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Interpreting Christmas and Slavery

Let me apologize for the silence. However, I’m back to what I affectionately call “my poor, neglected blog” for a seasonal post.

This week an article appeared about a Christmas program at Gunston Hall, the plantation owned by George Mason (an often forgotten Founding Father) located in Fairfax County, Virginia. The program they had was titled “Plantation Christmas” which is a program about Christmas in the late 1700s. The author notes that various folks on Twitter were critical of the event through the site’s marketing and through a photograph that appeared on Twitter from David DuVal, director of marketing and public relations.

The site’s executive director responded to Mother Jones and you can read the article for yourself. What I’m less interested in is talking specifically about Gunston Hall and talking broadly about interpretive output at Christmas events at historic sites.

I am known around some in the museum community as the guy who hates “cider and cookies programs.” They exist at 17th, 18th, 19th, and 20th century sites from Maine to Florida and from the Outer Banks of North Carolina to California. I actually like cider and I like cookies. However, what is the purpose of these programs? What window do they offer people into the specifics of the historic site or the historic context of the people who lived/worked at this place?

I took this subject on in my work (which y’all know I attempt to steer clear of discussing on my personal blog but I think in this case it is valuable).  We had a program at the Grant’s Headquarters at City Point unit of Petersburg National Battlefield years ago that featured cider and cookies, Christmas carols, dancing on the lawn, Civil War Santa, and kids’ crafts (such as construction paper chains and stringing popcorn and cranberries). In December 2001 (my first year working this program), I decided to insert a lecture about the lives of enslaved people during the Christmas season somewhat broadly but also bringing out information about the folks who lived and worked on the Eppes family’s plantation. I gave the program twice to a group of about 30 people each time.

The next year I suggested canceling the Christmas program to give us time to dig deeper into Richard Eppes’ diary to investigate the specifics of Christmas in the 1850s and 1860s on this plantation. We did not have a program again until 2007. I organized a group of living historians to assist me in representing specific people who were at the Eppes’ plantation (white and black) at Christmas 1858. A loose script was developed and I e-mailed the details of individual enslaved persons, the Eppes family, and their visitors. There were three stations (one in the big house parlor, one in the kitchen/laundry, and one outside on the lawn). This allowed people to hear about the lives of these people and their perspectives during this specific time of year (when a lot of us reflect back on our lives’ broadly, the past year, family, religion, and discuss preparations and gifts).

Gone now was Civil War Santa (it’s the 1850s after all), a Christmas tree (the historic record noted the first Christmas tree in the house in 1866), no more stringing popcorn and cranberries, no dancing (no evidence the Eppes’ did this outside or inside the house), and instead the interpretation happened of this specific site in the context of the 1850s and based in primary source evidence.

Christmas18582007

Christmas 1858 (in 2007) with living historians portraying Elizabeth Eppes, Susan Slaughter, and myself as George Bolling.

The program ran the next year and then in 2009 we started following the 150th anniversary of events (2009 was Christmas 1859, 2010 was Christmas 1860, 2011 was Christmas 1861). Each one wrapped in the evidence from Eppes’ diary and other contextual materials where the diary was lacking. There has not been an event 2012-2015 because the Eppes’ plantation complex rapidly disintegrated as a result of the Eppes family’s refugee status during the war and the enslaved people’s desires to be free and their own action of escaping in the spring and summer of 1862 and Union occupation from May 1864 through the end of the war.
A challenging component to any of these programs is shifting the focus back onto the people who lived these experiences: good, bad, and the ugly. For example, Christmas 1858 was a happy period for the person I was portraying, George Bolling who got married having successfully convinced Richard Eppes to allow him to marry someone who wasn’t on the plantation (which Eppes usually did not allow). However, that in and of itself opened the door for the interpreter to discuss with the visitors on these tours the degradation of adults who were enslaved. Black adults asking one man who has decreed in his mind that he should get to say on who others can marry.  George and his wife undoubtedly had concerns within that happiness about the stability of family when a slaveholder might breakup the union. Yet the preparations for the wedding spoke to the power of love to endure great strains.
Plantation sites have a lot of unresolved stories because the people who experienced slavery died long ago with many of those same people not feeling at peace. Our job in being able to connect our sites with the public should strive to not continue perpetuating slights to those whose stories have often been hidden in the shadows.

