Interpreting Slavery at National Trust Historic Sites

By Katherine Malone-France posted 04-07-2015 10:25


 Visitors watching "Liberty to Go to See" at Cliveden. | Credit: National Trust for Historic Preservation
Visitors watching "Liberty to Go to See" at Cliveden. | Credit: National Trust for Historic Preservation
Fifteen years ago, Susan Schrieber, who was then the National Trust’s director of interpretation and education for its historic sites, wrote an article entitled “Interpreting Slavery at National Trust Historic Sites: A Case Study in Interpreting Difficult Topics,” which was published in Cultural Resources Management. The article documented work at six National Trust Historic Sites to discuss and coordinate their interpretations of slavery through a series of five workshops held over the course of a year.

Since the article’s publication, much has changed in how slavery is interpreted at National Trust Historic Sites and at historic sites around the country. And much has changed in the world in general. So it seems appropriate and instructive that we take this opportunity to survey our portfolio of now 27 historic sites to see how they are interpreting slavery right now.

As broader context for the work now underway at our sites, the scholarship on interpreting slavery has also increased exponentially since 2000. Public historians, women’s historians, geographers, archaeologists, architectural historians, architects, and landscape architects are all now engaged in examining how we tell the stories of enslavement from their disciplinary perspectives. The internet yields interpretive plans, case studies, and other resources on addressing slavery at historic sites. A couple of new collections of essays that focus on this topic have come out over the past year, including Interpreting Slavery at Museums and Historic Sites and Interpreting African American History and Culture at Museums and Historic Sites.

So where are National Trust Historic Sites today in interpreting slavery and why does it matter?

The strength of the National Trust’s portfolio of historic sites lies in its diversity, offering a range of settings—rural, suburban and urban—in the Deep South, the mid-Atlantic, and well north of the Mason-Dixon Line. Our sites also represent a range of budgets, staffing, audience demographics, size and extant physical evidence of slavery—all factors that have played a role in their interpretations of slavery. Since 2000 the National Trust’s portfolio has expanded to include sites that broaden the story beyond a plantation setting to include the Museum of African American History in Boston and in Nantucket, both powerful loci for free black communities and abolitionist sentiment and action, and President Lincoln’s Cottage, where the president contemplated and drafted the Emancipation Proclamation. 

 "House and Field" by Lynda Frese for Art and Shadows at Shadows-on-the-Teche. | Credit: National Trust for Historic Preservation
"House and Field" by Lynda Frese for Art and Shadows at Shadows-on-the-Teche. | Credit: National Trust for Historic Preservation
The tools and methodologies that are used to interpret slavery at National Trust Historic Sites have diversified. We have archaeological digs underway at Montpelier and Belle Grove to help us understand the buildings where enslaved people lived and worked. As a part of the “Telling All of Our Stories” project at Oatlands, a new online database allows people to search through references to enslaved people in the primary sources related to the property. At the Shadows-on-the-Teche, two artists-in-residence, a fiddler and a visual artist, have created new works of art that are inspired by the lives of people who lived at the site—both enslaver and enslaved—and their interactions and the evidence of them that remains among the archives and objects in the site’s collection. We engage our visitors with not only the stories of enslaved people, but also in discussions about the ideas of bondage, liberty and emancipation at places like President Lincoln’s Cottage and Cliveden.

Our interpretations of the architecture of enslavement include planning for the reconstruction of buildings in the South Yard at Montpelier and revealing the evidence of both construction and demolition in the rare example of an urban slave quarters at Decatur House. Within our historic landscapes, we now actively interpret the cemeteries where enslaved people are buried, and we continue to search for archaeological evidence of slavery. In our object and archival collections, we continue to make significant discoveries, such as a branding iron within the collection at Drayton Hall, believed to have been used on enslaved people, or the extensive slave holdings revealed in the papers of the Chew family at Cliveden.

