Charleston’s International African American Museum Launches Website

Conceptual drawing of future International African American Museum (IAAM), Charleston, South Carolina, 2012. From IAAM website.

Conceptual drawing of future International African American Museum (IAAM), Charleston, South Carolina, 2012. From IAAM website.

I am excited to report that the future International African American Museum (IAAM) in Charleston has finally launched their museum website! IAAM is a developing museum project that is expected to open its building doors in 2017. As they describe on their homepage, the goal of the museum is to communicate the largely overlooked history and culture of African Americans in the Lowcountry region of South Carolina. IAAM particularly aims to re-center Charleston’s place in Atlantic World history, illuminating the pivotal role of this city as the dominant point of disembarkation for the trans-Atlantic slave trade in North America, and as the location of the first conflict of the U.S. Civil War that ultimately ended in Emancipation for all enslaved people in the United States. The museum will demonstrate how during and after slavery, Africans and their African American descendants in the Lowcountry shaped economic, political, and cultural development in South Carolina, the nation, and beyond.

In 2012, major fundraising efforts still loom ahead for IAAM, particularly after the economic downturn triggered significant budget limitations for the project’s start-up funding in 2010. Currently, the IAAM board is committed to a more cost-effective development plan that envisions the museum not only as a building that houses physical exhibitions, but also as a “trailhead” to the numerous historic landscapes and structures in the Lowcountry region relevant to African American history and culture. Innovative digital interpretation strategies will particularly serve to generate a virtual presence for this “trailhead” museum structure in the Lowcountry’s highly trafficked public history landscape. In this context, we are currently exploring an exciting institutional partnership between LDHI and IAAM.

As described in the previous post, LDHI is an innovative digital public history project hosted by the Lowcountry Digital Library (LCDL) at the College of Charleston. Through a major grant award from the Dorothy and Gaylord Donnelley Foundation in 2012, LCDL is currently launching LDHI as an online platform for translating multi-institutional archival resources into digital public history projects such as online exhibitions, geo-located digital tours, and interactive maps and timelines built through open source software and permanently stored online through College of Charleston resources. Though the research, staff, and archival materials for producing these digital projects and exhibitions may reside in various institutional contexts, one of the great benefits of online interpretation is that multiple institutions can link to projects that they collaboratively produce. Rather than competing, all participants benefit from the virtual traffic these interconnected, multi-institutional digital projects receive.

In partnering with LDHI, we hope that IAAM will provide an organizing vehicle, or “brand,” for collaboratively developing and promoting digital projects and exhibitions that offer inclusive history interpretation relevant to African American history and culture. In this way, even if the costs of developing a major collections-based museum are unattainable for IAAM, its staff can still collaboratively implement digital interpretation strategies that engage the Lowcountry’s existing historic landscapes and structures. In addition, mobile device applications and online exhibitions can help articulate the diverse social histories hidden within Lowcountry landscapes and structures for user audiences with minimal costs and impacts on the physical environments or present-day communities living within these spaces. These digital projects can be made available to the public through the museum’s current website, LDHI’s future website, and potentially even public kiosks in the future.

Just to clarify, all of these digital interpretation ideas are still very much in the early brainstorming phases, but staff at LDHI are looking forward to exploring the possibilities of a partnership with IAAM. In the meantime, please donate to IAAM’s fundraising efforts! This museum will play a tremendous role in encouraging inclusive public history interpretation and education throughout the Lowcountry region.


Southern Foodways as International Cultural Exchange

Southern veggie plate , image from Southern Living Magazine, 2012

With Thanksgiving around the corner, food is on the brain. If you’re like me, while turkey and gravy are plenty exciting (particularly when the turkey is deep fried), I’m really a sides person. Along those same lines, I am always drawn to the veggie plate when I eat at southern diners or “country cookin'” restaurants. The more sides the better.

Various scholars have argued that many of the standard dishes and cooking styles of traditionally southern foods reflect West African influences — from vegetables such as okra and black eyed peas, to batter frying poultry, seafood, and vegetables, to using hot spices for seasoning. In southern contexts like the Carolina Lowcountry, these West and Central African ingredients and cooking styles then mixed with American Indian and European foodways. For example, ingredients such as squash, tomatoes, and corn, as well as the practice of deep pit barbecuing, were inherited from American Indian tribes such as the Caddo, Choctaw, and Seminole. Foods associated with sugar, flour, milk, and eggs, such as baked goods and cheeses, are more associated with Europe.