I agree with the comment of the Twitter user @slwill who asks if the story of the enslaved and the slaveholder are combined. I cannot speak to the program at Gunston Hall (though the site director says that they are committed to finding out more about Mason, the idea of slavery, and the specifics about the enslaved people at Gunston Hall); but, this should be a question always asked by interpreters at sites with connections to slavery. How can we (who work in these sites) help open up conversations with our visitors about the multiple perspectives that slaveholders, overseers, visitors, and the enslaved viewed the “big house,” the associated outbuildings, and the stuff within those buildings? We have to start with being honest about who built and maintained these structures, who cleaned silver and laid it out on dining tables, and the feelings that the enslaved person may have gotten from a pretty piece of art versus that of the slaveholder.
Tours guides and printed literature must carefully have the tone that shows they are serious about being inclusive of the variety of experiences people had on the plantations, in city houses, and at industrial sites. The tours must be grounded in the hard, but rewarding work, of primary source research. The research should be multi-disciplinary combining archival work, historical architectural and historical landscape design, archaeology, and material culture (or in other words–the stuff people owned whether it survives or not). The stories discussed with visitors that come about from this work must also be honest (slave trading, whippings, threats, resistance, etc.), and they must be human (all the people on the plantation have humanity–even negative human traits). Tell the stories of love/heartache, hate, ideas, courage, success/failures, faith, intelligence, beauty, fear, generosity, and creativity. The brilliance of what is often seen in these places of slavery (furnishings and buildings) could only have been sustained through the variety of enslaved persons who built and maintained buildings, planted/tended/harvested crops, dusted furniture, washed dishes, made nails, pried open oysters and turned them into soups and sauces, and washed clothes. These stories must exist alongside the stories of the slaveholders, because that was the lived experience of slavery.

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Freedmen’s Bureau Talk & Sources

Back in August I gave a talk about the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, more commonly known as the Freedmen’s Bureau. You can click here to view it online by clicking here.

Marriage of a colored soldier at Vicksburg by Chaplain Warren of the Freedmen's Bureau.

Marriage of a colored soldier at Vicksburg by Chaplain Warren of the Freedmen’s Bureau. Library of Congress.

 

Pat Young asked about sources for further reading. Among the secondary sources are:

  1. Paul A. Cimbala and Randall M. Miller, eds., The Freedmen’s Bureau and Reconstruction.
  2. Mary J. Farmer-Kaiser, Freedwomen and the Freedmen’s Bureau: Race, Gender, and Public Policy in the Age of Emancipation.
  3. William L. Richter, Overreached on All Sides: The Freedmen’s Bureau Administrators in Texas, 1865-1868.
  4. Paul Cimbala, Under the Guardianship of the Nation: The Freedmen’s Bureau and the Reconstruction of Georgia, 1865-1870.
  5. And while not a book solely about the Bureau, I feel like I must include Heather Andrea Williams’ Help Me to Find My People: The African American Search for Family Lost in Slavery.

You can help genealogists and historians by joining the transcription project. You can read more about that by clicking here.

 

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Evaluating the Civil War Sesquicentennial

First, let me apologize for the lack of posts. I had an idea prepared but real life made me reconsider posting. In fact, blogging in general has gone in a direction that I’m not interested in. So the posts will be much more infrequent which inevitably will mean some of you will forget about the blog. I am sorry about that.

That said, back in August I was on a panel with several other folks regarding an assessment of the Civil War 150th. I will maintain that I am tired of the narrative that the 150th was a “failure” simply because each event didn’t have 50,000 people at them. The 150th commemorations varied in scale, places, and indeed more people saw more about the Civil War than they did during the centennial. I know for one, no one in my family attended anything during the 1960s commemorations when they were still attending segregated schools in Southside Virginia. Yet, members of my family did join me on some programs during the 150th.

The 2011-15 commemorations and promotion had the benefit of not only print media and word of mouth, but social media platforms online.

The link to the conversation can be found here: http://www.c-span.org/video/?327502-2/discussion-evaluating-sesquicentennial and I welcome any sane feedback.

Thanks!

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Richmond National Battlefield’s Upcoming Reconstruction Program

Chimborazo Hospital in April 1865. Library of Congress.

Chimborazo Hospital in April 1865. Library of Congress.

This coming Saturday (July 18th) at 7PM, Ranger Mike Gorman will be presenting a program on the Freedmen’s Bureau and the freed people who occupied Chimborazo Hospital in the aftermath of the Civil War.

For a preview check Mike out here: http://ideastations.org/radio/news/chimborazo-hospital-after-civil-war. Further details are available on the Richmond National Battlefield website.

Again, I urge people to look into what the NPS is doing already to address Reconstruction in post-Civil War America.

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Confederate Flag Controversy

“The Conquered Banner,” Library of Congress.

First, let me apologize for the lack of posts.

Secondly, let me say that the link below is the *ONLY* thing I have to say about the latest Confederate flag drama. There are many other bloggers (several of them I consider friends and/or great historians) who have long followed this. I have consciously opted to ignore it on this blog. However, it is hard to ignore these days. I know some people have asked me my opinion. I extend my thanks to my friend, Dana Shoaf, editor of the Civil War Times for asking me to share my thoughts.