Telling the stories of resistance to slavery is also part of the interpretations that our sites offer today. The story of Charlotte Dupuy, a slave who served Henry Clay when he rented the Decatur House and who sued for her freedom in 1829, is now a central part of the White House Historical Association’s K-12 programming at the David M. Rubenstein Center for White House History at Decatur House. At the African Meeting House in Boston, the current exhibition “Freedom Rising: Reading, Writing and Publishing Black Books” and complementary programming examines “the historical and cultural implications of forbidding enslaved Africans to read or write, and traces the evolution and majestic recovery of their written voices.”
A commitment to interpreting slavery has also created new partnerships that have expanded exponentially to support this work. We have been successful in raising financial support from individuals, private foundations, and public sources, and state and local governments. At places like Drayton Hall, Montpelier and Oatlands, we are engaged in building relationships with the descendants of those who were enslaved at these places and working with them to interpret this history. Our sites are also at the leading edge of connecting the interpretation of slavery to contemporary issues. At President Lincoln’s Cottage, the site’s programming is explicitly and powerfully connected to human trafficking in the 21st century. At Woodlawn, our partnership with the Arcadia Center for Sustainable Food & Agriculture offers an opportunity to explore the history of Quakers who leased land at the site to free black farmers on the eve of the Civil War and connect it to current work in addressing inequalities within the food system.

Arcadia Farms at Woodlawn Plantation | Credit: Jason Clement/National Trust for Historic Preservation 
Arcadia Farms at Woodlawn Plantation. | Credit: Jason Clement/National Trust for Historic Preservation
Looking back at the article written 15 years ago, I am also struck by the fact that the staff at our sites continue to express concern about how to speak with visitors about difficult subjects such as slavery. Today, however, most of the sites offer specific training on how to address the controversial subjects and staff share insights and materials with each other. As I have said in many of these trainings and gatherings, our concerns about saying the right thing are valid and important, but they should never stop us from talking about slavery.

I suppose if there is any accomplishment of the past 15 years, it is that staff members don’t question whether or not they should interpret slavery. Today, for all of those sites whose history touches the subject of slavery, it has become a theme in their broader story. And the interpretations of African American history at our sites have expanded to examine the broader journey from slavery to freedom—characterized by both absolute and incremental change—and how it is manifested in our buildings, landscapes and object collections. At some sites, the interpretation of African American history is more prominent than others. At every site, it takes different and evolving forms.

So, why does this matter? It matters because a million visitors will come through National Trust Historic Sites this year, and we have the opportunity to help them understand the terrible institution of slavery and how it manifested itself in the lives of people. Over the last 15 years (and before that), our historic sites and others in this country have been engaged in a steady, thoughtful and ultimately constructive dialogue about slavery and race. To be sure, this conversation isn’t always comfortable or easy, but it happens consistently and it happens with the authenticity and veracity that can only happen in an old place, in a place where history happened and history is preserved and history is connected to the present. As our president Stephanie K. Meeks said in a recent speech at the King Center in Atlanta, we are committed “to keep exploring how to best commemorate the more complex and difficult chapters of our story.”

 A scene from "Liberty to go to See" at Cliveden. | Credit: National Trust for Historic Preservation
A scene from "Liberty to Go to See" at Cliveden. | Credit: National Trust for Historic Preservation

Our work to interpret slavery at National Trust Historic Sites is far from over, and we have even more work to do to better tell the stories of other marginalized groups at our sites. Where will we be in 15 years in respect to telling LGBTQ stories? Will we have made this much progress in battling through misappropriations and misconceptions of facts associated with LGBTQ history at our sites? I hope so.

Over the next ten months, we will be bringing that discussion to Preservation Leadership Forum as we hear from different National Trust Historic Sites in individual blog posts about their different interpretations of slavery. And in 2016, we look forward to convening another gathering of staff from our sites to discuss interpreting slavery—where we go from here and how we help each other along the way. There is much to be learned here, much to be discussed, and much to be built upon. Please join us in this conversation.

 Katherine Malone-France is the vice president for historic sites at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

#HistoricSites #AfricanAmerican #Interpretation #Woodlawn #Diversity

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