Two Conflicting Ideas

What makes slavery so difficult for Americans, both black and white, to come to terms with is that slavery encompasses two conflicting ideas — both with equal validity and with equal truth, but with radically different implications. One says that slavery is one of the great crimes in human history; the other says that men and women dealt with the crime and survived it and even grew strong because of it. One says slavery is our great nightmare; the other says slavery left a valuable legacy. One says death, the other life.”

– Ira Berlin, “Coming to Terms with Slavery in Twenty-First Century America”

Throughout the process of drafting the exhibition text for APLA, I constantly find myself thinking of Ira Berlin’s quote above. (From an essay that I have found incredibly useful for articulating issues in my own research and for teaching– I highly recommend reading it.) For each exhibition section detailing a historic event or issue related to the history of slavery in Charleston, I engage in a pedagogical juggling act between conveying the brutality of chattel slavery and asserting that despite this brutality, enslaved Africans and African Americans powerfully resisted their bondage. This balancing act is particularly important for addressing complex subjects such as violence and sale. On many historic sites I observed in Charleston (for my dissertation research), historic interpreters who actually did address slavery or African American history still seemed to avoid or minimize these subjects. They often found them upsetting or complicated to convey in a tourism context. But understanding the central role of violence and sale, or the threat of violence and sale, is crucial to understanding how slavery functioned in the Lowcountry and throughout the nation. In addition to the oppression of involuntary, unpaid labor, violence and sale were the greatest struggles for enslaved people in chattel bondage. As Ira Berlin explains in the same essay I quote above, “No understanding of slavery can avoid these themes: violence, power, and the usurpation of labor for the purpose of aggrandizing a small minority . . . The murders, beatings, mutilations, and humiliations, both petty and great, were an essential, not incidental, part of the system.” In an upcoming article publication, Stephanie Yuhl further describes the importance of understanding the domestic slave trade for generating a constant threat of sale in U.S. slavery. “When the story of slavery begins in the usual historic sites — the plantation, small farm, or city mansion setting — it is too easily domesticated into a discourse about relationships, community, homes, households and intact families white and black, ‘ she explains,  “in such settings, bondage is too readily assimilated; the enslaved too easily become “servants” separated from active enslavers, and the institution of slavery construed simply as an inheritance that is paternalistic and organic in nature.”

As these scholars convey, violence and sale are central to understanding slavery in public history contexts, but resistance is vital as well. Slaveholders and traders could never fully implement the dehumanizing terms of chattel slavery because enslaved people constantly challenged the power structure of this system, in large and small ways. From negotiating privileges, stalling labor, and breaking tools to running away or forming rebellions, historic accounts are full of evidence that enslaved people did not accept the terms of their captivity. To form a full understanding of this institution, however, public historians must be clear about what these oppressive terms were.

Sources:

Berlin, Ira. “Coming to Terms with Slavery in Twenty-First-Century America,” essay. Slavery and Public History: The Tough Stuff of American Memory. James Oliver Horton and Lois E. Horton, editors. Chapel Hill, North Carolina: The University of North Carolina Press, 2006.

Yugl, Stephanie. “Re­mapping the Tourist/Trade: Confronting Slavery’s Commercial Core at Charleston’s Old Slave Mart Museum.” The Journal of Southern History, Summer 2013. Upcoming publication.

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The Fiery Trial: Eric Foner and Public History

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Yesterday I had the pleasure of attending a lecture by Dr. Eric Foner at the College of Charleston on his recent book The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery. Foner has an admirable presence and discussion style as a historian, the kind that reminds me of why I ever became interested in the academic profession (deep in the throes of the PhD process, and in this job market, I have to dig deep at times to remember). Foner has the remarkable ability to present historic subjects as complex as slavery, Emancipation, and the Civil War in a steady, clear, and even humorous manner. You feel comfortable, rather than desperately confused, following him through each point, and by the end you not only feel like you have a better grasp of the whole tangled mess of Civil War and Emancipation history, you even have a totally new perspective of a historic figure you thought you already knew, such as Abraham Lincoln.

I actually saw Foner present twice yesterday, to a workshop group of K-12 teachers and public historians (organized by Dr. Brian Kelly with CLAW and the After Slavery project), and to an auditorium full of historians in town for an academic conference. Perhaps the best demonstration of Foner’s ability was that his presentation style and subject material changed very little for these two groups. I don’t mean to imply Foner didn’t bother two write two presentations– my point is he didn’t need to. As a scholar who studies public history, I find this admirable because too often the complex issues and nuance of history seem to get locked up in academic journals and publications. Tour guides and schoolteachers, particularly in Charleston and  throughout South Carolina, often seem left with more superficial interpretations of history for their students or tourist audiences. This may be their own choosing, but I also believe the resources for developing clear frameworks and language for articulating history in the public realm seem painfully limited, particularly surrounding complex subjects such as slavery.

One of my great, potentially idealistic, hopes for APLA is that it will help make some of the more complex aspects of the history of antebellum and colonial slavery in the Carolina Lowcountry more comprehensible and accessible to a wide range of user audiences. But I am increasingly finding that historic clarity is hard work. In the next couple of posts I will try to untangle some particularly difficult points from this history, to help me think through how to write up this information in the exhibition text. Watching accessible, yet still very challenging and historically rich discussions like Dr. Foner’s presentations yesterday was a great inspiration.

Mobley made an awesome Omeka theme for us!

