Tag Archives: slavery

Civil War Institute 2014 Recap

Just back from the Gettysburg College’s Civil War Institute. It was enjoyable to be surrounded by friends, old and new, as I spent three days there. During the 150th anniversary (starting in 2011) of the Civil War, the Civil War Institute has focused on the specific anniversary year. Thus this year, the topics were centered around the war in 1864. Which as far as I’m concerned is the most interesting year of the war.

 

Friday’s programming began in the late afternoon with a masterful overview of the war in that pivotal year of 1864 by my friend (and recent PhD) Brian Matthew Jordan. In 40 minutes or so, Brian complicated the traditional narrative that the war was already won in 1863 and that the North was predestined to victory on the battlefields around the South as well as at the ballot box with the Presidential election in November. He covered North and South, from St. Albans, Vermont to the Trans-Mississippi. I continue to be amazed. He was followed by a conversation between CWI’s director, Peter Carmichael and Gordon Rhea regarding the Overland Campaign in May-June 1864.

 

Saturday’s programming began with Pete Carmichael on Robert E. Lee’s struggles with his corps commanders, James Longstreet (recovering from a wound much of 1864), Richard S. Ewell (shattered by the war and thus sent to command the Richmond defenses in May 1864)/Jubal A. Early, and Ambrose Powell Hill (in and out of command due to his own health issues) as he attempted to annihilate the Federal Army of the Potomac. Following him was Brooks Simpson weaving together humor and seriousness to discuss Ulysses Grant’s ability to deal with what he called the “problem of Virginia.” Brooks stated that Grant did not want to fight in Virginia. In January 1864, before he was tapped as general-in-chief had been asked by then general-in-chief, Henry Halleck for a plan to destroy the Confederacy. Grant consulted with Cyrus Comstock and William F. “Baldy” Smith who had both been in Virginia earlier in the war. Grant ended up proposing an amphibious assault out of eastern North Carolina which could have destroyed the vital Wilmington & Weldon and Petersburg & Weldon railroads. The Army of the Potomac would have protected Washington D.C. Halleck rejected the plan. As Brooks more or less summarized, Grant felt like if Virginia could not be his theater of decision, he would work to make sure Lee could not be the decision maker in the Old Dominion either. Much of the larger plan of Grant would result in the war being decided in the Deep South until the August promotion of Philip Sheridan in the Shenandoah Valley to army command. It was then when Virginia was converted to a theater of decision-making on Grant’s terms.

 

Certainly’s Saturday’s most disturbing topic was delivered by Ari Kelman. Ari spoke about the contested memories of the Massacre at Sand Creek which he wrote a book about. It has been well received and received awards. The greatest reminder that I took away from Ari’s talk (beyond the mutilated bodies of Native people) is that the idea of “healing” is very complicated between the Federal government and groups of people who have been oppressed. The creation of Sand Creek National Historical Park was greeted by government officials as an acknowledgement of the massacre that took place there in 1864. Yet descendent tribal leaders struggled to find the healing because of the long, contested and testy relationship between the Federal government and tribal folks. Ari positioned this event within a larger framework of America embarking on its empire as the Republican party could mold through policy and war, how the west would be settled.

 

Almost ironically during the afternoon concurrent sessions, I went to Kevin Levin’s talk about white Union troops’ memories of the Battle of the Crater and Caroline Janney’s talk about Petersburg civilians in 1864-1865. Regrettably, I missed Susannah Ural’s talk Saturday evening as I made final preparations for my program the next morning.

 

Sunday started with my friend Dr. Keith Bohannan speaking on the Atlanta Campaign Keith criticized Sherman’s poor use of cavalry. He also drew the contrasts between Sherman’s positive relationship with the Abraham Lincoln administration and Ulysses Grant and Joseph E. Johnston’s negative relationship with the Jefferson Davis administration. He suggested that Sherman may not be remembered for crushing battlefield victories in 1862-1863; but, he was a master at maneuvering during the Atlanta Campaign.

