1619: The Making of America Conference

Dear Readers,

I mentioned a while back that I would be speaking at the 1619: The Making of America conference taking place Thursday and Friday, September 26-27, 2013. My 15 minute morning presentation will be “Reflections on Interpreting Hidden Voices” where I will mainly be focused on work that I have done or observed in the presentation of including the voices of people of African descent in 18th, 19th, and to some small degree early 20th century America. As is usual, my presentation time constraints will not allow me to present everything but I hope the question and answer period will allow for some good discussion with me and the other panelists.

You can STILL register for this conference by 11:59PM tomorrow OR pay an extra $5 at the door on the day of the conference.

The link for the conference is here: http://1619.us/ and for registration: http://1619.us/index.php?option=com_civicrm&task=civicrm/event/register&id=1&reset=1.  It’s $75 for both days, $40 for a single day, student registration is either $50 for both days or $25 for one day. The evening programs are FREE and open to the general public. On Friday evening I will be doing a first person portrayal of a runaway slave turned US Colored soldier, Peter Churchwell just ahead of the conference’s final speaker.

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About “Ask A Slave”

This past week I received approximately 20 people sending me a YouTube web show called “Ask a Slave” by Azie Dungey who portrayed an enslaved maid at Mount Vernon. Through this medium of YouTube she shares some insensitive and not very thoughtful questions asked by people at Mount Vernon (and at a host of other sites that deal with slavery). Like others I appreciate the explanation and intent behind the project. My friends want to know “What do you think?”

The problem I have with this show is that interpreting enslavement in eighteenth and nineteenth century contexts must be taken seriously by the presenter and also by the receiver. Poking fun at visitor inquiries is not the best method of interpreting (to be fair this web show is not claiming to interpret). However, the questions posed by visitors are their (albeit often poorly worded) way to find some information regarding the lives of people of African descent who were enslaved. It is the interpretive staff’s job (and if you’re lucky—their passion) to relay the truth of historical events.

As someone who regularly interprets slavery for employment and as a hobby, I have been asked many of the questions presented in the “Ask A Slave” episodes. Sometimes it is while I am portraying a real or composite character of the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries and other times it is while wearing modern clothing and doing third-person interpretation.

One issue visitors most often return to is why slaves did not run away from a degrading institution. The question, even in first person, should be answered thoughtfully and not flippantly.

Visitor Question at 18th century slave site: “Why don’t you just run away through the Underground Railroad?”

Flippant answer: “What is a railroad?”

Visitor: (internally agitated/angry) “You know what I’m talking about! Harriet Tubman and all that.”

Flippant answer: “Well, I don’t know about any Harriet Tubman or this railroad. Maybe you need to be checked into the insane asylum.”

I received this exact question from a young girl and her father in 2008 when I was portraying an enslaved man in Massachusetts at Minute Man National Historical Park. The event was built around those of us in historical reproduction clothing experiencing (and helping visitors experience) life outside Boston in the summer of 1774 with the port of Boston recently closed.

My friend Neal (at right) and I portrayed a New England slaveholder and his enslaved laborer, Peter, at Minute Man National Historical Park. Here we are in front of the Hartwell Tavern (built 1732-1733).

I was in the Hartwell Tavern, which had reproduction newspapers scattered about. I used the props and encouraged the father-daughter team to really think about where it was that an 18th century enslaved person would go. Through our day-long interactions, the daughter read the reproduction 18th century newspaper for runaway ads. She sometimes read them to me and as she read about red headed, freckled Irish indentured maids or Scottish male indentured servants I had to tell her, “But young lady, you see those people do not look like me. There are not a lot of people who look like me around here (see the 1765 Boston census here).”

Daughter: “Oh.”

She left and came back a while later and said “Well, can’t you get on a ship and leave?”

I said “Oh no! I can’t get on a ship. The port of Boston is closed because of the anger of the people here with the King. Remember that in the newspaper?”

The father and daughter: “Yes.”

Me: “Furthermore it may be a slave ship and then I get sold.”

Family: “Oh.”

Finally I explained (all while never breaking character), that I certainly could not go to Virginia or South Carolina or Georgia for slavery was there. I could go west but what about the Indians and I asked even if I left the colony, where would I land and be free? I asked them whether they liked sugar to which they said they did, the girl (like most kids) loving candy. I asked if she knew who harvested sugar in 1774. She did not. I told her that it was in the Caribbean islands where thousands of slaves worked, most of them only living a few years before dying and then the plantation owners there would bring in more people. We talked about tobacco and rice as well all based on fact but also what my character had heard through the grapevine.

