Public Historian on Vacation: San Antonio Beyond the Alamo

Our first day in San Antonio included barbecue and a tour of the Alamo, but also a trip to a less traditional kind of museum, Barney Smith’s Toilet Seat Art Museum.

Yes, toilet seat art. Barney Smith, a former plumber and volunteer firefighter turned artist has collected and decorated hundreds, maybe thousands, of toilet seats. Each has a theme and most are what art galleries would call mixed media. Small objects glued to the seats and then painted and drawn on, each toilet seat tells a story or centers around a theme. Open by appointment, the gallery is Mr. Smith’s garage and the 96-year-old artist himself tells visitors about the highlights of the collection.

The toilet seats tell Barney Smith’s personal history, with one toilet seat even labeled as his personal toilet seat. Lift the lid and it traces his careers as a fireman, a plumber, and an artist. There are also several toilet seats commemorating his wedding anniversaries, his life with his wife, and his relationships with his children. Some seats tell the history of his art and its reach, with toilet seats for all of the states and countries his visitors have come from.

Other seats though mark important local events such as festivals, the Fiesta Pooch Parade, local civic organizations. And others speak to Mr. Smith’s memories of regional or national historical events. For example, one seat features a piece of the Space Shuttle Challenger, another a piece of the Berlin Wall.

This museum is both personal and public. Private but on display. Local but national, even international. Personal reflections on bigger stories. It really reminded me of one of the first books I read for graduate school, Private History in Public, actually written by my professor and adviser, Dr. Tammy Gordon. In it she writes about historical exhibits that “complicate the public/private dichotomy, exhibits that promote individualized perspectives to strangers and cement ties between relatives, friends, colleagues, and community members.” Barney Smith’s toilet seat museum is a prime example of this. Touring it with my husband, my mom, and my grandparents, we were all pointing out various seats to one another, discussing our own remembrances or knowledge about the various events, topics, and places that were depicted on the seats. It was clear that the community of San Antonio was involved with Mr. Smith’s work, with local commendations, awards, and donations to his collection on display with his seats. And being shown around by Barney himself allowed us to see and hear his perspective on his art, on the seats he thought would most interest us, and on the historical events depicted. As Gordon discusses in Private History in Public, these kinds of non-traditional, small museums enable this dialogue. Furthermore, the interest in this museum speaks to people’s interest in individual stories and individualized pasts, a point made in Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen’s foundational work, The Presence of the Past: Popular Uses of History in American Life. People are interested in history, in the past, in others’ stories, but more in ways in which they can connect to their own stories and pasts. This may be why historic sites and museums continue to struggle with visitor numbers. People want to see a past that they feel connected to.

At Barney Smith’s Toilet Seat Art Museum, there was something for everyone. Something to feel connected to, and an intimate setting in which to discuss the past, memories, and more.

To read more about Barney Smith’s Toilet Art Museum, visit the Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SATXTSAM/. Recently a book of his works was published via crowdfunding: https://www.cattywampuspress.com/shop-1/king-of-the-commode

And a recent article about how Mr. Smith is looking for a buyer of the whole collection: http://www.krqe.com/news/national/the-king-of-the-commode-seeks-an-heir-to-his-thrones/1192867384

Public Historian on Vacation: San Antonio & The Alamo

After leaving Galveston, we drove to San Antonio to meet up with my other set of grandparents (my mother’s mother and husband). We arrived, ate barbecue on the River Walk (because when in Texas…) and then set off to see the Alamo (because again, when in Texas.)

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The County Line – where we ate BBQ.

My mother, having grown up in Texas, had described to me her remembered impression of the Alamo when she went as a child on a school field trip. Having been raised and educated with the messaging of “Remember the Alamo”, she felt actually visiting was a let down. The site itself didn’t live up to the hype in her child’s view. With this conversation in mind, I was interested to see what I thought as an adult who had limited knowledge of the events that took place there beyond a showing of the Dennis Quaid movie somewhere along the way at school.