My thoughts can be found here: http://www.historynet.com/embattled-banner-the-convoluted-history-of-the-confederate-flag.htm.

People are welcome to disagree but any profanity/racism/nastiness will not be approved in the comments.

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Reconstruction & the National Park Service

First, let me preface this with saying while I work for the NPS I am blogging PERSONALLY. These thoughts are MY OWN and NOT reflective of any official National Park Service (NPS) policy. However, with a recent article being shared written by two historians about the NPS and Reconstruction, I could not let this moment go by. I think Greg Downs and Kate Masur’s article is well written and they make good points. Still, I thought a voice from the NPS and someone who actually works “in the field” was important and needed in this discussion.

Back in 2011 is the first year I remember hearing people say they wanted the NPS to have a park dedicated to the theme of Reconstruction. My reaction is the same as it was then: We have parks who should be interpreting Reconstruction. The first one that comes to mind is Andrew Johnson National Historic Site. In case it escaped people, Andrew Johnson is the first president after the murder of Abraham Lincoln. He’s in office 1865-1869. His head butting and very different vision of America than that of the Radical Republicans in Congress nearly cost him his job. I admit I have never been to the site; but, if you’re looking for a NPS site that seems to be a very logical one.

However, I am not opposed to Kevin Levin’s thoughts (as well as numerous people I’ve heard at conferences) about a park at Beaufort and Sea Islands in South Carolina. However, as he noted Reconstruction is complicated. Creating one park or two or three or even ten, cannot fully encapsulate this complex period.  Why?

Places where Reconstruction happened.

  • The black farmer, Abraham Brian at Gettysburg has a story about reconstruction. A literal repairing his house and farm after the destruction the Battle of Gettysburg brought to him in July 1863 and the political/societal shifts brought about through Constitutional amendments in the aftermath of the Confederate military surrenders.
  • All NPS sites with Civil War National Cemeteries. 
  • Plantations and slaveholding farms such as Hampton and Melrose.
  • Nicodemus National Historic Site, though established in 1877 (and has buildings that post-date the government’s end of Reconstruction) reflects black people who were certainly alive during Reconstruction.

Putting a Reconstruction park in a single place doesn’t reflect how far-reaching the Reconstruction period was. It could have the effect of suggesting that “You should go THERE (wherever that is) to learn about Reconstruction. Once you’ve done that you’re done with that theme.”

"Appomattox"--The Home of the Eppes Family at City Point (now Hopewell), Virginia. The site is best known as the location of Ulysses Grant's headquarters from the summer of 1864-spring of 1865. This was also the administrative and center piece of the Eppes' family's plantation from when the house was initially built in 1763 well into the late 20th century.

“Appomattox”–The Home of the Eppes Family at City Point (now Hopewell), Virginia. The site is best known as the location of Ulysses Grant’s headquarters from the summer of 1864-spring of 1865. This was also the administrative and center piece of the Eppes’ family’s plantation from when the house was initially built in 1763 well into the late 20th century.

I want to illustrate that the people who lived on what BECAME battlefields (I think we forget that these NPS sites were people’s places of work and home) had to cope with different types of Reconstruction. There was literally repairing buildings as well as political/social/financial reconstructions.  On May 23rd, 2015 from 1-4PM should anyone want to drive on down/up/across to Petersburg National Battlefield I will be doing a tour titled: “’…a perfect waste:’ Destruction and Reconstruction of the Land and People.” The tour begins at 1001 Pecan Avenue, Hopewell, Virginia.

 So this notion that we NEED a park SOLELY dedicated to Reconstruction, I’m not opposed to necessarily; but, we have parks that have these stories. If you (visitors) want to hear those stories push for them on your visit. Whether it be at a NPS site, a state park, a local museum/historic site, etc. 

Reconstruction is harder to commemorate at one place because of the various visions of America and Americans’ dreams about their lives and expectations from the different levels of government during this period. In fact, it’s perfectly ok if we have to drive great distances to understand Reconstruction.

What do you think?

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More on Finding Your Roots controversy

As some of you may be aware now, Ben Affleck released a statement about the episode with Henry Louis Gates.

However, there is more troubling news surrounding Gates. Gawker got access to the script. So it is clear Gates knew about the request from Affleck as you can see in the link of timing of the e-mails versus timing of the air date. It’s also clear that the initial plan was to include Affleck’s slave holding ancestor.

I do not know why Gates censored this through editing. I really enjoyed this show but I am left wondering, what else has been cut or altered? The best line I ever heard about genealogy: You have to take your family tree. All of it. When you start trimming branches, you leave a part of your history on the ground.

Seems strange that Henry Gates became the gardener in the history field.

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