About the Project

The four display cases in this exhibit were curated by students enrolled in an undergraduate history course focused on the theme of “family secrets.” The theme of secrecy shaped our inquiry into how the family, as an institution and an ideal at the heart of debates about American identity and national belonging, has changed over time.

The materials gathered here represent various ways in which cultural concepts of family evolved in both public and private ways. The first case explores how some Americans created chosen families and imagined family as a site of self-definition and political transformation in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The second case asks how the nineteenth-century sentimental family ideal was fraught with gendered, classed, and racialized tensions. The third examines the intertwined processes of African enslavement and Indigenous displacement, highlighting how African American and Native American families grappled with forced separation. The fourth and final case considers how Native boarding school students and Chinese children adopted by white American missionaries navigated their relationship to family and home.

Content Note: Although some of the language and imagery displayed here appears harsh or insensitive today, we believe engagement with these materials can yield valuable insight into how the U.S. has historically created and maintained marginalization. By doing so, we hope to understand how we can work towards a more inclusive future.

Curated By: Grace Argo and the Students of History 195, Fall 2022, with Maggie Vanderford and Julie Fremuth at the Clements Library.