Tag Archives: slavery

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. 


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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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.


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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.


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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Interpreting Slavery at Historic Sites

On April 21, I posted a video link to a C-Span recording of a session filmed at Monticello regarding interpreting slavery at historic sites. Much of this is centered on a project at Monticello to reconstruct in part or in full Mulberry Row, a series of outbuildings, plantation industrial buildings and slave quarters which sat adjacent to Jefferson’s twice-built mansion.

The author with two friends at the site of a slave cabin along Mulberry Row at Monticello in 2008.

The author (center) with two friends at the site of a slave cabin along Mulberry Row at Monticello in 2008.

Having had time to fully listen to the conversation I had a few thoughts and a few questions for y’all.

The panelists were Sara Bon-Harper, new executive director of Ashlawn-Highland, one of the homes of President James Monroe; Frank Sanchis, World Monuments Fund, United States Programs Director; Ed Chappell, Architectural research director at Colonial Williamsburg Foundation; and Matthew Reeves, Director of Archaeology at James Madison’s Montpelier.

As you’ll see if you watch the video, a lot of the discussion is centered on past case studies of reconstructions of buildings at Colonial Williamsburg and Ashlawn-Highland and methods of interpreting space not reconstructed consume the conversation of Dr. Reeves and Frank Sanchis. However, there were some points made by the panelists and the audience that I think bear repeating.

Sara Bon-Harper reminds us that we often only see the plantation core such as the big house and a kitchen and perhaps a few other outbuildings when visiting historic plantations. We therefore miss the larger plantation landscape. Quite often, this is because a historic site only includes that core as previous owners only saved that core or sold the agricultural and woodlands associated with the estate years ago. Where those lands remain, visitors are either too pressed for time to explore the many acres or there is limited access to those fields provided by the site. Furthermore, unlike in the era of slaveholding, there is usually nothing in the fields now but meadow grasses or woodlands that were not there historically.

Ed Chappell brings up a good point regarding the reconstructed Peyton Randolph slave quarter/kitchen/servants’ hall and the current interpretation there. While the reconstructed spaces contribute to broadening our understanding of the Randolph family and urban slavery in Williamsburg in the eighteenth century, often now when people are cooking in the Randolph kitchen it is being done by white employees. They certainly are well intentioned but Chappell (and I) wonder what type of message does that send? Are people really understanding race relations in eighteenth century Virginia or becoming focused on the cooking demonstration?

The thought of what kind of message are we sending is echoed in Reeves’ comments about the Montpelier slave descendants coming to see Montpelier after the exterior restoration was finished. They were not impressed with the railroad ties and grass representing where the slave housing existed in the Madisons’ time. The foundation has currently installed three-dimensional timber-framed half-finished ghost structures to represent smokehouses and slave quarters. As Reeves states, these buildings juxtaposed with the mansion house create an interpretive tool.

Mr. Sanchis’ comments were centered on his passion for preserving original buildings. He recognized several times that there are few original slave quarters remaining but was generally opposed to reconstructions of missing buildings. Often times, I admit, I found myself in strong disagreement with his commentary especially regarding visitors ability to distinguish reconstructed versus restored buildings (though some of the audience discussion seemed to reaffirm his position; I still think most people can make those distinctions when told). Frank’s comments regarding the Arlington original slave quarters being so altered that he did not feel the originality was curious to me since I had just been to them. While it is true, there have been many changes to those quarters since the 1800s, I still felt the power of them in my recent visit there (which I blogged about). One of the projects Arlington is doing now is restoring one of the buildings with better attention to the details than had been done in the 1930s-1950s when they were interpreted honestly as cottages. One thing he said I agree with, however, I’m curious what you think so I will pose the question later.

One comment from an audience member who works at Colonial Williamsburg is only partly true. While there have been various Blacks affiliated in some manner with Colonial Williamsburg as an operation it is not true that Blacks have always been seen interpreting the experience of eighteenth century free blacks and enslaved people. At least by the 1950s and 1960s, Colonial Williamsburg operated on a specific day of the week for African-Americans to visit the site. Like nearly everything, Colonial Williamsburg was segregated. Recently, a new acquaintance of mine, Tiya Miles reminded folks at a conference to consider that Blacks often had no clue how they would get from their home to a vacation site during the era of segregation and racial violence. Hotels and restaurants often would not serve Blacks and stopping to get gas had the potential to get violent or at least uncomfortable.

Annette Gordon-Reed brought up a concern that reconstructed (and the few originals remaining) slave quarters are often seen as “quaint” by visitors (as was the earlier furnishing of the Arlington slave quarters in the 1940s and 50s) and she wonders how we can make this not seem the case.

