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.


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.


Teaching about Slavery

Signs for Plantation Life children's program at Drayton Hall, Charleston, South Carolina, 2012. This section of the program focused on Lowcountry African American history during the Revolutionary War.

Mary Battle, signs for children’s education program at Drayton Hall, Charleston, South Carolina, 2012. This section of the program focused on slavery during the Revolutionary War.

Fully grasping the experiences and perspectives of enslaved African Americans is challenging in the present. I’ve studied the history of slavery throughout my academic career, and continue to appreciate that the complexity and struggles of enslaved experiences will always be beyond my contemporary understanding. Ownership over my own body, labor, and mobility is too deeply engrained as a given in my life.

But recognizing this limitation does not mean that imagining slavery cannot help us develop empathy for the struggles of enslaved African Americans. Imagining can also be a productive teaching tool, even for children.

I was early in my graduate career when I first heard a professor explain that American victory at the end of the Revolutionary War was not a celebration for African Americans. The turmoil of that war provided opportunities for change if you are an enslaved person. As Eric Foner noted in the lecture I described in my last post, military emancipation occurred throughout the history of slavery. Enemies freeing the slaves of their enemies was an effective war strategy, and the British certainly used it during the Revolutionary War, particularly in the Lowcountry. For example in 1782, British forces included more than 5,000 enslaved people in their evacuation from Gadsden’s Wharf in Charleston. Scholars estimate that as many as 30,000 African Americans in South Carolina attempted to join British forces to escape slavery during the war. The British sold many back into bondage, but those who left with the 1782 evacuation from Charleston were able to seek freedom abroad as Black Loyalists.

Back to teaching and children — throughout my dissertation research on representations of slavery in Charleston I heard historic interpreters say that the history of slavery is difficult to explain to children. One interpreter recalled that African American schoolchildren could be especially resistant to hearing about such a painful history that involved their ancestors. With this context in mind, I was surprised and pleased to see a children’s education program at Drayton Hall in 2012 that not only effectively engaged fourth graders in learning about plantation slavery in the Lowcountry, it also took on slavery during a complex historic period like the Revolutionary War. The set up for this powerful historic education activity went like this:

The historic interpreter provides a brief historic outline of how the volatile context of the Revolutionary War provided opportunities for freedom for enslaved African Americans (this tied to a lesson in their history curriculum back at school). He then instructs the children that they are all enslaved people during the Revolution, living on a plantation like Drayton Hall. He then points to four signs, and tells them that these are their options for what to do while the war is going on. He then asks the students to line up beyond the sign that states what they think they would do. Once they do this, he tells them that they are allowed to move to the line behind a different sign if they change their minds during the activity.

The day I observed, the activity went like this:

After listening to instructions, the majority of students immediately ran to get in line behind the “Join the Patriots” sign. “Run Away” also snagged a good number. “Stay in Place” only had two students and “Join the British” had one excited student who explained that he just loved the British. The interpreter then asked the first student in line behind each of the signs why he or she made that choice. After the student answered, he asked for input from others, and then explained the consequences. For “Stay in Place,” the girl in front explained that she thought it was safer. The interpreter responded that she might be right, and she could stay with her family for the time being, but she would still be in slavery and could be sold away. For the “Run Away” crowd, he explained that they could try, but they would need a map, food, water, and then bluntly asked– where would you go? And what about any family members on the plantation? At the “Join the Patriots” sign, the first student in that long line quickly stated that he was a Patriot because he deserved his freedom too. The interpreter responded that he was right, he does deserve his freedom, but he would not get it from the American government for nearly another one hundred years. This created lots of mumbling between the Patriots students. Finally, the interpreter explained to the excited student who wanted to “Join the British” that this choice might actually give him a chance at freedom, but just a chance. Many of the students started to move. By the end of the activity the majority now stood with the British. Afterwards, the interpreter told me that shift happened nearly every time he led the activity. In a roughly twenty minute exercise, they could comprehend that much about the importance of freedom to enslaved people during the Revolutionary War.

This exercise showed me that teaching students about slavery was not only possible, but when carefully done with a well-informed instructor, it could also be engaging, generate empathy, and tackle complex historic subjects. I also wondered whether adults could benefit from a similar exercise.

150th Anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation

Emancipation Day Parade, Charleston, South Carolina, 1 January 2013. Photograph by Mary Battle

Emancipation Day Parade, Charleston, South Carolina, 1 January 2013. Photograph by Mary Battle.

Happy Emancipation Day 2013!

Today marks the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation in the United States. Charleston celebrated with Watch Night services in churches throughout the city last night, and an Emancipation Day Parade this afternoon. In addition, various blogs and media outlets have been posting discussions about the significance of this day. At the bottom of this post I list links to some article and blog highlights about Emancipation Day in the Lowcountry. Also I assume not incidentally, two blockbuster movies recently came out in theaters that address the significance of slavery and Emancipation in U.S. history (albeit in very different ways), Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” and Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained.” Movie goers and critics everywhere seem to be debating the pros and cons of these films. Even while waving at floats passing by in the Emancipation Day Parade today, a professor friend standing next to me told me he was a big fan of “Django Unchained” (I haven’t seen it yet), and declared that historic sites in Charleston should have a screening. I sense a major public conversation brewing.

