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”

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.

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.

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.

Curated Access and LCDL Collections

“this dynamic website will provide curated access to digitally archived materials that are organized into a researched historic narrative to address public, academic, and educator audiences”

When we first started developing a project description for APLA (for grant applications, partner meetings, etc.), my supervisor encouraged me to use to the phrase “curated access” to explain what we hoped to do with digitally archived materials. I found the implications of this phrase for archives to be interesting. The central goal of the Lowcountry Digital Library is simply to provide organized online access to information about archival materials (such as images of materials and metadata). But images and metadata cannot tell the whole story of why different archival materials are important. This is where “curated access” steps in. A topical history exhibition creates a stage for content experts to pull materials out of a collection and give historic context for why they are important. What is the relationship between this object or document and the people who created and used it? What was their relationship to society? How does this fit into a cohesive historic narrative? By addressing these questions exhibitions activate archival materials to become accessible as educational, public history resources. And as I will explain in later blog entries, online exhibitions in particular have the unique ability to introduce materials and historic contexts in new, interactive forms, through a wide range of multimedia and augmented reality features.

In short, working as a curator for an online history exhibition is a really interesting job, not unlike treasure hunting. I dig through collections to find the perfect object or document to exemplify a broader historic topic. In addition, as we also described in the project description, the history of African American slavery in Charleston itself still remains largely hidden in the area’s public history. On multiple levels, this project serves as an online public history excavation.

For this blog I would like to highlight a few of the archival digital materials we plan to feature in APLA from our own Lowcountry Digital Library collections. We also plan to explore a wide range online repositories for materials, but here are a few of our “treasures” so far:

The McLeod Plantation Cemetery Collection contains beads found in 1996 during the construction of a fire station in James Island, South Carolina. Construction of the fire station, which was to be located between Folly Road, Country Club Drive, and Wappoo Creek, was aborted when workers unearthed unmarked graves. The human bones found were believed to be the remains of slaves that had once lived on McLeod Plantation.,1337

Pewter slave badge produced for a servant in Charleston, S.C. It was common to counterfeit badges to avoid paying taxes, and this particular one was not issued by the city, but created in the stamped year. The face is stamped “Charleston 1862 Servant #4.” Back side contains no markings.,1147

This slave pass, or permission note, is one of three found in 1934 in a Book of Common Prayer. The book was donated to the College of Charleston by Daniel Horlbeck in 1875. For reasons unknown this pass was extensively scribbled over.,5