Finally, I thought one of the audience members made an amazing point that I was emphasize. Slavery should be interpreted at plantation sites throughout the mansion house tour. Segregating the story to a separate tour, making slavery seem like a beneficial institution for all, or ignoring the story is not acceptable. There are artifacts of slavery in the mansion houses at these sites: who poured wines and served meals in the dining room? Who made the beds in the bedrooms? Who lit the fires throughout the house?

So on to my questions for you (and I hope to hear from y’all with some thoughts/answers/maybe more questions):

  1. In the discussion it was suggested the reconstructed buildings be placed elsewhere for interpretation. How could Monticello illustrate Mulberry Row for the masses of people who come to the site without the reconstructions being on Mulberry Row?
  2. Frank Sanchis asked if there was something to be gained by doing a living history at a plantation site. Are people really grasping what slavery was like through living history?
  3. Sara Bon-Harper’s point about the plantation core is true, so how can plantation sites represent or illustrate the totality of the plantation owner’s lands to the public who are at the mansion house?
  4. Frank Sanchis states that he finds there is little cooperation between historic sites regarding how they interpret slavery. For those of you who are museum professionals, do you find that is true?

So what do you think?


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A Visit to Arlington House

Recently a friend and I visited Arlington House. I will not retell the history of the Arlington estate in this post but direct you to check out the website.

Side view of Arlington House including the massive front portico.

Side view of Arlington House including the massive front portico. Photo taken by me.

I will retell the experience we had at the site. Upon entering the area immediately around the house, visitors gather on the front portico which has a stunning view overlooking Washington, D.C. The ranger explained a few details of the house’s architecture regarding the brick construction to which stucco was applied and scored to look like marble. He then explained that this was the home of George Washington Parke Custis, the grandson of Martha Dandridge Custis Washington and step-grandson of George Washington. He noted that Custis and his wife, Mary Fitzhugh Custis had only one child to survive to adulthood, Mary Custis. The guide noted that Mary Custis married Robert E. Lee in 1831. He then saw an opportunity to get us into the house and said he could allow 15 into the building and so we progressed forward into the central hall.

The family parlor at Arlington is where Mary Custis married Robert E. Lee in 1831.

The family parlor at Arlington is where Mary Custis married Robert E. Lee in 1831. Photo taken by me.

In the hall we had a ranger who explained that we could look into the Family Parlor, which is where Mary Custis and Robert E. Lee were married. She also explained that the main portion of the house where we were standing was not finished until 1818. The crush of the next group pushed us along while we picked up brochures and some other literature and snapped some photographs of the Family Parlor and Dining Room. We passed through the Hunting Hall and then upstairs.

Upstairs, for an unknown reason to us, a volunteer was engaged in a deep discussion with some visitors about Robert E. Lee at the Battle of Gettysburg (July 1-3, 1863). Perhaps he had been questioned by the visitors about Lee at Gettysburg. Thus I couldn’t fault the volunteer, though, I wished there had been some interpretation about the Custises and Lees at Arlington. As there were a lot of visitors upstairs and more coming, we had to be quick about our looking into the bedrooms. The staff was in the process of repositioning the furnishings in these rooms. Arlington’s furnishings were removed from the house for a few years while a major restoration took place, interrupted in part by the now infamous 2011 earthquake.

The White Parlor at Arlington was not finished until 1855 and the Lees purchased fashionable Rococo Revival furnishings for the space. When we think about the beauty of these furnishings, we must also think about who had to clean and maintain these items. In the Lee household, that task fell in part to the enslaved housekeeper, Selina Gray.

The White Parlor at Arlington was not finished until 1855 and the Lees purchased fashionable Rococo Revival furnishings for the space. When we think about the beauty of these furnishings, we must also think about who had to clean and maintain these items. In the Lee household, that task fell in part to the enslaved housekeeper, Selina Gray. Photo taken by me.

Back down the stairs we go and through the White Parlor and then into the Morning Room. It was there (finally) that I didn’t feel pushed along by the force of the people progressing through the house. The ranger in this room explained the art painted by G.W.P. Custis, several of which were exhibited and all of which show George Washington during the Revolution. Additionally, she stated that it was in the office that they believe Lee wrote his letter of resignation from the U.S. Army in 1861. She noted that Mrs. Lee spent a considerable amount of time in this room as her rheumatism decreased her mobility in the 1850s. I questioned her about how many slaves the Custises owned. She responded about the 63 that were at Arlington. I clarified “As I recall, there were over 200 scattered across all the different farms?” She said “Oh yes, that is true. Properties that extended into multiple counties.” She then launched into a discussion about Selina Gray, who was an enslaved domestic servant that was not taken by Mrs. Lee and her children but rather left to guard the Washington and Lee family furnishings in May 1861. The ranger (rightfully) credited Gray’s determination to see the furnishings preserved by the occupying Federal troops during the early months of the Civil War. Then we exited the back of the building.