From an inclusive public history standpoint, this buzz is great news. As Fath Davis Ruffins explains in her 2006 article, “Revisiting the Old Plantation” in Museum Frictions, popular films and media can play a major role in increasing public awareness and access to underrepresented histories. The release of the Roots television miniseries in 1977, for example, proved to be a watershed moment for generating widespread interest and even scholarship in African American history during and after slavery. As she explains, the popularity of Roots revealed that critically addressing slavery was not an “insurmountable problem” for American audiences, and this popular interest encouraged museums to begin developing exhibitions on slavery and African American history, and academic departments began to feature more African American history and culture courses (Ruffins, 394-398). But she also notes that these popular media trends can come and go, and by 2013, particularly with numerous Civil War Sesquicentennial events underway, the American public seems ready for a renewed discussion of the significance and complexities of slavery and Emancipation in U.S. history.

But in the midst of these critical or affirming discussions and debates, the Emancipation Day Parade today also reminded me of something that really should be obvious. Emancipation was a tremendous, miraculous time in history, worthy of great celebration. Racial injustices and inequalities did continue after January 1, 1863, but Emancipation still marked one of the few moments in history when an ethical movement changed the way an entire regional and national economy operated. Individual freedom for all Americans, particularly the right to own your own body and labor, finally began to legally expand beyond whites in the United States. Even as a scholar who studies slavery, I still cannot fully grasp what not having access to these rights would be like. Public debates will, and should, continue about popular representations and historic meanings of slavery, Emancipation, and its race and class legacies in the present. But today, I was also happy to celebrate a wonderful event in U.S. history.

Suggested links:

Blain Roberts and Ethan Kytle’s post in the New York Times “Disunion” blog on the significance of the Emancipation Proclamation in the South Carolina Sea Islands, “The Grove of Gladness”

Reverend Joseph A. Darby’s article in Charleston’s Post and Courier newspaper, “Emancipation Proclamation is still worthy of major celebration”

The Jubilee Project: Commemorating 150 Years of Emancipation and Educational Access in South Carolina 

Blog post from Lowcountry Africana entitled “The Day We Celebrate: Emancipation Day in Charleston, Then and Now”

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.

This Place Matters

Joseph McGill, Slave Dwelling Project, Holly Springs, Mississippi, 2012

One of the central goals of APLA is to establish a clear, accessible online multimedia narrative for understanding the history of colonial and antebellum slavery in the Carolina Lowcountry. Geo-located online tours and interactive maps (built through digital tools such as City Slicker and Neatline) will particularly serve to connect specific places in the current Lowcountry landscape to the complex layers of social history that occurred within this region.

But one point that I think is crucial for public history producers to understand about the role of digital history projects in their work is that they are not meant to replace physically encountering a historic place. I doubt many people will look at a map or tour online and decide there is nothing further to gain from actually going there. This is because learning about history is often a sensual experience as a much as it is cognitive. As scholar Alison Landsberg argues in Prosthetic Memory: The Transformation of American Remembrance in the Age of Mass Culture , an effective historic site creates a “prosthetic memory” for visitors, by using landscapes and structures to create a physical connection for visitors that encourages empathy for the historic experiences that occurred in these spaces (Landsberg, 149). In the past, “time travel” interpretation strategies could be problematic on historic sites such as plantations, because guides generally encouraged visitors to connect only to white elite experiences. Guides might tell visitors “this is where you would dine” when touring the dining room, or “this is where you would have tea with your guests”– ultimately obscuring the race and class hierarchies that defined social interactions within these spaces, and strictly limited who exactly this you would be.

But in recent years various plantation sites in the Lowcountry region and beyond have begun to encourage empathetic “time travel” connections to a greater range of historic experiences, particularly by highlighting spaces such as quarters and cabins where enslaved people lived. Local historian activists such as Joseph McGill have particularly worked to make these sites more visible to the public, and to the present day owners of these sites. McGill works for the National Trust and is based in Charleston. The goal of his Slave Dwellings Project is strikingly simple. He spends the night in various slave dwellings (cabins or quarters within homes) as they currently exist throughout the United States to convey a direct message– “This Place Matters.” I have seen McGill give public presentations about his work numerous times and interviewed him for my own research. A major point he emphasizes in these discussions is the physical experience of his stays. He describes in great detail the heat, bugs, and late night sounds as well as his personal feelings about being in these spaces.  This makes the intervention role of his project powerful. As he recently explained to me, once they have someone ask to stay there, historic site producers will often become more aware of how they have neglected and overlooked the historic meaning of cabins and quarters on their plantation sites. McGill’s physical experiences in these spaces forces them to imagine the experiences of the people who lived and struggled in these spaces– which can trigger powerful changes in how they construct their representations for public tours.