 

I followed Keith to discuss United States Colored Troops at the Battle of the Crater. I was pleased with the talk; though, I had other examples of reactions to the battle. I did make it through all the participants who approached the microphones to ask questions so there was something to be said for skipping over some examples. I was pleased as soon as the talk was over to see a stream of people line up to ask other questions, express their happiness with the talk, etc. You missed it? You have an opportunity to see it. I’ll explain later.

 

Following my not very “pick me up” story, concurrent sessions broke out and I listened to Eric Leonard discuss the prisoner of war situation in 1864, particularly at Camp Sumter near Andersonville, Georgia. However, it was the story of John January of the 14th Illinois Cavalry that continues to be seared in my brain. January was captured in the summer of 1864 and sent to Andersonville. He was transferred to Florence, South Carolina in November 1864. Having gangrene and a will to live that most of us are fortunate to never have to face, January along with some others managed to amputate his feet since he was not able to convince Southern physicians that his life was worth saving. He did survive and lived many years after the war. Important things to come out of this:

 

  • Andersonville more deadly than the Battle of Antietam, the bloodiest day in American history.
  • Andersonville is in a league of its own and apologists need to stop attempting to compare it with Northern prison camps for Confederates or even other Confederate prison camps for Federal soldiers.
  • Prisoner of war exchange breakdown occurs because of the enlistment and service of black men; not a simple refusal of Ulysses Grant or Abraham Lincoln to exchange Confederates.
  • Andersonville’s prisoners were exposed to the slave culture as they were treated to iron collars and dogs hunting them down when they tried to escape. For those who did escape, they found (like runaway slaves), that they found their best help with other blacks.
  • PoW camps are places for us all to reflect on the consequences of all wars.

 

In the afternoon, we heard from Dr. Crystal Feimster about mutiny and rape cases at Fort Jackson, Louisiana. Lt. Colonel Augustus Benedict was a completely disgusting man who fortunately was dishonorably discharged as he treated his ex-slaves turned soldiers no better than the slaveholders they had left behind. What her program partially exposed was that gaps existed between blacks about their freedom and Northern whites’ perceptions of black freedom. Black laundresses, victim to sexual assault, did not simply think of themselves as safety seeking refugees but real working-class women. Blacks could testify against whites in court martial cases, setting up another real belief that there would be something different in the aftermath of the war. Of course, many black people were disappointed in the post-war years to find that equal justice would be elusive. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Dr. Feimster exposed that white officers at Fort Jackson attempted to intimidate and silence the laundresses’ voices as they wished to expose the truth about the sexual violence at the fort. I immediately thought about the long history and the on-going desires by some people to silence and ignore sexual violence. Equally disgusting is the trend of blaming the victim. Among the many areas where people who know history cannot say “History doesn’t matter” because it’s easy to find the echoing voices of these laundresses in the world today including in the United States of America.

 

Concurrent sessions started again and I went to hear Antwain Hunter’s research on black North Carolinians relationship with guns and local and state laws and practices. A question emerged in this talk: did the Confederacy dissolve from conflict between local/county rights versus states’ rights versus national rights/needs? Research by Jamie Martinez regarding slaveholders’ resistance to sending enslaved laborers to dig earthworks in Virginia and North Carolina definitely suggests so.

 

Dinner ran late and so I was prevented from going to Barton Myers’ discussion of guerilla warfare. But based on tweets from those in the session, I can say he drew the conclusion that guerilla warfare did nothing for the Federal or Confederate national aims but stirred local drama and bad relationships.

 

Beyond the talks, it was amazing to see over 400 people in attendance, 250 were first time participants and I’d hazard a guess that some 100 were age 45 or less. There were other black people there and at least one Asian lady. I spoke with several high school and college students after my talk about USCT experience during the war. Thus I was restored to know, I’m not the only young, black person whose love of the Civil War era began when I was a young child. I send my praise to Dr. Pete Carmichael, Dr. Ian Isherwood, Dr. Brian Jordan, Dr. Jill O. Titus and VERY importantly, Diane Brennan, Allison Jordan, and Brian Johnson for their work on putting on an amazingly well-organized conference.

