved Black communities in New Haven. There are photos of Black figures who attended Yale, and there are recountings of enslaved Black individuals who built it.

200 names of the enslaved were block-printed, and titles were written in roundhand calligraphy for the exhibit.
Eda Uzunlar/WSHU
200 names of the enslaved were block-printed, and titles were written in roundhand calligraphy for the exhibit.

“When thinking about this show, about New Haven, and Yale and slavery, and how far it extended, I really wanted the attendees to understand that it's bigger than we know,” Walker said. “And that it's all around, it's up, down, you know, forward, backward, left and right.”

Walker was interested in the kind of historical documents displayed at the exhibit long before he was asked to design Shining Light on Truth. He met one of the museum’s curators, Michael Morand, when he visited the Beinecke Library with his children looking to show them some written African-American history.

“I said, ‘I'm looking for a document. It's this 1829 manifesto to colored citizens to rise up against the tyranny of slavery.’ And he said, ‘Matter of fact, I have a copy of that.’”

Walker said Morand took him and his children to his office, with a cart filled of historical documents waiting for them.

“And on this cart was not only David Walker's appeal, but it was Langston Hughes’ teaching copy of The Weary Blues, and a host of other things that were just mind-blowing.”

Those documents are personal to Walker. He’s African-American and grew up in Tennessee, where his family has long roots.

“It's smack in the middle of the South, where Confederate monuments are still present. [I’m from] Nashville, and there is solid red in the legislature. This history has been verbally passed down through generations of my family and the like.”

To Walker, there were times when designing the pieces for the exhibit was more than uncomfortable. Recreating minute details of what a wooden post boasting “for sale” advertisements of enslaved people would look like, with accuracy down to the kind of wood, nails and paper that would have been used, was painful in practice.

Recreated advertisements for enslaved people at Shining Light on Truth: New Haven, Yale, and Slavery at the New Haven Museum.
Eda Uzunlar/WSHU
Recreated advertisements for enslaved people at Shining Light on Truth: New Haven, Yale, and Slavery at the New Haven Museum.

“It's really strange and really heartbreaking to read these ads for runaway enslaved persons. It's almost akin to what you would see in a pet ad,” he said. “They're detailed in what they're requesting. It's quite gut-wrenching and was quite a bit to tackle, thinking about this as a practitioner.”

Walker said there were times he needed to separate the material from the actual substance associated with it, an exhausting process.

“You kind of keep your eyes closed a bit in order to get through certain things, or just push through on others, or attempt to de-narrative-ize the materials in order to create the pieces that you're attempting to create.”

But Walker also had the opportunity to touch on the resilience and wisdom of Black communities. The most popular stop of the exhibit, an offshoot of the main rotunda path, has tall ceilings with bookcases against walls that are already covered in figures throughout Black history. It’s a library, meant to look like a room that could have belonged to the first Black college in America.

According to Walker’s research, the college was proposed to be in New Haven at the first Free People’s Convention in 1831. But it was turned down by white landowners in New Haven, including Yale administrators. To celebrate Black scholars who could have been a part of the college, Walker designed the library.

1831 College library recreation at Shining Light on Truth: New Haven, Yale, and Slavery, the New Haven Museum.
Ernest Oppong Obobisa for Beinecke Library
1831 College library recreation at Shining Light on Truth: New Haven, Yale, and Slavery, the New Haven Museum.

“This room features a little over 75 framed images of Black Yale graduates. They possibly would have been students at this 1831 college," he said. The shelves are filled with work by these scholars for visitors to peruse.

"[It] serves to honor the persons that were trailblazers for diversity at a time rife with discrimination and bigotry.”

The first Black student at Yale was Edward Bouchet, in 1870. There have been thousands since — Walker included. He knows that New Haven has had a complicated relationship with Yale for centuries and that the New Haven community has been kept both informally distinct – through Yale’s expanding property lines and different finances in comparison to the rest of the community — and formally separated, through heavy gates and locked doors.

“I mean, these residence halls that have been built serve as this monument to fortress and protection from the outside, which is, based on proximity, the New Haven community,” Walker said.

"I remember the first time I brought my kids to Yale. And they said, 'Wow, this place looks like a castle,' And I said, 'You know, it's intentionally built to look old, in order to feel like the stature that has been commanded over the centuries of its existence.'"

But he said he believes this exhibit is a step in the right direction. Yale has done collaborations with external organizations, but Walker said this is special because the event is hosted off-campus. The school also ensured that entry is free of charge for visitors. Walker said the increased accessibility to the community outside of Yale is part of the reason he agreed to design it.

The exhibit's opening night, with the crest of the 1831 College printed on t-shirts. From right: David Jon Walker, Tubeyez Cropper, Tamika Hollis, exhibit co-curator Charles Warner Jr., Daisha Brabham.
High Wattage Media, LLC.
The exhibit's opening night, with the crest of the 1831 College printed on t-shirts. From right: David Jon Walker, Tubeyez Cropper, Tamika Hollis, exhibit co-curator Charles Warner Jr., Daisha Brabham.

“I definitely think that through this project, [Yale] is going to make larger strides towards strengthening the bond between the community and institution. I don't necessarily think that the keys to the castle will be given freely to the community, but… I feel like there will be more plans.”

After being a Yale student, Walker said he knew he had access to the space, resources and information that many in New Haven don’t. He also has a background and history that makes him want to share the stories in the exhibit with as many people as he could.

“At any turn, I think we as humans have the opportunity to speak for the unseen,” he said.

“I felt it as a duty and a privilege to embark on work or graphic design work that leans into the information and leans into the narrative and leans into the history to say, ‘Hey, this is actually who we are. We're in the present because of the sacrifices of others.’”

Eda Uzunlar is WSHU's Poynter Fellow for Media and Journalism.