Of course, I don’t know how the site was interpreted in the 1970s when my mom would have visited, but if similar to today I could see how a child might not be able to get much from the site. The main building, the chapel, is a relatively small structure, lacking in anything “grand” that a child might be expecting given the great importance placed on the site and what happened there, the inside is not furnished in any way–there are no artifacts, no reenactments, displays, etc. It is mostly empty, with just a few signs, which are about the preservation of the structure and a few features to be pointed out, and a memorial in the back listing the names of those who fought and died there. So my mother’s lackluster experience as a child makes some sense. However, my mother told me she got much more out of the site as an adult and I think that is owing to a few factors. One, simply better understanding of the events that took place there, increased ability to imagine and empathize with what happened there on a human level, and the neighboring museum space in the long barracks which does have exhibits, artifacts, and interpretation.

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For adults, I think the power of the site is in its size. A small mission fortification held out for a 13 day siege against a larger army, waiting for reinforcements that never came. The fact that every soldier there died is another grave fact that really resonates when you stand in the space. However, I learned something new while there that also truly resonated with me. Local women, children, and some men who were not soldiers, who were brought into the Alamo for protection as the Mexican army approached and who hunkered down in one particular room, survived the attack and were released by Santa Anna to bear witness to what happened. Often you hear that every single person at the Alamo died, but this is not true. Santa Anna wanted others to know of his victory there. These people who, I’m sure feared for their lives, their children’s lives, for days, witnessed the death of all those around them, and then were set free. What emotions did they feel? What were their lives like afterwards? The site does not go into these questions, though it does speak about these survivors both in the Alamo itself and in the neighboring exhibit hall. These people are a source of history and of what happened there, but they are also just people who experienced something terrible. This I think could have been brought to life a bit more for visitors.

Another detail pointed out by the few interpretive signs within the Alamo are the names of later soldiers carved in the walls. The Alamo had a life before the siege (as a Spanish mission) and a life afterward. It was used by later U.S. military installations, many of whom carved their names in the walls, marking that they had been there. The reasoning why is not completely described, nor is it probably definitively known, but I think these men, knowing what happened there, already knew this site would be an important part of history and they wanted to leave their mark on it.

It’s easy to get caught up in the glory of death as a sacrifice for liberty, freedom or another honorable cause. This is the traditional narrative about the Alamo, but of course real life, and as such, history, is more complicated than that. The exhibition space in the long barracks next to the chapel walks through the more complete picture; albeit carefully. Beginning with Mexican independence from Spain, the exhibit explains why US colonists moved to Texas, encouraged by the new Mexican government who wanted to populate the territory as protection against Comanche raids and enticed by economic incentives of land ownership, and the colonists’ reasons for revolting later after Mexico made changes to its immigration policy and constitution. The simple message that the Texans fought for freedom is more complicated when you reexamine the economic reasons that they moved to the Mexican territory, that they had essentially immigrated to another country and yet still felt entitled to US constitutional rights, and that they flouted Mexico’s changing laws concerning slavery, tariffs, and immigration. These reasons certainly do not mean that what happened at the Alamo was “right” or expected, but the struggle was not entirely black and white, good vs. evil. Mexico was attempting to control its territory and enforce its laws, and put an end to Texas’s rebellion. Texans were fighting to preserve a way of life to which they had become accustomed. The ultimate result was Texan independence, later annexation into the United States, and the Mexican-American War.

The exhibit also describes some of the other lesser-known events of the Texas Revolution such as the Goliad Massacre in which a Texan army surrendered to Santa Anna and was subsequently executed. This interesting article describes the disparate ways in which these two related events have been remembered, pointing out that the battle at the Alamo is easier to see as an honorable death because they did not surrender.

All in all, the events leading up to the siege of the Alamo and the aftermath of the Texas Revolution are more complicated than Dennis Quaid, the refrain “Remember the Alamo”, or even my brief, oversimplified summary above would have you believe. Visiting the Alamo has definitely encouraged me to dig a little deeper though. In that sense the exhibits in the long barracks next to the chapel really opened up a new understanding of the events that took place in the Alamo and may be almost more important to visitors’ understanding than the Alamo itself, the preservation of which is important, but is also the reason that these stories are not currently being told within the chapel’s walls. The few signs in the chapel which I mentioned above all reiterated the ongoing preservation efforts taking place there. While the main building (and what most would consider the Alamo itself) is not heavily interpreted, the Alamo’s importance is place-based. It is that feeling of being on the spot where something transformative happened because simple or not, what happened at the Alamo influenced a string of events that has shaped our world today.