 

Finally, if you’re upset you missed CWI, you can catch several sessions thanks to the great folks at C-Span. Saturday’s sessions were shown live and then stored online. You can view them here: http://series.c-span.org/History/Events/Gettysburg-College-Civil-War-Institute-Annual-Summer-Conference/10737444464/. Sunday’s sessions done by Keith, myself, and Eric and I believe Crystal’s talks were all recorded. Anyway, you can catch those on July 4th on C-Span. Mine is to air at 6PM Eastern time and re-airs at 6AM on July 5th.

 

 

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June 26, 2014 · 4:08 pm

Facing the Past, Facing Your Family

I recently attended the Facing the Past, Freeing the Future: Slavery’s Legacy, Freedom’s Promise symposium which was presented by Randolph College and Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest. Regrettably, I could only attend on Friday, April 4th but it was a full and good day.

The program opening talk was given by Dr. John d’Entremont, Theodore H. Jack Professor of History at Randolph College. He examined 250 years of how enslaved people built and reformed America through slavery’s existence and destruction and how America grapples with the institution’s legacy and the promises and imaginations of freedom. In fact, his initial comments were that we were meeting on the 149th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s visit to Richmond in 1865 and 45 years after Martin L. King, Jr.’s assassination.

Following this, Dr. Theresa Singleton moderated a panel which included Dr. Barbara Heath, Associate Professor of Anthropology, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, author of Hidden Lives: The Archaeology of Slave Life at Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest; Lori Lee, Ainsworth Visiting Assistant Professor of American Culture, Randolph College; and Jack Gary, Director of Archaeology and Landscapes, Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest. They discussed how archaeology, especially at Poplar Forest is helping to recreate the material world of slavery at Jefferson’s “retreat” which of course was not a retreat for the enslaved community working and living there.

In the afternoon, Annette Gordon Reed of the Harvard Law School, well-known for her books Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy and The Hemingses: An American Family moderated a panel of descendants of black women whose ancestors were caught up in the Diaspora (though one lady’s family was a 20th century move) and most of the panelists were descendants of people who were once enslaved by Thomas Jefferson. However, one panelist, Gayle White is descended through what is likely one of Jefferson’s great-grandson (Side note: Gayle and I met each other in 2013 and discovered we are distantly related).

 

Annette Gordon-Reed moderates afternoon panel "Black Memory."

Annette Gordon-Reed moderates the afternoon panel “Black Memory.”

The morning and afternoon panels were preceded by two one-person representations of fictional blacks who were transitioning from slavery into the post-Civil War period. The morning presentation by a student representing an enslaved woman who had a child with a slave, a child with her former owner and expected to never see him again, and working on transitioning into her new life. It was well received by the audience and she captured the emotions of her character well.

 

Poplar Forest slave quarter area

Morris Lockhart discusses the area where slave quarters were discovered by archaeologists. Sadly, as you can see in the back of the “ghost” structure, modern development has inched into the area.

In the late afternoon, the participants went to visit Poplar Forest. Apparently, the tours there have in the past been very focused on the architecture of Jefferson’s retreat house, which was heavily damaged by fire in 1845. Later alterations inspired a restoration which has included reconstructing elements of the house which have disappeared over the years from the fire and later alterations. While this was the first tour they did which took us to a place where archaeologists located quarters for the Poplar Forest slaves. On my tour, the guide shared stories about William (also called Billy) who went to Monticello in 1812 to learn a trade. However by 1817, he was sent back to Poplar Forest because Jefferson did not like his attitude. Two years later, William attacked an overseer and William ran to Monticello to plead his case to Jefferson. Exactly what happened after that is unclear though William remained at Poplar Forest. Then in 1821, William and two other enslaved men attacked another overseer. They were arrested, tried and William was convicted for attacking the overseer and was burned on the hand and whipped. After this, Jefferson had four men, including William sent to Louisiana. He later tried to escape but was recaptured and sold in New Orleans. Other stories were shared such as Field Hubbard, whom Jefferson gave some small amount of money to to dig his back lawn. In the basement of Poplar Forest, there were exhibits but as we were on a guided tour with a tight timetable, we didn’t get to explore this in any detail. In the house, there is a surviving door made by John Hemmings, who was a joiner and cabinetmaker and a brother to Sally Hemings. This is especially unique considering the 1845 fire and later alterations of the house.