This family walked away with some knowledge about 18th century slavery without reading a 400 page book and in fact, partly discovered through their own work why there were not wholesale disappearances of enslaved people in the 1700s toward some other place. The details about the coming of the Revolution were less important for me than those portraying the Sons of Liberty.

At our mid-19th century historical sites in the context of more vocal anti-slavery people, groups, and the presence of the Underground Railroad, interpreters have to balance why slaves did not run away with other methods of resistance.

All of this reminds me of a post I recently saw through social media where someone asked a friend of mine a very important question:

“What are some intelligent questions to ask a slave [someone portraying a slave is what was meant]?  I’ve wanted to engage some ‘slaves’ in conversation before, but frankly I feel too inadequate.”

Questions to first person characters do require some contextual thought. You should not ask someone portraying Mary Lincoln what it was like to have her husband murdered if you’re attending a program that talks about the Lincolns in 1863. The assassination is two years in the future. The same would be said for not asking someone portraying a slave in Florida what it is like to meet Frederick Douglass. Most enslaved people never met the “famous” folks of the past regardless of race, economic station, gender, etc.

I portrayed an enslaved man who was sent to construct earthworks around Petersburg, Virginia in the summer of 1862. Visitors asked about this type of work and I along with volunteers portraying Confederate soldiers compared and contrasted Civil War defenses with modern day military defenses.

I portrayed an enslaved man who was sent to construct earthworks around Petersburg, Virginia in the summer of 1862. Visitors asked about this type of work and I along with volunteers portraying Confederate soldiers compared and contrasted Civil War defenses with modern day military defenses.

Generally, any question you have is probably one that the interpreter is willing to answer. I’ll tackle some good ones that always need an answer:

  1. Why did the former slaves on this plantation/in this urban dwelling stay here after the Civil War?
  2. What kind of work do YOU do? What kind of work do other people do here? Easily flipped for non-character portrayals to “What kind of work did the enslaved people do here?”
  3. What is the most difficult thing for you each day?
  4. What fears did the enslaved people have regarding their interactions with the community at large and specifically their owner and his/her family?
  5. Can you tell me about your family? (And don’t leave it to the person having a spouse and some kids.) Follow ups: What do grandparents do here? What does your little girl do here? How do you take care of your children? When do you see your siblings?
  6. Where did the slaves live? What happened in the slave quarters? Why were those quarters built there and not somewhere else?
  7. When the slaves here got angry, how did they show their unhappiness?
  8. Have you ever been punished by the owner of this place? (And if the interpreter answers no, ask why not. If yes, the likelihood is the interpreter will tell you.) OR How were the enslaved community here punished? OR I’ve read about whippings but where were other ways that a master/mistress may discipline enslaved people?
  9. What sources do you have about slavery at this place? Did the owner leave records? Are there any interviews done with former slaves who worked and lived here?
  10. What types of food did the slaves eat? When did they have time to eat? Where did they eat?
  11. What will you do now that you’ve been emancipated?

These are just some immediate thoughts that came to mind. Others can be asked if you are in a very specific situation. The more you know the better questions and dialogue you can have with the interpreter(s). Tweaking the above questions will work for a first person conversation or one taking place in the 21st century with 21st century interpretive staff.

Again it bears repeating that this web series is not interpretation and it is not claiming to be; however, “Ask A Slave” may create uncertainty from the public to ask professional or volunteer staff the tough questions about slavery and those people who experienced it in bondage or as the slaveholder. As I visit historic sites from battlefields to plantations to museums in modern buildings dealing with historical events, I continue to be amazed that as much progress as one place has made another site has not.

I welcome questions and comments at work, in other presentations, and here. I ask questions when I am a visitor. I am not asking to simply create a “Gotcha!” moment. I am curious to see if the site has researched the lives of enslaved people and their work because it illustrates that the staff values that information and finds it important to share.

Often the change our historic sites need come from the questions visitors have. Hopefully some of what I have said above will allow all of us to think about what types of questions are we asking. Equally, our staff (professional or volunteer based) needs to be able to intelligently answer in a manner that allows people to get the most meaningful answer to create historical understanding.

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For readers in the Charleston area

As I like the challenges we must face with discussing history, I believe this should be a good panel. I’m only sorry I cannot attend.

