African-Americans at Colonial Williamsburg

CW

The Virginia Gazette is running an informative piece on interpreting the African-American experience at Colonial Williamsburg.  Here is a taste:

Established in 1926, Colonial Williamsburg opened its first public site in 1932. Though African-American interpretation wouldn’t start in earnest as a fleshed out component of the living history museum until 1979, there had long been an African American presence at Colonial Williamsburg.

“Despite being here for 91 years, we’ve pretty much always had black interpreters,” Seals said.

Black Americans portrayed anonymous servants or costumed guides.

It took a few decades before they were seen as potential points of focus rather than background players in programming, said Seals.

In the 1950s and 1960s, researchers started to discover more information about African Americans in Revolutionary-era Williamsburg. They learned half of the city’s inhabitants were enslaved black people in the 18th century.

That prompted some questions: How were African Americans half the city’s population, yet their stories were essentially untold? Colonial Williamsburg embarked on an effort to determine how to tell those stories, hitting on the idea that a social-history perspective would be the best way to do it.

“When they made that choice, that started everything,” Seals said. “That’s when programming really changed.”

Forty years ago, a group of Hampton University students were recruited to work as first-person interpreters portraying African Americans known to live and work in Williamsburg during the late 1700s.

Read the entire piece here. (HT: Ed O’Donnell via Twitter)

New York City’s Sons of Liberty

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Over at Boston 1775, J.L. Bell calls our attention to a new exhibit at the Fraunces Tavern Museum in lower Manhattan.  It is titled “Fear & Force: New York City’s Sons of Liberty.”

Here is a taste of Bell’s post:

The museum’s announcement says:

On display in the Museum’s largest gallery, the exhibition will immerse visitors in New York City in the late 18th century, when the Sons of Liberty first began to make a name for themselves as an organized group who opposed British rule through violent resistance prior to the outbreak of the American Revolution. 

The exhibition will take visitors through a timeline that chronicles key players and stories behind some of the most dramatic events that ignited the spark of revolution in the 13 colonies, from the staging of New York’s very own “tea party,” to tarring and feathering Loyalists.

The New York Tea Party took place on 22 Apr 1774, four months after the famous Boston Tea Party and one month after the less famous second Boston Tea Party. But I can see why this site wants to highlight the New York event, and I’ll say more about it tomorrow. 

As for “tarring and feathering Loyalists,” New Yorkers actually carried out that public punishment on Customs employees or informers before Bostonians did, though folks in some of the smaller ports along Massachusetts’s north shore had established the tradition even earlier. 

Read the rest here.

New Book: *Interpreting Religion at Museums and Historic Sites*

InterpretingIf you are interested in the relationship between American religious history, museums, historical sites, and public history, I highly recommend that you get a copy (or ask your library to order a copy) of Gretchen Buggeln’s and Barbara Franco’s new book Interpreting Religion and Museums and Historic Sites.

The book includes essays on interpreting religion at religious sites, historic sties, and museums.  These sites include Arch Street Meeting House (Philadelphia), California Missions Trail,  Ephrata Cloister, Joseph Smith Family Farm. U.S. Capitol, Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage, Colonial Williamsburg, Mount Vernon, Gettysburg, Lower East Side Tenement Museum, Yorktown, Arab American National Museum, Jewish Museum of Maryland, Minnesota History Center, National Museum of African American History and Culture, National Museum of American History, and Winterthur Museum.

Buggeln, the Phyllis and Richard Duesenberg Chair in Christianity and the Arts at Valparaiso University,  offers essays on “Scholarly Approaches for Religion in History Museums” and “Religion in Museum Spaces and Places.”  Franco, the former executive director of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission and the founding director of the Gettysburg Seminary Ridge Museum, offers two essays: “Issues in Historical Interpretation: Why Interpreting Religion is So Difficult” and “Strategies and Techniques for Interpreting Religion.”  Buggeln and Franco team-up for another essay: “Interpreting Religion at Museums and Historic Sites: The Work Ahead.”