Online interpretation cannot replace this connection, and should not seek to.  Instead it serves to increase access to research and and digitally archived materials for critically understanding these historic experiences. Multimedia materials such as images of artifacts, photographs, or artistic depictions of historic experiences can help visitors visualize the race and class histories that public history representations within Lowcountry landscapes and structures traditionally obscured. For this reason, once we begin to promote APLA, we will particularly encourage guides and sites to engage the digital history resources this site will offer as a way to further enhance the experience of their interpretation.

Starting from Scratch

Water view from Dixie Plantation. Julie Casper, Hollywood, South Carolina.

This past Sunday I went to Dixie Plantation in Hollywood, South Carolina to obtain information for an online tour. LCDL is currently using City Slicker software to develop this tour through research produced by Dr. Maureen Hays, Dr. Kimberly Pyzka, and their students. The tour will be a stand alone resource for promoting Dixie as a College of Charleston-owned outdoor education center, but we are also hoping to link the tour, or a similar Dixie-based digital project, as a case study example for APLA. The site particularly offers resources relevant to colonial slavery, and even features the site of a parsonage that Native Americans burned during Yemassee War— a conflict particularly sparked by European settlers encroaching on Native American lands and participating in the Indian Slave Trade. This war, which lasted from 1715 to 1717, almost destroyed the Carolina colony.

For the record, this plantation is College of Charleston property, so going on your own is trespassing. I also would not recommend it, snakes (poisonous ones) are out this time of year and currently some neighbors’ Rottweilers are loose on the property. Fortunately I brought my parents for company, and my mom was able to talk the Rotties down until they were wiggling on the ground like puppies. I had no idea she was such a dog whisperer. But I was there with permission from the College for an official assignment– I had to track down fourteen recently erected nature/history trail signs, take pictures to represent their historic or nature subject, and mark their coordinates to geolocate them for the tour. My parents had to leave by lunchtime so I recruited some friends visiting from Atlanta to join me in the afternoon. Perhaps I should have savored some alone time on the plantation/nature preserve, but along with personal safety concerns, I think I wanted to be able to talk about the place with someone.

In recent years I have spent lots of time on plantation spaces for my PhD research on changing representations of race, class, and the history of slavery in Charleston’s historic tourism industry (with historically interconnected comparison sites in Barbados). These plantations were tourist sites– bustling with visitors, guides, signs, trams, ticket booths, and petting zoo-type animals– and often charging steep prices for a graduate student budget (though many site producers did graciously waive their fees). I went to these sites to assess how site producers wanted me to see plantation history– what tours and attractions did they add over time? What did guides discuss, or not discuss, in big house tours? Do they grapple with addressing African American experiences during and after slavery on these sites? If so, what strategies do they use to convey this complex history? And what items do they place in plantation gift shops as souvenirs of this site experience? (In my observations, I found this could range widely (and wildly for the twenty-first century) from southern belle paper dolls to scholarly works on the history of slavery to Mammy figure salt shakers that could have been sitting on the shelf in the 1950s.) I like to think most of these Charleston plantation tourist sites are in a state of transition, as they waver between holding on to white elite “moonlights and magnolias” plantation nostalgia, and developing interpretations of African American history and culture that reflect an increasingly inclusive understanding of southern history in a multicultural world.

But other than a name that triggers a knee-jerk “old times there are ne’er forgotten” to go off in my head, representation strategies on Dixie are generally not yet in place. The nature trail itself was the only modern interpretation feature on the site, which consists of a smooth gravel path marked by signs addressing topics ranging from rice agriculture to the wildlife of coastal marshes to enslaved African and Native American history. The polished appearance of the trail points to more landscape developments to come, as the College works to develop an outdoor education center on the site. But beyond the trail, most of the Dixie landscape is a fascinating tangle of plantation remnants overtaken by nature preserve growth, with few of the trademark nostalgia features glorified by so many tourist sites. There are no white columned houses at Dixie, and even the ornamental plants of the gardens have been overtaken by wilder species from the woods.

My Atlanta friends finally articulated the question I was struggling with as I tromped around Dixie– so what do you think future interpretation of this plantation should look like? The plantations I examined for my research had often been tourist sites for many decades, even over a century in one case. The central research question on these sites often revolves around what should be undone on this space to correct exclusive bias, as well as what should be highlighted or added. At Dixie the question is different– What would more inclusive plantation interpretation (guide narratives, additional interpretive panels, etc.) look like starting more or less from scratch? Can there ever be a truly effective representation strategies for conveying the complex pasts that occurred in these spaces for present visitors? (To be clear, Dixie will not be a tourist site, but it will be an outdoor education center that presumably will include plantation social history lessons for students as well as ecology.) Ultimately this question does not have an easy answer, but as I walked around Dixie I considered how interpretation from scratch was a totally different challenge from untangling existing plantation interpretation problems.

In this context, the good news about digital curation like online tours is that they are flexible. If we make mistakes as we embark on developing digital projects based on Dixie history, they can be easily unraveled. And we can experiment with different online interpretation approaches at minimal costs and impact on the landscape. In this way, though confronting and effectively representing the complex experiences of race, class, and labor hierarchies in plantation history is a challenge, it is increasingly a dynamic and exciting challenge to take on.