This Friday, August 30 (sorry for the late notice, I didn’t know about it until right now)  there will be a free event addressing Charleston’s relationship with freedom in the era of the Revolution and the Early Republic and slavery, a feature in South Carolina from founding until the end of legal slavery in 1865. One of the neat things about this is that my friend Joseph McGill will be staying in a slave quarter on the campus of hte College of Charleston as a part of his Slave Dwelling Project.

Even if you can’t go, it’s nice to see that things like this are happening more and more.

http://news.cofc.edu/2013/08/26/panel-charleston-holy-city-andor-slavery-central/

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Upcoming Conversations about History

Dear Readers,

September looks to be a busy month. I’m planning to travel for the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Chickamauga, Georgia to do a timeline event in mid-September. I’ll report back on the details of this event once I return.

However, there are other things that I’ve agreed to do and wish to make you aware of, especially for the Virginia readers.

On Saturday, September 21st, I will be giving a presentation that I keep returning to: “Diamonds, Education, Emancipation, and Race: The Family of Silas Omohundro”. This presentation will be at the Museum of the Confederacy located at 1201 E. Clay Street, Richmond, Virginia. Parking is free with validation at the Medical College of Virginia’s parking deck located adjacent to the Museum. The presentation lasts an hour from 11-12. I will plan on speaking for about 45 minutes to leave time for questions and comments. This presentation usually leaves everyone a little stunned for a moment but then opens up interesting dialogue about the construction of race and the slave trade in pre-Civil War America. I want to thank Cathy Wright (fellow UNCG alum) for coming to hear my presentation earlier this year and inviting me to do this. I can only echo what has been said many times…this isn’t your grandfather’s centennial commemoration of the American Civil War. The cost is included with Museum admission. More information about the admission cost can be found here.

Also on Thursday and Friday, September 26-27, the Joseph Roberts Jenkins Center at Norfolk State University and the Hampton History Museum are hosting a conference focusing on 1619: The Making of America on September 26-27, 2013.  This conference will focus on new questions of biology, literature, law, society, race and gender. 

The conference will take place at the Hampton Roads Convention Center on Thursday, September 26, 2013 and at Norfolk State University’s New Student Center on Friday, September 27th.  Each day will feature different scholarly and community leaders speaking on a variety of issues that faced Native Americans, Europeans and Africans in Virginia and beyond.

On Friday, the 27th at 11AM, I will be in a panel with Robert Watson and Michael Cobb. I will speak about interpreting the experiences of enslaved and free and then freed blacks in mid-19th century America. I envision the session will feature a lively discussion about the successes, failures, and challenges on presenting the myriad of actions and feelings of people of African descent during this period.

Additionally, later that evening I will be doing a first-person presentation about Private Peter Churchwell of the 23rd United States Colored Troops. Churchwell’s life began with him as the property of the Gordon family of Orange County, Virginia but he escaped from slavery in 1862, enlisted in 1864, was captured in the Battle of the Crater in July 1864, survived a second round of enslavement and became a citizen in a turbulent late-19th century America.

The conference fees include $40 per day or $75 for 2 days. Evening sessions are FREE and OPEN TO THE PUBLIC. You can learn more about the conference at http://www.1619makingofamerica.com/.

I’ll hope to see old friends and meet new people at both of these events!

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Black Participation in the Civil War 150th anniversary

Where are all the black people at the Civil War 150th commemorations?!

This question has appeared in multiple formats including Natasha McPherson’s post and comments about that from Kevin Levin and Jimmy Price.

I have been a black participant in the Civil War 150th in part due to my work and in part because I’ve long been interested in the Civil War period. There are likely a multitude of reasons why participation from the African-American community has been lacking but I do not agree with Professor McPherson’s comment that the Civil War was not  “our war” (i.e., black Americans).

We have to get to some issues facing a large number of blacks in America. One issue that an acquaintance of mine, Tiya Miles brought up at the Future of the Civil War conference back in March is that historical segregation in traveling practices has inhibited some blacks from traveling.

