Tag Archives: American history

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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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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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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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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The Complexities of Families, Historic Sites, and America’s Past

As many readers are aware, it was revealed through the Sony e-mail hack that Henry Louis Gates censored the family history of Ben Affleck in an episode ofPBS show “Finding Your Roots.” Mr. Affleck requested that this be done. 

I don’t know why (or if) Affleck thought this would somehow damage him. Honestly, I thought more of him as a man who is involved with charity work. He clearly has not followed the path of his ancestor who did own someone.

I join my friend Kevin in wondering more what does this say about Gates and the show? Gates in some ways blows this off saying there were more compelling stories.  He said in part:

“Finding slave-owning ancestors is very common in our series. You can see why when you remember, for example, that 37% of the families in Georgia, where Ben’s ancestor lived, owned slaves in 1860, the year before the Civil War broke out.”

Indeed, slaveholding was common. Gates obviously knows that. While I don’t blog generally about my own family, my great-great-great grandfather was a slaveholder (my third great grandmother a free mulatto woman). Through him, an overwhelming number of the white members of my family tree owned people of African descent from the 1700s through the end of the Civil War.

Why do people have a need to be connected to what they perceive as great American moments, i.e., the American Revolution (Mr. Affleck was very happy about that) but not want to grapple with the complexities of the subjects of race and gender in the past? Furthermore, why do modern people feel the need to deify people of the past?

So often historic sites engage in this behavior too. Fortunately, our historic sites are getting better with this but some people create all sorts of narratives that often say more about our modern political thoughts or personal feelings when we (who interpret and manage these places) should be using the documents/objects/buildings/landscapes to best offer how what happened, even if that is uncomfortable (like slaveholding or historical genocides) and even if it involves people that were respected in their community, in their nation, and/or beyond (think American Presidents).

A parting thought I have is that we (Americans) often have a need to dwell on why we’re exceptional. The nation would do well to remember how woven slavery was in the colonial period and through the Civil War and how its collapse was equally woven into the nation’s history. Slavery was an awful institution but it was not exceptional to only the United States and the nation benefitted from the common-practice.  Historic sites and museums should be places to have the discussions that have for so long been pushed aside in an effort not to ruffle anyone’s feathers.

So certainly, Mr. Affleck (and anyone else) can request that these aspects of their family’s past be skipped in the final version. However, I think Henry L. Gates should have pushed for this story line to be included in order to show how pervasive the institution of slavery was.

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Remembering and Interpreting the Slave Trade

There is a very good article about remembering and interpreting the trade in human beings in this country. You can read it here: http://www.citylab.com/politics/2015/02/americas-failure-to-preserve-historic-slave-markets/385367/ . Some of you may know there has been a long debate in Richmond about interpreting the slave trade in Shockoe Bottom and some of that is captured in the aforementioned article.

A friend of mine asked me this morning if preserving places where people were bought and sold would be similar to preserving a death camp. Then the important follow up question was “Would some folks be upset by it?”

My response was that certainly some folks would be. I’ve routinely seen people upset by the fact there are museums and historic sites talking about plantation and urban slavery. Yet, this is something often preserved in plain site. Honestly, we think about the urban slave markets like in Richmond, Alexandria, Charleston, and New Orleans but really courthouses and nearby taverns and hotels were often ground zero for selling men, women, and children.

Furthermore, the selling of people was so integrated in American culture that almost no region of the colonial or antebellum America was completely clean of it. Nor many places in other areas of the world. When people say America was built on the backs of enslaved people, some folks get upset. But the truth is, there were cities, banks, railroads, and industry that were dependent on the products produced by enslaved people and some of them were dependent on participating in buying and selling the actual people too.

Slave Auction, Richmond, Virginia, 1853. Image hosted virtually through "The Atlantic Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Americas: A Visual Record" (http://hitchcock.itc.virginia.edu/Slavery/index.php). You can click directly on the image to go to the it URL.

Slave Auction, Richmond, Virginia, 1853. Image hosted virtually through “The Atlantic Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Americas: A Visual Record” (http://hitchcock.itc.virginia.edu/Slavery/index.php). You can click directly on the image to go to the it URL.

 

If you haven’t yet, you need to check out the Library of Virginia’s “To Be Sold: Virginia and the American Slave Trade” exhibition. This exhibition is open until Saturday, May 30, 2015.

My research has turned up that sales happened in front of my county’s courthouse, built in 1851. Have you ran across advertisements for slave sales at your courthouse? Found any court records denoting the sale of people at the courthouse? Are there any places in your city where you’ve found people were bought and sold? Are you aware of any effort to preserve and interpret those places?

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John Tyler Community College events and Related Thoughts

Readers in the Richmond, Virginia region might be interested to know that John Tyler Community College (at its Chester and Midlothian Campuses) are hosting twelve programs that are open to the public (and one more for the staff, faculty, and students of the college) during the month of February to commemorate Black History Month. The topics for the public are not your typical conversations of Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Rosa Parks (who are great people to talk about but the experience of those of African descent cannot be reduced to three people). The flyer below gives you the details of the programs, including one I am doing on United States Colored Troops during the 1864-1865 Petersburg Campaign.

I recently found a powerful letter by Sergeant Thomas B. Webster of the 43rd United States Colored Troops which was written in December 1864 while the unit was stationed on the Bermuda Hundred lines (located in Chesterfield County). When people say (not the readers of my blog I know!) “History doesn’t matter.” Or “That’s something that happened 150 years ago!” we should consider how the past and present intersect. We have seen that these past several years when we think about the events in Florida, Missouri, New York City, Ohio, and the list goes on. We also hear on-going conversation about equality in pay for work performed. And Webster’s words should make us question the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down key components of the Voting Rights Act nearly two years ago. I have placed my editorial notes in brackets “[ ].”

Sgt. Webster wrote:

“I hope that the day is not far distant, when peace and liberty shall extend over the whole of this distracted and bleeding country, and man shall be recognized as man, be he white or black.”

In his demands for equality and citizenship Webster exclaimed, “Have they [referring to black soldiers] not fought bravely at Port Hudson, Fort Pillow, Fort Pulaski [it’s unclear why he mentioned this as there were no black soldiers in the Federal army when Fort Pulaski was captured in 1862], and on the bloody fields of Virginia and Georgia, besides many other places? Yet, notwithstanding all the gallantry displayed by colored soldiers, there are a few men in our Northern cities, who do not want to give the colored man his equal rights. But these men do not rule congress. I hope that the day is not far distant, when we shall see the colored man enjoying the same rights and privileges as those of the white man of this country.”

Lastly, Sergeant Webster addressed the equal pay for equal soldiering crisis. “I recently saw an article in a newspaper, in reference to the colored soldiers in the army. Said article asserted, that the colored troops were to receive the same pay as their white companions in arms. This is one more step in the right direction.”

I am pleased to take part in this program, but, I can’t help but think that Sergeant Webster might be disappointed that there even needed to be on-going fights in the 1860s and beyond over access to quality (and truly equal) education. Why didn’t that come as a part of his military service? He may have wondered why Maggie Walker could not simply be an entrepreneur but also had to fight for women’s suffrage and be a civil rights activist in Richmond long before anyone though about Rosa Parks or Martin Luther King, Jr. Undoubtedly he would have found these Virginians courageous, but if he were an observer in the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, he certainly couldn’t have helped but to think when all citizens would be treated fairly under the law and with respect as human beings.

BlackHistoryMonth2015JTCC

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