Public Historian on Vacation: Galveston

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I’ve been busy, at work & at home, including a vacation with my husband and my mother to her home state of Texas. We went to Galveston and San Antonio with mom and then split ways, with her off to Fredericksburg and us staying another day in San Antone before going to New Iberia and New Orleans, Louisiana.

While this was purely a fun, family vacation, I’m still a public historian even when on vacation. In each stop along the way we visited historic sites, museums, or historical areas with shops & restaurants trading on history. This series will share my thoughts on each of our destinations, beginning with Galveston, TX.

Part 1 – Galveston, TX – April 7-10

The first stop in our journey was Galveston Island, a beautiful island town along the Gulf of Mexico. A port city, the island itself has a long, interesting history, including being an entry point for immigrants much like Ellis Island, a battleground of the Civil War, a survivor of the Great Storm of 1900, and much more.

We were there to visit my mom’s paternal family including my grandparents, my great grandmother, and some aunts, uncles and cousins. My great grandmother lives right on the water on Tiki Island–it’s one of my favorite places and I could listen to her talk about her life for hours. She’s done a lot of our family’s genealogy and put together books of information, photos, documents, etc. At 95 years old, she’s lived an interesting and full life and is full of wisdom and love.

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Me, my great grandma, and my mom.

While we were primarily there to visit family we did get in a little sightseeing with two visits to The Strand, Galveston’s historic business district downtown near the port, a trip to the Rainforest Pyramid of Moody Gardens, and a special peek into American National’s archives exhibit space.

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My mom and I outside La King’s.

The Strand is full of restaurants, boutique stores, and tourist shops, all housed in Victorian-era buildings. A favorite of mine is La King’s, a candy and ice cream shop where I love to stock up on salt water taffy. The store has been on the Strand since 1976 but makes 1920s style candy and ice cream treats, and strives to create a “unique atmosphere of days gone by.”

The Strand is a quintessential historic district for tourists, with all of the charm and romance: Beautiful architecture, delicious ice cream and food, plenty of shopping. There are also nearby museums and historic tours for those more interested in the history.

This kind of commercial area trading on the charm of history raises some questions of how these places influence the public’s perception of the past. While romanticizing history, one could argue the popularity of these places also means that the public has an interest in history. But does that interest extend to more complicated or difficult histories? More on this as we continue on to our other destinations in the next two parts.

While in Galveston, we also visited Moody Gardens, a huge local attraction with three large pyramids, each housing a different kind of exhibition, as well as other activities including a beach, a ropes course and zipline, a paddlewheel boat, etc. The pyramids include an aquarium pyramid, a rain forest pyramid, and a discovery museum pyramid with changing exhibits. We only had time for one attraction so we chose the Rain Forest Pyramid. Not a history museum obviously, it functions as a hybrid between a botanical garden, an aviary, a zoo, and a natural science museum, describing and educating visitors on the wildlife within.

The highlights of the Rain Forest Pyramid would have to be the sloth, the many colorful birds, two monkeys, and the ocelot. Many of the animals, including the birds, the sloth, and the monkeys were not separated from us by fencing or glass and the close proximity was really incredible.

We also got to visit the archives exhibits at the top of the American National building owing to the fact that both my grandparents (plus my great grandfather) used to work there. The exhibits there were very nicely done and include some really cool artifacts such as the life insurance payouts for Bonnie and Clyde. (Yes, that Bonnie and Clyde.) There was also a lot of history about the city before and after the Great Storm of 1900. An added perk was the amazing view from the space which overlooks downtown Galveston. All in all, a great example of a corporation drawing on its history to create interest, drive branding, and inspire employees and guests alike.