So I have asked myself some questions:

1. When touring the house did I learn anything about slavery? Not as slavery was practiced by the Custis or Lee families at Arlington or as it was experienced by the 63 people who lived and worked as slaves there.

2. Did I gain any insight on the relationships between slaves and masters? Somewhat through the story of Selina Gray but in that case it was more about the relationship between Gray and the Federal troops.

3. Did I learn anything about the relationships between slaves and other slaves? No.

So we progressed on to two surviving slave quarters for domestic servants in the rear of the Custis-Lee mansion. These two slave quarters are masonry, covered in stucco and composed of three rooms. The south Slave Quarters has an exhibit on slavery and the Freedmen’s Village and a model of the Freedmen’s Village. The village established during the Civil War, was a camp of thousands of slaves who had escaped in search of freedom.

George W. P. Custis painted this horse to represent one of George Washington's above one of the doors on the north Slave Quarter. Two others depict the American eagle. All of these Americana scenes, ironically painted on a building to house people whom at no level of government were considered American citizens. Photo taken by me.

George W. P. Custis painted this horse to represent one of George Washington’s above one of the doors on the north Slave Quarter. Two others depict the American eagle. All of these Americana scenes, ironically painted on a building to house people whom at no level of government were considered American citizens. Photo taken by me.

The panel “Slavery and Emancipation at Arlington” discusses individual enslaved people’s stories, perhaps one of the most interesting to me was Sally Norris, who prepared bodies for burial amongst the enslaved community. Photographs were present of several people as well.

It was also within this panel that you learn some of the names of the people who worked and lived at Arlington. Men like Lawrence and Jim Parks, who were field hands and Eleanor Harris and Ephraim Derricks who were domestic servants.

Interpretive signage is generally short, which makes this one rare with three full paragraphs. Some sentences did raise curiosities which needed further explanation such as “Far from powerless, many slaves possessed significant authority, and sometimes dictated the daily routine at Arlington.” What did the slaves do at Arlington to dictate the daily routine? I think the inclusion of Sally Norris helped illustrate that slaves possessed some specific authority.

The panel highlights manumissions given by George W. P. Custis and the dispersed status of some of those manumitted. Even though the site’s subtitle “the Robert E. Lee Memorial” could lead to a wholly one-sided view of the famed Confederate Army of Northern Virginia commander, this panel did not ignore the reality of the enslaved community’s dislike of Robert E. Lee compared to G.W.P. Custis. In one statement you can see that Wesley and Mary Norris ran away (though the story as printed on the panel does not follow-up what happened with them).

The north Slave Quarter has just recently been vacated of office space and a bookstore and is undergoing rehabilitation to reflect the people who lived in the building. The interpretive panels in this space were some of the best at the site.

This interpretive sign gives you a sense of how this building was used. Notice that Eleanor Harris lived upstairs and she aged considerably in her years as she once was George W. P. Custis' nurse and then his daughter Mary's nurse, and later a housekeeper as noted in another sign.

This interpretive sign gives you a sense of how this building was used. Notice that Eleanor Harris lived upstairs and she aged considerably in her years as she once was George W. P. Custis’ nurse and then his daughter Mary’s nurse, and later a housekeeper as noted in another sign. Also notice the photographs of the 1959 interpretation of these rooms. Photo taken by me.

In the center room, you see a floor plan of the structure which shows how the spaces were divided. The center room was occupied by Nurse Judy, while the room to the left on the lower floor housed father and son, both named Daniel Dotson. Both were coachmen and Old Daniel Dotson also served as a butler and mailman (presumably someone who took letters to be mailed and picked things up from an unknown location). Perhaps the most surprising element on this sign was the discussion regarding Custis’ manservant and gardener, Ephraim Derrick who reportedly smoked cigars on the portico with Custis at night and then closed up the house at 10PM. The inclusion of the possibility of Derrick sleeping on a pallet on the floor in the hall in order to tend a fire in Custis’ bedroom sends a clear message, however, that Custis did not treat Derrick as an equal.

Also on the same sign was some institutional history. Three photos show how the National Park Service (NPS) interpreted these three rooms in 1959. There was some fairly fine furnishings in these rooms in 1959 which do not accurately reflect how these enslaved people lived in the space. The signs stating “Restoration in Progress” as well as other signs that mention the NPS is embarking on a historic structures report and furnishings plan give great reason to hope that one day we’ll see a more accurate representation of how the domestic servants lived.