 

 

Nevertheless, the trip to Poplar Forest was a nice treat. Certainly, one of the challenges I found at that site is that since Jefferson did not live at Poplar Forest full time the detailed records, like those at Monticello, are not present. What was the enslaved community’s life like at Poplar Forest?

One way this has been addressed is through the archaeological work that has been going on about 30 years out at Poplar Forest. I’ve got my own work to do in reading Barbara Heath’s book and Jefferson’s Poplar Forest: Unearthing a Virginia Plantation which was edited by Barbara Heath and Jack Gary. However, I’d be ready to go back to Poplar Forest in the future to see how their work is progressing.

Another challenge is that slavery, nor history, stopped when Poplar Forest was sold outside of the Jefferson extended family in the 1820s. In the morning session, Lori Lee and Jack Gary shared information about the Hutter family who owned Poplar Forest in the 1840s, 1850s, and 1860s. Surviving slave quarters from the late 1850s are still standing but in need of restoration and additional interpretation.

This 1857 slave quarter still remains at Poplar Forest. It most likely housed enslaved domestic servants.

This 1857 slave quarter still remains at Poplar Forest. It most likely housed enslaved domestic servants.

 

The greatest part of this program for me was meeting Prinny Anderson and Tess Taylor, who are white descendants of Thomas Jefferson and seeing Gayle again. My own family tree is linked with the Jefferson family; not as directly as Prinny, Tess, or Gayle. My fourth great-grandmother was an Eppes and Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson’s mother was an Eppes. I am a distant cousin of Mrs. Jefferson. However, Tess and Prinny are very open to recognizing that there are all sorts of relationships that human beings develop. In some of those relationships, children are born. The circumstances of interracial relationships in the 1800s are mostly unknown and often (as has been the case publicly in the Jefferson family) have been hidden, denied, or purposefully distorted.

Sometimes our interpretive challenges rest within our own families and how we deal with them often is more a reflection about us than our ancestors.

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12 Years a Slave scores a new audience and Oscars

 

The Staking Out and Flogging of Patsey

The Staking Out and Flogging of Patsey, p. 256 in Twelve Years a Slave: Narrative of Solomon Northrup, a Citizen of New York, Kidnapped in Washington City in 1841, and Rescued in 1853 (Auburn: Derby and Miller, 1853).

Last night (in case you missed it) the Steve McQueen directed, Brad Pitt produced 12 Years a Slave scooped up some Oscars last night. The movie and its casts won:

Best Picture

Best Supporting Actress: Lupita Nyong’o

Best Adapted Screenplay by John Ridley.

Undoubtedly, this movie is bringing to the masses a more realistic portrayal of slavery’s cruel and exploitative nature. It has encouraged numerous people I know to read more slave narratives. I believe that Hattie McDaniel’s spirit smiled for Lupita’s Oscar win last night for bringing Patsey’s wretched story to life. I applaud Steve McQueen for including the fact that slavery continues in the present day.

Still, the best speech was Lupita’s and you’ll see why by watching this video. I think the real Patsey, Solomon Northrup, and scores of others who experienced the slavery period and its aftermath were pleased with her.

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The Tension Within

Some readers of this blog may have seen the recent outrage and subsequent cancellation of Ani DiFranco’s “Righteous Retreat” where songwriters, poets, and performance artists were to relax and find creativity at Nottoway Plantation in Louisiana.

First, let me say that I have never been to Nottoway Plantation (or anywhere else in Louisiana); but reports from Eichstedt and Small’s Representations of Slavery and some friends of mine who went last year makes me wonder about how they are coming to terms with the issue of enslavement and the struggle for power and citizenship that went on at the plantation during and after slavery.

That being said, I commend my friend, Nicholas Redding, executive director at Long Branch Plantation who has extended an invitation to Ms. DiFranco. Why should there not be a retreat of poets, songwriters, and performance artists at a plantation site? The opponents cite “genocide of black people” that took place at the plantation as their major reason for opposing the event.