One of our final stops was the beach, along which runs the 17-foot-high Seawall constructed after the Great Storm of 1900. That hurricane caused so much damage and loss of life that it led to major renovations across the island to raise buildings and of course inspired the Seawall. The first part of the Seawall (about 3 miles long) was completed in 1904 and by 1963 had been extended to 10 miles.

Galveston is a truly interesting and beautiful place and there is so much more to it than what we fit into this most recent visit. There is the Railroad Museum, the Bryan Museum of the American West, the restored historic Pleasure Pier, and more. I would love to learn more about the port as a gateway for immigrants and their lives once they arrived–something to look into until our next visit. ūüôā

Sleeping in Slave Quarters

A week ago I slept overnight in the Bellamy Mansion Museum’s slave quarters.

Your reaction might, like others who I told before the overnight stay, range from “What?” to “Why?” to something like, “You don’t hear that everyday.” So, let me provide some context and explain why I decided to sleep overnight in a slave dwelling.

The Slave Quarters at the Bellamy Mansion Museum, Wilmington, NC. Photo by author.
The Slave Quarters at the Bellamy Mansion Museum, Wilmington, NC. Photo by author.

Joseph McGill, an employee of the National Trust, the National Park Service, a consultant to historic sites, and a Civil War reenactor, began a non-profit organization called the Slave Dwelling Project. The project began with the simple act of Mr. McGill sleeping in slave dwellings. He began in South Carolina and has since slept in dwellings all across the South as well as in less-known slave spaces in Northern states including Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania. The purpose of the overnight stays and the Slave Dwelling Project is to bring awareness to these structures and their need for preservation. Many of these structures are in danger of being demolished or of falling down due to neglect. Slave spaces have historically not been a focus of historic preservationists who have instead worked to save, preserve, and restore architecturally-significant buildings for their aesthetic value rather than historic. Mr. McGill’s efforts have brought attention to these spaces and helped to save several of them.

At many of his stays Mr. McGill has invited others to join him and thus when his visit to the Bellamy Mansion was arranged in concert with UNCW’s Public History Program, students and others were given the opportunity to stay the night as well.

Why did I decide to join the stay? My reasons were both professional and personal. In many ways Mr. McGill’s project and methods are a clear example of public history in action. When sleeping in these spaces and attracting public attention, Mr. McGill is encouraging connections between people and the past. Hopefully, he is inspiring some people to think about the importance of saving structures, objects, and other tangible evidence of the past, even if that past is painful. Hopefully, he is helping people to understand slavery on a more human level, to think about the experiences of those who lived in slave dwellings, and to realize that the stories of some groups of people have been undervalued and underrepresented in the past. These hopes were the basis of my professional interest in the project and the overnight stay. I wanted to know how he carried out the stays and how others reacted to them. I wanted to know if this experiential method was a helpful approach to presenting history to the public. These hopes also were a huge part of my personal interest. It’s hard to separate my professional goals and interests from my personal interest in history and my belief that learning from the past can impact our present and change our future. I wanted to connect with a difficult past, reflect on the lives of enslaved people, and be open to the emotions and ideas that might be sparked by spending the night in a slave dwelling.

My interest in and decision to participate did not, however, remove all doubt, anxiety, or concern for what the experience would be like. I worried about having difficult, uncomfortable, or awkward conversations even as I was prepared for and wanted to have these important discussions. I worried about how others would perceive my interest in participating because of my race. And I worried about other more practical or shallow concerns such as how well I would be able to sleep in a sleeping bag on a hard floor, if I would be warm enough, and if my back would be sore in the morning. Despite these concerns and worries I showed up to the Bellamy Mansion that evening ready to listen to Mr. McGill speak and participate in the overnight stay.

My sleeping area for the night.
My sleeping area for the night.IMG_5797

The evening began with Joseph McGill speaking to a public audience at the Bellamy Mansion Museum about his previous stays and the goals of the Slave Dwelling Project. McGill spoke about the origins of the project as well as the challenges he has faced in gaining access to some slave dwellings. It was interesting to hear about the slave dwellings that are on private land and the varying attitudes of those private owners toward the project. Some welcome his stays and make efforts to acknowledge the presence of extant slave dwellings while others deny him access.

