When I step away from this blog for a while, coming back to it gets intimidating. Should I acknowledge my absence? When does an explanation become an excuse? One of my goals for myself in the coming months is to do a better job keeping up with the blog, rather than starting and abandoning posts each month. I want to get better at writing quickly, and the blog is a great space to work on that.
One of the things that’s kept me away is the job I started in August 2016 at the Tennessee Historical Society writing content for their new website. I’ve had a great time at THS, and really enjoyed getting to flex my historian muscles by digging through our collections at the Tennessee State Museum and Tennessee State Library and Archives to find interesting artifacts and documents, and of course writing content and blog posts on Tennessee history. That work will all be available on the THS website when and as it launches.
Despite, or maybe because of, the chaos of working 20 hours a week at THS while teaching three different classes, I also had my best semester teaching so far. I’m planning to write a post exploring this more, but it was one of those rare times when all of my classes had good chemistry and I managed to let go of my urge to control everything. I also had the stomach flu twice, so it was a semester of extremes.
As a result of my work at THS, I was able to get a really sweet teaching schedule this spring, with two sections of Tennessee History. It’s not something I would have imagined myself doing a year ago, but it’s been fun and challenging, and I’ve been bringing in lots of primary sources from my work at THS. I’ve had a much better schedule and more of a life this semester, which is part of the impetus for recommencing the blog.
The other part is that after a solid two years on the market, I have accepted an offer to become Assistant Professor of Public History at Grand Valley State University in Michigan. I’ll be moving to Grand Rapids in the fall, and I am incredibly excited about joining the history department and the university. I’ll continue to post about history and pop culture and things that catch my interest, but I also want to blog more about teaching public history and the process of building a relationship with the community there.
I can’t promise I won’t disappear again, but stay tuned, there’s lots of good stuff coming down the pike.
I recently read an article entitled, “Will History Only Remember the Founding Fathers as Slaveowners?” The author is Suzanne Sherman, a lawyer who took her homeschooled children on a road trip from Utah to East Coast to visit sites associated with the some of the great men in U.S. history. She describes her visits to a number of historic sites (Monticello, Poplar Forest, Montpelier, John C. Calhoun’s home, and the Peyton Randolph House). Sherman is unimpressed with how many of these sites work to include the narratives of the enslaved people who lived and worked in these spaces, and harries the docents about their apparent insistence on interpreting the lives of enslaved people (except at Poplar Forest, where she found an ally against the scourge of “revisionist-style” history.
The author of the article makes two points in particular that I would like to discuss. First, this paragraph:
“Movies from both Monticello and Montpelier featured images of Barack Obama and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, as well as quotations about “freedom and equality.” Freedom for whom? Slaves? What about our precious liberty? It struck me that promoting the progressive goal of equality is the end of all these presentations; the slaves, over a century-and-a-half postmortem, are still being used as the means to further a political agenda.”
Aside from the pearl-clutching (but apparently sincere) tone of “What about our precious liberty?,”that final line is telling, “…the slaves… are still being used as the means to further a political agenda.” What strikes me about this sentiment is that the author does not consider that enslaved people have always been used as the means to further a politicalagenda. For a very long time, (white) historians have used the idea of the so-called benevolentmaster who took care of his slaves, who were child-like and ill-prepared to live in the world without their white master’s guidance. The author herself states that, “had Madison simply freed his slaves, they likely would have starved.”
That’s obviously not the case; thousands of enslaved people fled captivity and did not starve, nor did the many freedmen who lived throughout the country at a time when there was no real place for free people of color in many parts of white society. Beyond that, in many plantation settings, enslaved people were responsible for growing their own gardens to supplement whatever rations they received from white masters. Sherman positions herself as an expert on slavery relative to the docents she encountered, yet she cannot see past her own impressions of what slaves were like. In her view, they were helpless and unintelligent, an attitude that slave-owners used to justify their own actions and one that was perpetuated after Emancipation to legitimize the denial of civil rights and full citizenship to African Americans. Sherman refuses to acknowledge the implications of her attitude, and would no doubt disagree vehemently with my assessment.
The other issue I’d like to bring up is the question of interpretation at house museums. Sherman is at pains to point out that these sites neglect to interpret “the ideals, philosophies and political goals upon which the American republic was founded.” I wonder if she ever visited any of these sites before they began openly interpreting the lives of enslaved people? I certainly did. I grew up in Virginia, and I lived in Williamsburg for three years in the 1990s. I remember hearing enslaved workers referred to as “servants” with little or no reference to the fact that they were engaged in forced labor. I knew that Jefferson owned slaves, but I knew it in an abstract way that allowed me to retain a sense of awe at his achievements. For what it’s worth, I’m still impressed by his achievements, but my awe is tempered by my awareness of him as a deeply flawed human being. His lauded efficiency, for example, was facilitated by the fact that he had dozens of enslaved workers who took care of the mundane tasks of daily life like cooking, cleaning, and laundry.