Today has been a fun digital humanities day, which is not something a person who works in this field can say every day (let’s just say technology is, and always will be, humbling to work with, even for the best and brightest). Tyler Mobley, our digital services librarian extraordinaire at the Lowcountry Digital Library, has developed a customized theme in Omeka for us to use in laying out APLA. Today was the first day I could begin working in it, and it is awesome.

To provide some background, we are building APLA in Omeka, an open source system developed by the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University, because it includes a very user-friendly and durable online exhibit builder program. One of the downsides of Omeka’s exhibit builder though is it comes with a limited set of options for exhibit appearance themes and page layouts. I found this frustrating because in my earlier work at Emory University’s digital libraries, we used Dreamweaver and later Drupal for laying out our digital projects. These content management systems certainly have their own issues, but for a person like me who is filling in the site content rather than organizing the back end of the system, I grew accustomed to having some sense of control over where texts and multimedia files went in a given digital project, rather than following a template. So when the LCDL team decided to go with Omeka for our exhibits with their set list of themes and page layouts, I had some concerns.

Still the ease of setting up and using Omeka is undeniable, and this a big plus for our relatively small digital library staff. In addition, with the Lowcountry Digital History Initiative, we are also hoping to make Omeka’s exhibit builder accessible for our institutional partners to use in collaboratively building innovative digital projects based on their digital archives. So Mobley embarked on setting up a compromise. We would still use Omeka, but he built a very aesthetically pleasing and user friendly Omeka theme for our LDHI projects, and made additional page layout template options so that our staff and partners would have many more to choose from in laying out APLA, as well as future digital projects. To clarify, as a humanities scholar primarily, I cannot fully wrap my head around what all Mobley did to make this digital magic happen, but it’s working great so far and I am looking forward to seeing APLA come together with this new online exhibition theme!

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.

Lowcountry Digital History Initiative!!!

The Lowcountry Digital Library at the College of Charleston (hosts of APLA) recently received VERY exciting news from the Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation. We have been awarded a significant grant for start-up funding to launch the Lowcountry Digital History Initiative!!! (Multiple exclamation marks are very appropriate on this happy occasion.)

In the coming months, staff at LCDL are looking forward to organizing our short term and long term goals for this exciting digital public history project. In particular, we will meet with our LCDL institutional partners in January to introduce LDHI, and will suggest potential collaboration strategies for various online exhibitions, geo-located tours, and interactive mapping projects. We also look forward to working with academic scholars as well as public historians to plan various digital public history projects for public audiences, with a particular emphasis on underrepresented, inclusive interpretations of Carolina Lowcountry history. Over time our goal is to establish replicable workflows and consultation resources for developing online exhibitions with LCDL partners (which include a wide, and growing, range of cultural institutions in the Lowcountry) so that LDHI maintains a dynamic and expanding presence long after the end of the grant funding period.

APLA will become a major part of LDHI, and  I look forward to updating this blog on how LDHI develops, particularly to clarify its goals and what form(s) it will take . . . I would greatly appreciate any insights or suggestions you have that may contribute to the success and accessibility of this new initiative.
For now, we are very grateful for support from the Humanities Council SC and soon the Donnelley Foundation, and YAY!!!!!!!!!!

Welcome Beth and Alexandra!

I am very pleased to announce that we have two new graduate student assistants working with us at the Lowcountry Digital Library this academic year from the joint master’s in history program at the Citadel and College of Charleston. Beth and Alexandra are both doing great work, and you can see blogs about what they are up to here: Beth– http://bethgniewek.wordpress.com and Alexandra — http://englishdiaspora.wordpress.com.

On top of her archival duties, Beth in particular has been helping me finding images and links for APLA– which is awesome. Image searching, and identifying copyright information about each image, can be a goose chase, so I greatly appreciate her help. And it’s great to have someone to brainstorm with about other ways to find multimedia materials. For example, in the APLA section on rice agriculture, we recently talked about going out and taking pictures of sites with the remnants of rice agriculture features, like trunks and canals (such as Caw Caw Interpretive Center), along with finding archival documents that address this history.

So in honor of our new graduate assistants, and the start of the new semester, I would like to talk a bit about pedagogy, digital humanities, and public history in this post. One of the benefits of relatively new exhibition building software in open source systems like Omeka is that they are getting increasingly user-friendly. This is excellent news for folks like myself who greatly appreciate technology and its potential uses for public history and humanities, but I don’t really know how to handle the back end of computer programming and design. The pre-established exhibit frameworks of sites like Omeka mean that I don’t necessarily have to know how to do this to build a great online exhibition (and hopefully in the future the framework options will keep increasing with Omeka). In addition, at LCDL we have our ace-in-the-hole digital scholarship librarian Heather Gilbert, who can help with styling the Omeka exhibition structure we choose, so APLA will definitely look sharp when it’s done.

But to get to pedagogy — the increasing accessibility and ease of using digital project-building software also means that it becomes easier to teach digital public history. We recently met with Dr. Megan Schockley who teaches public history at Clemson University, and I was fascinated to hear about how she encourages her undergraduate students to work with local historic sites in the Clemson area to develop digital projects like short films and online exhibitions that the sites can then use in their own site representations. How could this digital public history teaching strategy work with Charleston area sites, for undergraduate and graduate history students like Beth and Alexandra? Of course traditional history lecture, research, and writing courses are not going anywhere, and they shouldn’t. But in this economy, students should have the option to build a diversity of project building skills that have applications for academic and public history fields. And with numerous historic sites struggling with limited budgets and staff, encouraging students to work with local public history sites to build interpretive and effectively inclusive digital projects could be a win-win situation all around. It’s definitely something to think about for the future . . .

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.