In the context of colonial and antebellum slavery, these foodways continuations and exchanges would have occurred in a hierarchical social context. For example, culinary scholar Michael Twitty argues that the eating habits of white elite southerners in the colonial and antebellum periods still mimicked elite European cuisines, and often did not consist of the foods we now consider “southern.” But their cooks would have most likely been enslaved people of African descent, who would have still adapted these European dishes to some extent through African cooking styles as well as local Lowcountry ingredients. Over time, elite white southerners may have found their palates drawn more and more to these diverse foodways. In the context of the cabins and fields, enslaved people in the Lowcountry could often supplement their rations with vegetables and herbs they grew in subsistence gardens, as well as with meat they acquired through hunting and fishing. In this context, African and African American enslaved people could particularly continue traditional African cooking practices. But particularly in the colonial period, enslaved American Indians and European indentured servants would have also worked and lived in close proximity to enslaved African Americans. In this context international foodways exchange could abound, inside and outside of the main plantation house kitchen.

Cultural continuations and exchanges are not mutually exclusive, particularly when it comes to food. Tastes can both adapt to and enjoy new flavors, while still seeking comfort and sustenance from the familiar foods and cooking styles of home. Today we can experience the delicious results of this historic, multicultural, and distinctly American foodways exchange in a variety of southern dishes, including the classic veggie plate. And at my family Thanksgiving at least, many of these southern sides happily show up alongside the Thanksgiving standards.

Have a Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

More on Time Travel: Charter Generation

   Arrival of Englishmen in North Carolina, 1585.  From Richard Hakluyt, The Discourse Concerning Westerne Planting (1585), reprinted in Old South Leaflets (Boston: The Directors of the Old South Work, 1906).

Last night my friend Shelia and I discussed Carolina colonial history over dinner in an Italian restaurant in North Charleston. Shelia is earning her master’s degree in history at the College of Charleston, and studies the experiences of enslaved women during the colonial era in Carolina. She noted that sometimes people ask her why, as an African American woman, she would want to study antebellum and colonial history, as she quoted a friend pointing out to her — “Nothing good happened for us then!”

First, we laughed over how studying history can sometimes seem to translate to wanting to go back there. My brother also once asked me what historic period I would want to go to if I could time travel, assuming as a history nerd that I would see it as fun adventure. I quickly responded, “Are you kidding? None! The future!” My experience with studying history is that it gives me a healthy, often awestruck respect for the struggles of the past, and appreciation for moving forward. Though in an earlier post I noted that “time travel” can be an effective historic interpretation strategy, actually going back does not sound fun to me at all.

But saying this, Shelia and I both noted that we found colonial history in Carolina to be fascinating. New World encounters between European settlers, American Indians, and enslaved as well as free Africans were full of conflict, exploitation, and suffering, but also unexpected alliances, personal relationships, and cultural exchanges. Laws surrounding race and enslavement were forming, but still murky, in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. As historian Ira Berlin explains, for early generations of enslaved Africans in the United States, the “Charter Generation,” this meant that racial boundaries were less rigid than they would become for future generations of enslaved African Americans in North America. This early generation often came from coastal trading areas of Africa and were already familiar with European social structures, so that even under bondage in the Americas, they were able to begin the work of “incorporating themselves into those societies . . . establishing families, accumulating property, and employing their knowledge of the law to advance themselves and secure their freedom in remarkably high numbers” (Coming to Terms with Slavery,” Berlin, 2006). Unfortunately in colonies like Carolina, the growth of plantation-style agriculture and cash crop production in the eighteenth century soon meant that planters required more labor, more rigid laws to control enslaved people and enforce coerced labor, and more limited access to individual freedom, which they increasingly defined as a racial barrier between blacks and whites.

What is fascinating about this time period is that it reveals how slavery formed and changed, and would continue to change over time, for the enslavers and the enslaved. Nothing was ever really set in stone or would be– instead people kept struggling and fighting. As Berlin noted about the history of slavery, “race’s ever-changing character suggests its malleability. That it could be made in the past argues that it can be re-made in the future — a prospect that provides all the more reason to come to terms with slavery ” (Berlin, 17). This ongoing change (sometimes from bad to worse, but then sometimes the other way around) is what makes this early history fascinating for history nerds like Shelia and myself, and worth discussing over an Italian dinner in 2012. But the promise of change, and the unexpected forms that change took in the past and could take in the future, is also what makes public history about even painful historic subjects such as racial inequalities and slavery so crucial, and why I look forward to making information about this history accessible through APLA.

Barbados Part II: Collaborative Digital Archiving and Newton Plantation

Mary Battle, UNESCO Slave Route sign marking “Newton Slave Burial Ground” at Newton Plantation, Christ Church Parish, Barbados, March 2012.