While around the north Slave Quarter, we encountered a great ranger, Dean Bryson. My friend and I conversed at length with Dean about the challenges of trying to discuss in any detail anyone (white or black, free or enslaved) when you literally have thousands of people coming through the house daily. But it was also clear that Dean knew and was passionate about Arlington’s plantation history and the NPS’s ownership history. We chatted about those slaves less concerned about the Washington-Custis-Lee family furnishings such as the Bingham family. Dean told us that the Binghams were some of the slaves who reacted negatively to Robert E. Lee’s management of Arlington. Austin Bingham ran off in 1858 into Washington, D.C. where his sister, Caroline and her child were also trying to evade Lee. Fellow blogger Jimmy Price is investigating if their other brother, Lucious may have enlisted in a US Colored Troop regiment late in the Civil War and Dean told us this story as well. We also discussed that while Selina Gray’s determination to save the historical objects associated with George Washington was important, she does present a “loyal slave” narrative. Her image appears frequently throughout these quarters. Dean’s knowledge of the Binghams helps to balance that there were a multitude of feelings within the enslaved community at Arlington. Finally, we discussed the challenges of representing the plantation landscape at large when most of it is now covered by Arlington National Cemetery (not administered by the National Park Service). I am hopeful that Dean may find permanent employment in the agency. We have to have people like him at all our historic sites.

Our final stop was in the Robert E. Lee Museum, housed in a portion of what had been part of a greenhouse. This is the one area of the site that has largely outdated exhibits. However, in the current environment, it will probably remain this way for a while. In a few places the text was difficult to read due to flaking over the years. However, even with the budget challenges, there was a refreshing sign simply typed in a word processing program and printed with your basic inkjet.

This text almost screams of the ragged Confederate, Lost Cause ideology present at many Civil War sites for generations. Like many other memories of Appomattox Court House, this one fails to mention that Lee attempted one last offensive maneuver on the morning of April 9, 1865 before deciding to surrender his army.

This text almost screams of the ragged Confederate, Lost Cause ideology present at many Civil War sites for generations. Like many other memories of Appomattox Court House, this one fails to mention that Lee attempted one last offensive maneuver on the morning of April 9, 1865 before deciding to surrender his army. Photo taken by me.

That sign updated the old exhibit about Robert E. Lee’s resignation from the U.S. Army in 1861. This is based largely on a letter written by Lee and Mary Custis Lee’s daughter also named Mary Custis Lee. The information was discovered by author Elizabeth Brown Pryor (who wrote Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee Through His Private Letters published in 2007). So can exhibits be updated on a shoestring budget? Yes. Should they be? Not really; however, this temporary fix sits in juxtaposition with the exhibit featuring miniature representations of Lee and some of his family at the time. It elicited curiosity from other visitors and helps to illustrate that history isn’t always something that we’ve known since a long time ago. New research and interpretation is on-going in the history community.

This simple piece of paper printed and laminated helps to address new interpretations through historic research. Public historians can really help to spread the word about academic historians' books and articles as is illustrated here. Photo taken by me.

This simple piece of paper printed and laminated helps to address new interpretations through historic research. Public historians can really help to spread the word about academic historians’ books and articles as is illustrated here. Photo taken by me.

So I have asked myself the same questions again:

1. When touring the slave quarters and talking with Dean did I learn anything about slavery at Arlington? Yes. I asked about Ephraim and the smoking of cigars with Custis as that still fascinates me. It was apparently recalled by one of the former slaves or one of their children when interviewed in the early 1900s. I also heard about resistance to Robert E. Lee. Through the exhibits in the buildings, I saw what slaves were doing in their tasks on the estate and ways that they were entrepreneurs.

2. Did I gain any insight on the relationships between slaves and masters? Yes, Ephraim clearly had a different relationship with the Custis family than many other slaves. Dean discussed how Selina Gray’s domestic service would have made her acutely aware of what were the “Washington Treasures.” And yet, clearly in the panel in the south Slave Quarter and in conversation with Dean, (the evidence comes from Lee’s letters and memories of the formerly enslaved, see Pryor’s Reading the Man) there was unhappiness over Lee’s management of Arlington so evident in some of the Norrisses escape mentioned in the text and discussed by Dean regarding the Binghams.

3. Did I learn anything about the relationships between slaves and other slaves? Yes. Time and time again in the panels in the north and south quarters. From family relationships with the Daniel Dotsons to the people who were freed and that stayed nearby as at that point they were intertwined in marriage and extended family with the enslaved people at Arlington.

So what can be done to address the challenge of the mass of people who come to Arlington National Cemetery and then enter the Arlington house? I’m not sure. Other than creating a timed ticket system, there will be no other way to control all the people. The NPS has a ticket system to access Independence Hall. The boats to Fort Sumter also operate on a timed ticket system. While it isn’t optimal, this could help improve the time spent in the house for fewer people but with greater interpretive power.

I really did enjoy my visit to Arlington house, even though I continue to maintain that it should be remembered as Arlington House, a memorial to George Washington and then left to Mary Custis Lee and a place of bondage for numerous families from 1802-1861. 

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