Plantation sites are among many sites that have complex, complicated histories that are not always uplifting. Nor are they always sad. Readers of this blog know that I am opposed to moonlight and magnolia depictions of plantation sites. Violence and resistance are powerful themes within these sites that too often has been ignored in favor of presenting kind and gracious property owners where the labor of virtually everything occurred as if my magic (or what friends  of mine know I call the “Beauty and the Beast” syndrome ). These sites, however, did not routinely feature genocide ( which is the deliberate and systematic destruction, in whole or in part, of an ethnic, racial, religious, or national group; see  T. Marcus Funk, Victims’ Rights and Advocacy at the International Criminal Court. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press. p. 1).

The process of  the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade and 17th and 18th century slave adaptation to the Americas and Europe generated social and religious alterations of various ethnic and/or tribal traditions within the slave communities and millions of people perished. However, the goal was to maintain a labor system to benefit a minority of European land and people owners. By the 1800s, with the African slave trade legally stopped (though illegal trading continued) in the United States and with natural increase of American born and bred enslaved people much of the social and cultural trends had already cemented and few people had any real knowledge of Africa as a continent (not to mention the variables of people, climates, flora, and fauna of that vast continent). These American born slaves considered themselves American and thus entitled to the ideals in the Declaration of Independence and the laws of the Constitution. So the enslaved community at Nottoway (and the thousands of other slaveholding properties) experienced periods of pain (physical and emotional), suffering, and desires for freedom; but, the Randolphs (and their contemporary slaveholders) did not systematically destroy Africans and Americans of African descent through mass extermination.

I believe as I have said here before, those of us entrusted as stewards of the plantations and the stories associated with these sites, have to create methods for understanding the histories (I am purposefully use of the plural because not everyone had the exact same experiences) of these sites while working with visitors to create meaning making and complicate modern understanding of historical people. If we do our jobs and people are paying attention, we may consider ways to see inequality in the present and make our own world better.

What the outrage does illustrate is that everyone needs to realize that this nation was created and maintained with biases for gender and race. We do not live in a utopian American culture. Thus there is no “post-racial” because of a dual election of Barack Obama. There is no “post-gender” because of Hillary Clinton, Ruth Ginsberg, Sonia Sotomayor, or Elena Kagan.

But back to the basics of this retreat and why I think poets, songwriters, and performance artists can go to plantations and honor the histories (as messy as they are) of these sites. The plantation owners battled for what they considered their rights. Extreme violence in the form of war developed to sustain slavery. Enslaved people, including women, battled for their rights in obviously different ways but still on the same turf.

Enslaved people sang songs to strengthen one another and to encourage resistance. They played drums and danced to celebrate. They told stories to make fun of slaveholders. They crafted mourning rituals to honor the dead. Some remained Islamic. Some Africans were already Christian when they arrived in the New World or Europe. Some hung on to elements of different African groups’ traditions and melded them with Christianity. 

Belisario01

So I close with a performance artist who survived slavery, who was a feminist, who was brave, and who challenged what people thought she ought to do. Her speech “Ain’t I a Woman” has different versions but this is the earliest transcription from June 21, 1851. The artist’s name was Sojourner Truth:

I want to say a few words about this matter. I am a woman’s rights. I have as much muscle as any man, and can do as much work as any man. I have plowed and reaped and husked and chopped and mowed, and can any man do more than that? I have heard much about the sexes being equal. I can carry as much as any man, and can eat as much too, if I can get it. I am as strong as any man that is now. As for intellect, all I can say is, if a woman have a pint, and a man a quart – why can’t she have her little pint full? You need not be afraid to give us our rights for fear we will take too much, – for we can’t take more than our pint’ll hold. The poor men seems to be all in confusion, and don’t know what to do. Why children, if you have woman’s rights, give it to her and you will feel better. You will have your own rights, and they won’t be so much trouble. I can’t read, but I can hear. I have heard the bible and have learned that Eve caused man to sin. Well, if woman upset the world, do give her a chance to set it right side up again. The Lady has spoken about Jesus, how he never spurned woman from him, and she was right. When Lazarus died, Mary and Martha came to him with faith and love and besought him to raise their brother. And Jesus wept and Lazarus came forth. And how came Jesus into the world? Through God who created him and the woman who bore him. Man, where was your part? But the women are coming up blessed be God and a few of the men are coming up with them. But man is in a tight place, the poor slave is on him, woman is coming on him, he is surely between a hawk and a buzzard.