As I mentioned in the previous post, the purpose of my recent trip to Barbados was twofold– to attend the Annual International Inclusive Museum Conference and to assist Angela Flenner (Associate Director of the Lowcountry Digital Library) in a digital archive training session with staff from the Barbados Museum & Historical Society (BMHS). This partnership grew from various efforts over the past couple of decades to recognize the shared colonial history between Barbados and Carolina. As Peter Wood described in Black Majority, Carolina initially served as a “colony of a colony” of Barbados, and Barbadian settlers were particularly influential in establishing plantation agriculture worked through enslaved African labor in the Carolina Lowcountry.

The “Barbados-Carolina Connection” has been explored through books, conferences, speakers, public events and even student exchanges in recent years, but now the Lowcountry Digital Library seeks to engage this connection through collaborative digital archiving. The Shilstone Library at BMHS contains numerous valuable and insightful archival materials that would greatly benefit from online access, and LCDL and the College of Charleston can offer the resources and staff training to help them do this.

In addition, archival resources at BMHS could translate into engaging and informative online public history projects. For example, the materials selected for the pilot project of this digital archiving collaboration are documents and ledgers from Newton Plantation, a former sugar plantation in Barbados that is now the property of BMHS. Newton was also the site of an archaeological dig led by Dr. Jerome Handler (see his work in Plantation Slavery in Barbados), particularly of the cemetery where enslaved people were buried. (BMHS currently features a number of artifacts from this dig in their permanent exhibitions.) Today Newton Plantation is a sugarcane field, but BMHS is developing plans to interpret this site in various ways. In 2002, the UNESCO Slave Route Project put up a sign to commemorate the cemetery site, particularly because there were no existing grave markers to designate the area as sacred ground (see picture above). In 2011, BMHS launched a pilot guided tour to address the history of slavery on the island, which included bringing tour participants to Newton Plantation. In the future, BMHS staff hope this tour will become a permanent offering for locals and visitors, and they are even discussing establishing a slavery museum at Newton. But all of these physical public history developments can be costly, particularly in the current economic climate. Virtual exhibitions, interactive maps, or geo-located digital tours for mobile devices could serve as cost-effective alternatives for interpreting Newton Plantation for the public, using images of archaeological artifacts and the existing landscape, as well as the documents and ledgers BMHS staff are currently scanning for digital archiving with LCDL. For the interests of APLA, this online interpretation would then be an ideal project to feature in our exhibition section entitled “Barbados Influence,” which will discuss the interconnected colonial histories of these regions, particularly through slavery and the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

And the Newton Plantation materials we saw at BMHS, just during our two-day training session were certainly rich with information. When Angela and I first arrived, Harriett Pierce, the head librarian at Shilstone, explained to us that she just found a massive Newton Plantation ledger that had been misplaced in another collection. When we opened it, we found extensive inventories of enslaved people, which included names, gender, occupation, color (black or mulatto), and birth and death dates. Seeing these names was certainly moving for everyone involved in the training. I was not allowed to take a picture at that time, put I look forward to this ledger and more like it being available online soon.

Inclusive Museum Conference

Mary Battle, Band in Grand Kadooment parade during Crop Over festival, Barbados, August 2012.

Sorry for the delay in blogging– but I have a good excuse! I have just returned from spending 11 days in Barbados where I presented at the annual International Conference on the Inclusive Museum (Aug 2-5) and conducted training on digital archiving procedures with LCDL’s Associate Director, Angela Flenner, at the Barbados Museum & Historical Society. In the midst of all that it was also Crop Over, a major annual festival in Barbados (see photo above). The historic origins of this festival are to celebrate the end of the sugar harvest on the island, which explains the festival’s strikingly straightforward name (though the event now occurs in August rather than after the actual harvest).

This was my third trip to Barbados–it was an amazing experience, and I am very grateful to College of Charleston and LCDL for supporting this trip. In later blogs I will further discuss our collaborative digital archiving training process and why we do it. But for this blog entry I would like to pass along some of the highlights of the conference.

Usually when I go to conferences I can cherry-pick which presentations I would like to see based on how relevant they are to my research interests. This time however, even though this conference was not very large, I wanted to attend everything. Everyone there was grappling with a similar struggle, albeit in various international contexts– how to develop a museum or public history site or exhibition that is inclusive not only in the types of diverse experiences, collections, and events it interprets, but also in how it engages the community where it is physically located. Presenters described sites and issues from around the world (for example, just on my own panel the presenter before me discussed challenges with designing a museum about Berber villages in Qatar, and the presenter after me discussed problems with excluding indigenous languages in museum text panels in Zimbabwe). Still similar themes emerged– particularly in how to confront histories that involve historic struggles over race and class. For many presenters from the United States and the Caribbean, interpreting the history of slavery and post-Emancipation racial struggles presented both similar and contrasting challenges. For example, keynote speaker Lonnie Bunch, director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum for African American History and Culture,  described how addressing histories of struggle and survival for African Americans during and after U.S. slavery can be difficult for museum fundraising. As he explained, he has heard complaints ranging from “I thought the Smithsonian was supposed to make us feel good about our country,” to “This will be a wonderful museum, just don’t talk about slavery.” Presenters such as Kevin Farmer and Alissandra Cummins from Barbados also described how the history of slavery has been traditionally diminished in the Caribbean context because many people believed that it was “shameful” and detracted from the pride and spirit of post-colonial nation building in the mid-nineteenth century (see their work in the upcoming publication Plantation to Nation: Caribbean Museums and National Identity, Chicago & Melbourne: Onmuseums Series, Common Ground Publishing, 2012).