In the 1930s-60s, it was not always clear where people of African descent could eat a hearty meal, sleep, acquire gasoline, get their car repaired, or a range of other issues when traveling on the roads. Sure there was Victor Green’s The Green Book, which was a travel guide published between 1936 and 1964 which was designed to give African American motorists information for comfortable and safe places to room and board during this period of segregation; but, there still would be vast stretches of land where you would be on two lane roads (at best), and perhaps victim to problems. As most Civil War battlefields are located in the South, this was a legitimate concern for black families. Remember, cars weren’t getting 48 miles per gallon like my Toyota Prius does now. It would also be wise for us to remember how cost prohibitive a car was for many folks (white, black, or otherwise) until fairly recently.

What this perhaps did for some folks is create a culture of not traveling. If mom and dad didn’t go anywhere and didn’t take their kids anywhere, the kids grow up and have kids who don’t take their kids anywhere or if they do it is one or two family vacations when the children are young usually to a theme park. Generations were created of folks staying near or at home.

Another issue is there was prejudiced history in the Jim Crow era. The experiences and contributions of wartime blacks in the North, South, and West were not included in history books. My mom, a product of a segregated school system, often told people in my youth and her 40s, 50s, and early 60s that it was *I* who taught her about black people during the Civil War period because it was not included in their schoolwork of the 1950s and 1960s. I don’t mean that she didn’t know about Frederick Douglass or Harriet Tubman but I mean about United States Colored Troops, enslaved people who escaped and those who didn’t during the antebellum and Civil War period, former slaves who go on to become legislators during Reconstruction. So let’s say the Baby Boomers weren’t told in any great detail about the varied experiences of blacks in Civil War-era America, then their children may or may not hear about it, and then the Baby Boomers grandchildren don’t, etc.

So what can I say at this point, about half-way through the Civil War 150th regarding black participation?

I can say that with the exception of one 150th event, I have seen at least one other black person in the audience. Is this a measurement of success? I don’t think so. However, as Kevin asked, what is?

I can say that our historic sites which 50 years ago would not have touched on the issues facing blacks (or immigrants, Native Americans, women, or children) are doing a better job. One of my favorite events of the 150th was an event I organized at work in 2012, it was not focused on a battle but rather on a series of enslaved families and a plantation owner’s family. Ten African-American volunteers and myself portrayed real enslaved people who lived and worked on the Eppes family’s plantation while a white female volunteer portrayed Mrs. Eppes and through a series of semi- scripted scenarios we portrayed to the audience the different emotions and feelings of people as the U.S. Navy neared the plantation in the spring of 1862. Throughout the weekend we had people from diverse backgrounds show up and interact with the volunteers and our staff in third and first-person interactions. There certainly was no “shame” in our game in giving visitors (and indeed ourselves) insight on how these people lived in 1862.

Volunteers and the author portraying enslaved people and the plantation mistress at the Petersburg National Battlefield living history program "Seeking New Shelters" in April 2012.

Volunteers and the author portraying enslaved people and the plantation mistress at the Petersburg National Battlefield living history program “Seeking New Shelters” in April 2012.

I can say that in my work and in special events for the 150th that some blacks are showing up and are engaged with questions and serious conversations. I’ve seen this personally and through photos of Civil War 150th programs that I could not attend.

The author at the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gaines' Mill portraying Cornelius, an enslaved man who escaped in the summer of 1862 from the Wickham family plantation, Hickory Hill in Hanover County, Virginia.  Photo by Jason Martz, NPS.

The author at the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gaines’ Mill portraying Cornelius, an enslaved man who escaped in the summer of 1862 from the Wickham family plantation, Hickory Hill in Hanover County, Virginia. Photo by Jason Martz, NPS.

Scott Manning  has issued a brief little directive we should all take, talk to your black friends and family and create a dialogue about the tough stuff of race, slavery, emancipation, and freedom. Then you can perhaps get them to come with you. Speaking as a black man, I was fortunate to be raised in family who discussed these issues with one another.  I was blessed with the capabilities to ask what it was like in the past, though not a slavery and Civil War past. I was fortunate to have been nurtured to use my love of history; however, it took INTERACTION between me, my family, and my friends. This has given me some amazing opportunities to do presentations regarding my own free mixed-race family’s Civil War experiences to enslaved body servants serving Confederate troops to United States Colored Troops during the war and a whole range of other topics from the slave trade through the Freedmen’s Bureau. But no one is simply born with historical knowledge, so foster it within your household (regardless of race) and your own networks.

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12 Years a Slave from Memoir to Movie

Imagine being offered a good job. One that can support you and your family. A job often defines a person’s identity, especially to a man in nineteenth century America. A good job was even more meaningful to a free black man in the 1800s. Imagine some men tell you about a job and you go to them only to be drugged and sold into slavery by those men who are actually slave catchers.