Sojourner Truth

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“Was he bi-polar?!” OR Interpreting the Violence of Enslavement

This post’s title is inspired by comments that I have recently been asked while interpreting a slaveholder at work. I include the same overall historical facts in all of my tours of the plantation big house; though I vary the arrangement of the words. The owner of the property had a few enslaved laborers who were clearly his favorites. He complimented their “good conduct” and the work they performed. If unsatisfied with that work he “scolded” or “spoke to” those whom he liked. He gave monetary gifts at Christmas to most of the enslaved community (by 1860, 113 individuals) and for his favorites, he gave monetary gifts at other times of the year.

Yet, these were a few individuals and it is clear even as they were his favorites, he still believed white Southerners were superior to people of African descent. As members of the enslaved community resisted his authority, he, like the clear majority of slaveholders, turned to a variety of non-violent and violent methods to show that the slaveholder held considerable power. I’m interested in telling my visitors about the tug-of-war over who had more power (those who were enslaved or the enslavers) and the techniques both used in that power struggle.

So the question I hear “Was he bi-polar?” strikes me as strange because I have no belief that this plantation owner was bi-polar. I also have no ability to make that judgment 117 years after his death. What I think this stems from is a lack of our plantation sites or museums including the violence of enslavement.

Often visitors to historic plantation sites are invited to witness the “splendor” of furnished rooms or to understand the “hospitality” of the plantation owners. Yet the majority of the people who lived (and labored) on these plantations were people of African descent not welcomed into the grand parlors or elaborate dining rooms of the people who owned them.

The wonders of the Internet make is possible for us to see a variety of plantation rules, such as Joseph Acklen, who lived with his wife Adelicia at Belmont Mansion in Nashville and the sugar plantations she got after the death of her first husband (who was a well-known slave trader). As you can see here whipping was how he, his overseers, or agents dealt with the enslaved laborers he owned.

While it appears Thomas Jefferson preferred not to whip people, his overseers did perform the task (see Lucia Stanton’s “Those who Labor for My Happiness”: Slavery at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello). Enslaved laborers at Mount Vernon, home of the nation’s Revolutionary hero and first president were whipped by overseers and Washington supported the whippings as a means to control those who resisted. Wesley Norris, former slave at Arlington, the Custis family estate (now dominated by the Arlington National Cemetery), recalled he, his sister, and one of their cousins ran away in 1859. Their escape failed and upon return to Arlington, he recalled Robert E. Lee, administrator of George Washington Parke Custis’ estate, ordering the overseer to whip them. The overseer having balked at this task, Lee had a local constable called in who was told by Lee to “lay it on well” (see Elizabeth Brown Pryor’s Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee Through His Private Letters).

Aunt Sally being whipped

Slavery and violence go hand-in-hand. Slaveholders thought nothing about their carrot and stick methodology to try to control the enslaved men, women, and children on their properties. The interviews conducted with former slaves illustrates the personal experiences of individuals who coped with a series of non-violent threats (such as the thought of sale), non-violent actions (selling people, cutting off access to food, or restricting a person’s ability to leave the slave owner’s property), violent episodes (such as rape, mutilation, or the extremely common whippings), compliments, and rewards. I cannot think of a single slaveholding site or museum that exclusively discusses the brutality of enslavement (it would be historically inaccurate to do so); but I can think of many that refuse to engage with the vicious nature of human bondage.

We need all of these places to use the historical record (i.e., eyewitness accounts) to present a full record of the events that occurred on slaveholding properties. As hospitable as someone could be to a sibling or neighbor is as wicked as he or she may be to an enslaved person on a given day and then be complimentary of that same enslaved person some weeks later. I am not convinced that slaveholders were on the whole “bi-polar;” but, I am convinced that historic sites and museums still have more research to undertake and (most importantly) have to broadcast their findings in a responsible way.

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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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