After the public presentation we ate dinner and moved from the big house to the slave quarters, all gathering in one room of the 2-story building for what I expected to be a deep and interesting discussion led by Mr. McGill. We started informally chatting about a variety of things and McGill shared with us two examples of the responses he gets from the public. One was an angry email asking to be removed from a mailing list and charging the Slave Dwelling Project with “race baiting.” The other reaction was that of a child who participated in the project and wrote Mr. McGill a card admiring his work. These two reactions demonstrate the issue of race in our modern society and how the past is so central to discussions of race today.

Beyond sharing those reactions, Mr. McGill did not structure the discussion that followed as I expected, allowing conversation to flow in any direction. This led to some interesting discussions of other slave quarters he had stayed in and others we students knew about from our work on Still Standing. Also, one of the women staying with us explained why she had wanted to participate in the overnight stay. She discussed her connections to the past and her interests in genealogy. As an African American woman who had found enslaved ancestors and felt so connected to her past through genealogy, the overnight stay was another way to connect to her family past. Listening to her speak reminded me of the strong ties some people have to the past and people’s interests in their personal and family history.

The power of place lies in context and in a person’s knowledge of the importance of where he or she is standing. Those moments when I felt connected or awed by the power of place were when I separated myself from the discussion going on and thought about the enslaved people who lived in the building. As we were gathered in one room, I thought about the prior residents’¬†gatherings in that dwelling, for work, for meals, for worship, rest, or fellowship. I tried to imagine the range of emotions they might have felt toward the big house and its occupants. From the window of the quarters I could see the big house. A usually very beautiful structure, in the dark and from the vantage point of the slave quarters I thought the mansion looked ominous, looming over the space. After our discussion ended and several of us students went upstairs to sleep, I thought about the sleeping arrangements of those who lived here when it was first built. I thought of the cold, of the luxury of my modern sleeping bag made for cold weather, of the electric heat that was temporarily placed in the dwelling. Throughout the night as I tossed and turned on the hard floor and woke up periodically, I looked forward to the morning when I could leave, go home, and take a warm shower. But then I thought of those previous inhabitants and how at the end of a night they could not leave. As I stood up and stretched sore muscles and stiff limbs, I thought of those rising from uncomfortable nights’ rests to perform a variety of manual tasks all day. It was these inner thoughts that were most powerful.

View of the 'big house' at night from the slave quarters. Photo by author.
View of the ‘big house’ at night from the slave quarters. Photo by author.

The day following the night in the quarters, UNCW hosted a panel of speakers including Joseph McGill, Dr. Jan Davidson of the Cape Fear Museum, Dr. Nana Amponsah, African historian in UNCW’s history department, and Dr. Donyell Roseboro from the Watson School of Education. These speakers highlighted some of the important themes surrounding discussions of race, slavery, memory, preservation, and education. Most interesting to me was Dr. Roseboro’s discussion of the need to consider the agency of enslaved people rather than merely assuming they were passive victims. While enslaved African Americans were subjected to many things, they remained human beings and resisted slavery in many ways, namely by surviving it and forming communities, families, and other relationships despite their enslaved status. The panel encouraged further thought and reflection on the Slave Dwelling Project and my overnight stay and was a very valuable experience in its own right.

Overall, my night in the slave quarters was enlightening and meaningful, sparking a great deal of personal and professional reflection on slavery’s history, how we tell that history today, and what bearings that history has on our present.

For more information on the Slave Dwelling Project:¬†http://slavedwellingproject.org/¬†and specifically to see Mr. McGill’s reflections on this overnight stay alongside the reflections of my classmates:¬†http://slavedwellingproject.org/slave-dwellings-as-classrooms/¬†
Some local news coverage of¬†our group’s stay at the Bellamy slave quarters: http://www.starnewsonline.com/article/20150201/ARTICLES/150139984?p=1&tc=pg¬†

http://portcitydaily.com/2015/02/09/black-history-month-slave-quarters-stay-a-life-changing-experience-for-uncw-students/