You don’t have to imagine because it happened. Countless times people of African descent in the North who were free-born (I’m not talking about runaway slaves though it tragically happened to them too) were captured and sold into bondage. One of the best known incidents of this in mid-19th century America happened to Solomon Northup (born July 1808 and died sometime between 1864 and 1875, the circumstances of his death are not known). He was from Saratoga Springs, New York and was enticed to go to Washington D.C. in 1841 where he was then transported to New Orleans and sold. Having floated through a few families in Louisiana and spending twelve years in bondage he finally regained his freedom in January 1853.

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Mr. Northup’s memoirs can be found online thanks to Documenting the American South and Google Books.

This October, Fox Searchlight Pictures will release the theatrical movie “12 Years a Slave” based on Northup’s memoirs.  The cast includes some big names like Michael Fassbender, Paul Giamatti, Brad Pitt, and Alfred Woodard. There are relatively newcomers whose popularity has soared recently like Benedict Cumberbatch and Quvenzhané Wallis. British actor, Chiwetel Ejiofor will be Solomon Northup (who also appeared in the film, Amistad back in 1997). 

I admit, typically, I avoid Hollywood productions of history, but I am going to see this and be excited to do so because Northup’s story is one that is horrifying but also highly emotional. The link to the trailer is attached here and I hope you’ll check it out.

Which brings me to a question: What stories of enslaved people do you think should be turned into a documentary, TV-miniseries, or movie? How can they be done so in a way that draws in audiences and makes them want to learn more?

If you have thoughts, leave ‘em in the comments. I’m building a small following here and while many of you write to me private electronic correspondence, I think the other followers may like to build in-depth conversations on the blog here. Thanks!

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Williamsburg-More than colonial history

Though Williamsburg has marketed itself since the 1930s as Virginia’s colonial captial (1699-1780), there is Civil War history there too. On May 5, 1862, a battle raged east of the city (at least in 1860) pitting almost 41,000 United States soldiers against about 32,000 Confederate troops. This battle in large part started because of information provided by local enslaved people to Federal generals. Though Federal forces may have had a more smashing defeat, the Confederates did continue their retreat up Virginia’s peninsula.

Regrettably, most of this battlefield has been lost to modern development. In fact, part of the Water Country USA theme park is ironically situated on a portion of the battlefield. However, we have a chance to not let more modern development destroy the first major engagement in the Peninsula Campaign.

A friend of mine, Drew Gruber, has been closely following the conversation regarding a 251 acre tract of battlefield land in York County where a portion of the battle took place. For my readers, I encourage you to find more here about the land: http://wydaily.com/2013/07/15/civil-war-history-abounds-on-undeveloped-tract-in-york-county-w-video/.

How can you help? Send a letter to the York County Board of Supervisors.

All you need to do is copy and paste this and the following Supervisors/Commissioners email addresses into your email and click send! Better yet have your Organization write a letter! Their names/e-mail addresses:

Walter C. Zaremba-zaremba@yorkcounty.gov

Sheila S. Noll-noll@yorkcounty.gov

Donald E. Wiggins-wiggins@yorkcounty.gov

George S. Hrichak-hrichak@yorkcounty.gov

Thomas G. Shepperd, Jr.-shepperd@yorkcounty.gov

You can copy and paste this letter form below:

Dear Sir/Madam,

It has come to my attention that there are plans to add or maintain “mixed use” overlay on two parcels of land making them more accessible to development than their existing zoning allows. I feel strongly that this overlay should not be allowed on the Egger or Busch tracts and that they should be added to the York County Historic Resources list. Certainly this national treasure should not be thrown away for more unsustainable development. As a prospective tourist such disregard for important cultural resources makes me less likely to visit the historic triangle. 

These two parcels fall within the “Core Battlefield Boundaries” as well as a potential area for National Register Nomination as identified by the the American Battlefield Protection Program (NPS). These parcels have also been meticulously researched by regional and nationally renowned historians and have been identified for their prehistoric, 17th, 18th and impeccable 19th century history. Resources on site includes intact earthen works, roadbeds and building foundations. This is the ground where on May 5th, 1862 General Hancock earned his title “The Superb”, where the 5th NC lost their flag and where hundreds of men were buried around the Custis barns. I stand with the Navy and National Park Service. 

Sincerely,
XXX
Address

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