This is a wonderful collection and I was honored that Buggeln and Franco asked me to write a blurb:

I have been waiting for a book like this for a long time. Gretchen Buggeln and Barbara Franco have gathered an impressive collection of essays by museum professionals and public historians who have thought deeply about the place of religion in some of our most important cultural institutions. This is a landmark volume. (John Fea, Chair and Professor of History, Messiah College, author of Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past).

This book should be in the library of every public historian, museum and historical site educator, and American religious historian.

A Museum Veteran Writes About Historical Thinking at Historical Sites

cover-higher-resMy friend Tim Grove spent the first part of his career working for the Smithsonian.  He recently left his post at the Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C. and started a history consulting business.  This will also give him more time to write.

You may also remember Tim from Episode 5 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.

Check out Tim’s article on the importance of historical thinking at History News, the magazine of the American Association for State and Local History.  Here is a taste:

Clearly, a part of the past can include baggage. Historian John Fea writes that the past can shame us. “The story of human history is filled with accounts of slavery, violence, scientific backwardness, injustice, genocide, racism, and other dark episodes that might make us embarrassed to be part of the human race. If our fellow human beings can engage in such sad, wrong, or disgraceful acts, then what is stopping us from doing the same?” As part of our job, public historians need to help the public navigate the complex reactions that come with telling and processing truth. Fea writes of a certain humility that comes with studying the past. History done well helps people to be empathetic with people from the past, an attempt to step into their shoes and try to look at the world as they did. According to historian John Lewis Gaddis, “Getting into other people’s minds requires that your own mind be open to their impressions—their hopes and fears, their beliefs and dreams, their sense of right and wrong, their perceptions of the world and where they fit within it.”

As we attempt to understand another person’s world, we gain empathy for them. Empathy, of course, is not the same as sympathy. Sympathy is feeling compassion or sadness for someone’s hardship. Empathy is an understanding of a person’s motivations for a decision or action—not necessarily an agreement with their motivations. It is striving to understand their point of view.

Thanks for the plug, Tim! Read the entire article here.

Race, Slavery, and Historical Interpreters

Slave Interpreters

Historical interpreters at Booker T. Washington Monument (via Donnie Nunley @ Flickr)

Over at The Outline, Zoe Beery writes about Cheyney McKnight, an African American historical interpreter at Historic Richmond Town on Staten Island.

Here is a taste:

Over the last ten years, McKnight has built a career as a living historian who embodies black lives, rather than just black trauma, in her interpretations of slavery. She does not portray specific people (“I’m not an actor,” she said), preferring to inhabit a generalized role while speaking from a contemporary viewpoint. “I want to change the way people see the story of slavery,” she said, “so that when people think of slavery and women, they think of me, not Aunt Jemima or Mammy.”

McKnight grew up in Atlanta and was fascinated since early childhood with the stories her parents and family told her about the Civil Rights movement. She devoured books about black history, from the 1960s to the Great Migration to enslavement. When she learned that she could spend time reliving what she had been spending so much time studying, re-enacting became her end-goal. Her parents were always on board. “They knew I was never going to have a specific life plan and had resigned themselves to having an oddball daughter,” she said.

For her first event, she traveled to the site of the Battle of Gettysburg for a 150th-anniversary re-enactment. In a borrowed blue and white dress, she portrayed a 22-year-old freewoman alongside four other black re-enactors. The re-enactment was, as Civil War historian Melvin Ely termed such eventslast year, a white fantasy: McKnight’s group was the largest bloc of black civilians anyone had ever seen at an event whose historical basis was full of black civilians. “At the time, that just wasn’t done,” McKnight said. Astonished spectators stopped them constantly, usually assuming they were portraying enslaved people. “I had old white men come up to me and tell me I reminded them of their maids,” she said. “People seemed to feel this need to put me in my place as an enslaved person.”

Read the entire piece here.