My own presentation was on developing the International African American Museum in Charleston, South Carolina during an economic crisis, and particularly spoke to the cost-effective and widely influential opportunities of presenting museum interpretation through online exhibitions such as African Passages, Lowcountry Adaptations (which is being developed in partnership with IAAM). Listening to these various presentations from around the world helped me recognize that while many of Charleston’s diverse histories are in many ways specific to this area, we are not alone in the challenges and opportunities we face as we embrace inclusive public history representations.

Atlantic World Diversity and The People Who Came

A common Lowcountry saying claims that Charleston is located “where the Cooper and the Ashley Rivers meet to form the Atlantic Ocean.” The pride of Charlestonians is the point of this joke, but it also reveals the potentially problematic influence of geographic perspective in history. Contrary to this saying, slavery, plantation agriculture, and even the region’s first major cash crop of rice all came to this city through a larger Atlantic World trade and migration system.  Charleston was just one of many ports. To fully comprehend Charleston’s early history, geographic boundaries must expand beyond a city, the southeast region, and even North America, to include the exchanges and influences of this complex multinational, multicultural network. For these reasons, the exhibition section I am working on this week, Origins and Arrival, highlights the broader context of the Atlantic World in shaping slavery and plantation agriculture in the South Carolina Lowcountry region. This history includes the exploits of colonization and the tragedy of the trans-Atlantic slave trade between Africa, Europe, the Caribbean and the Americas, as well as the rich cultural diversity and creative exchanges that occurred as individuals from various backgrounds adapted to shifting social hierarchies and landscapes in the Lowcountry region.

Drafting the exhibition text for this section led me to think about the remarkable diversity of Charleston’s history– a point that has only become more apparent in the area’s public history representations in recent decades (though awareness of this history will certainly increase with the development of public history projects such as the Gullah Geechee Heritage Corridor and the International African American Museum). Many visitors and even locals in Charleston still do not recognize that cultures and traditions from West and Central Africa, the Caribbean, and Native American groups as well as Europe highly influenced this area’s much lauded colonial and antebellum history. Increasing awareness of this historic diversity is not just more accurate, it also introduces powerful pedagogical context for embracing diversity in the present.

I recently saw evidence for the educational role of Atlantic World historic diversity while conducting dissertation research on the island nation of Barbados. Librarian Harriet Pierce, at the Barbados Museum and Historical Society, suggested that I look at a series of textbooks used in Caribbean schools, The People Who Came, because they were edited by an influential Barbadian historian and activist, Edward Kamau Brathwaite. Brathwaite helped edit these school textbooks after Barbados obtained independence in 1966. Before that time, as an English colony, history education in Barbados focused overwhelmingly on England. As I heard numerous times from Barbadians during my research interviews, “We learned about all the English monarchs in school, but nothing about Barbados.” The People Who Came re-framed this narrow historic focus to tie Caribbean history (including Barbados history) to the Atlantic World and beyond, presenting a diverse international narrative of the historic experiences of Amerindian populations of the Americas, as well as the African, Indian, Chinese and European people who came to the Caribbean islands.  For the first time Caribbean students of African, Asian, and Amerindian descent could see their historic backgrounds comprehensively represented in their history textbooks. Representing this diversity was particularly significant to Barbados, where over 90% of the population are of African descent.

As I read these textbooks, I thought of my own elementary and middle school history education experiences in South Carolina. I am not up to date on what current South Carolina history textbooks are like, but in the 1980s and early 90s when I was in school, English and Anglo-American history dominated colonial and antebellum South Carolina history narratives, while African American and Native American histories played a minor role. And we certainly learned very little about African and American histories before New World colonization (which is a major theme in The People Who Came). I hope the Origins and Arrival section of this exhibition will contribute to placing Atlantic World diversity at the center of South Carolina’s colonial and antebellum history, but reading these post-independence Caribbean textbooks also made me consider the significance of making this diverse history apart of the curriculum for South Carolina students in today’s multicultural world– a goal we can also strive for in our Educator Resources section.