The real point is that in my (admittedly flawed) memory, these sites never focused on “the ideals, philosophies and political goals upon which the American republic was founded.” They instead described the daily lives of the white people who inhabited these spaces using the landscape, building, and material culture (furniture, art, artifacts). If you wanted to learn about Peyton Randolph’s historical contributions, you could read a book. Being the physical space was an opportunity to imagine daily life in this setting.
This is why so many of these sites have worked to include the stories of enslaved workers. Thomas Jefferson lived at Monticello and Poplar Forest intermittently during his adult life. During that same time, hundreds of enslaved people lived at those sites for their entire lives. Their forced labor made Jefferson’s lifestyle possible, and their lives literally shaped the landscape and built environment.
This is obvious to me as a public historian and preservationist, but it’s clearly not obvious to visitors. So what is the solution? Do we take Sherman up on her suggestion and return to hagiographic interpretations of great white men that obliterate the lives and contributions of thousands of human beings whose enslavement was justified by the color of their skin? There are, first of all, plenty of sites that still do that. I would argue that we need to take our educational initiative further. Let’s talk to visitors about why interpret what we do. Let’s explain that these sites were never used to explore Madison’s political philosophy, but rather his daily life, which was informed by his status as a man who owned enslaved workers. And let’s talk about how we are trying to give them a more authentic sense of his life, one that explores the contradictions and hypocrisies that make lives challenging and interesting.
And in the meanwhile, let’s all take a minute to thank the docents for being on the front line of these tough conversations.
Update 7/15/16: My short trip to Selma last month, during which I asked a few people about the name change, suggested that people seem to share my view that the name should remain the same, a perspective shared by Selma native and Birmingham Congressional representative, Terri Sewell, and John Lewis.
There has been a lot of interest (in my facebook feed and elsewhere) lately about the names of historic buildings lately, especially those on college campuses. Many universities, particularly those in the South, are home to buildings named after Confederate military figures or politicians whose beliefs were deeply racist and segregationist, or who were members of the Ku Klux Klan and participated in lynchings and other forms of racial violence. This phenomenon is not restricted to universities, though they tend to get more press. I live around the corner from a subdivision called Forrest Pointe (named for Nathan Bedford Forrest, first Grand Wizard of the KKK and a slave trader before the Civil War) that was built sometime in the late 90s/early 2000s. Where I grew up in Northern Virginia, the main highway through town was named after Harry Byrd, a prominent Virginia politician and avowed white supremacist who led a massive resistance campaign that shut down public schools in several counties rather than desegregate them.
I am usually on board with renaming buildings with racist origins. Often these names were chosen both to honor the legacy of an individual and to send a message about the space occupied by the building. Naming a site after a known white supremacist told people of color that they did not belong in a public space and so upheld institutionalized racism and white supremacy. The renaming process, when done thoughtfully, can be an important tool for interrogating both institutionalized racism and the history of a site, like the “See the Stripes” campaign at Clemson University. The “thoughtful” part is key, because it is equally important to avoid whitewashing history and erasing the white supremacist or segregationist history of a place.
I have mixed feelings about renaming the Edmund Pettus Bridge, which probably seems hypocritical given my visceral opposition to anything being named for Nathan Bedford Forrest. Edmund Pettus was, after all, a Grand Dragon of the KKK. But like all historians, I think these things have to be taken in context. I’ve always thought there was some delicious irony and poetic justice in the idea that an avowed white supremacist’s name is best known for its association with a pivotal moment in the struggle for equality and voting rights. From my perspective, it makes the bridge an even more powerful symbol, as well as a reminder of how far we still have to go.
I’m glad to see people becoming engaged in important questions about the symbolic power of names and words. I’m heartened to see people connecting with this story in a personal way. I’m left wondering, though, how activists from Selma see this change? Is this progress, or simply writing over an uncomfortable juxtaposition of values? How do Selmians view the change? What does John Lewis think about it? I’ll be asking folks when I’m in Selma later this month, and I’ll try to update this post if I get any good feedback.
I wrote a post for the Center for Historic Preservation’s blog, Southern Rambles, on the use of shipping containers in vernacular and high-style architecture. It emerged from my work in South Africa, and might be of interest to readers here. Please feel free to check it out here!