Born in the Bronx, Phyllis Bowdwin is an activist, writer, educator, mixed-media artist, and designer. Inspired by her African ancestry, Bowdwin made this brooch that depicts in diagrammatic form the hull of a slave ship and the arrangement of its tightly packed human cargo during the Middle Passage. In this version, five heads of African slaves in profile hang from metal nooses off of the brooch’s lower edge. In another version, also in the museum’s collection, five cowrie shells dangle in a similar orientation. The number five is a symbol of justice in African lore. Bowdwin has made this pin as a history lesson and a memory of the African American legacy. The designer has shared, “I decided to make the pin because I was disturbed that nothing had been done in terms of erecting a monument or permanent commemoration of the time of the middle passage.” 
Bowdwin’s brooch reproduces a famous image of the Brookes slave ship, drawn in Plymouth, England in 1788 and made widely available by booksellers and as a broadside to further the abolitionist cause. The Brookes sailed the passage from Liverpool via the Gold Coast in Africa to Jamaica in the West Indies. The same image also reappeared in The Rise, Progress and Accomplishment of the Abolition of the African Slave Trade by the British Parliament, a book by Thomas Clarkson that was published in 1808 and details the abolitionist movement in England. Ms. Bowdwin said, “It is a classic image, a picture that was used over and over again, because it symbolized that whole period.”  This brooch exemplifies the role of jewelry as a poignant communicator of social history.
See more objects created by African American designers selected from the museum’s permanent collection in a new exhibition on African American Design via the Google Cultural Institute.
Emily Orr is Assistant Curator of Modern and Contemporary American Design at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum.
 Anita M. Samuels, “Thing: A Legacy in a Pin” The New York Times, April 3, 1994.