Women & Family Ties in Immigration: Anna, Julian, & Paranka Debaylo

For Women’s History Month I am revisiting some of my favorite research projects I’ve undertaken and focusing on women of all walks of life, not just “great” or notable women –though I love that many are highlighting the wonderful, trailblazing, inspiring women of the past this month. 

Introduction

Today’s post is about Anna, Julian and Paranka Debaylo, 3 regular people whose lives represent major trends in immigration in the early 20th century. This research began as an assignment to write a biography of individuals buried in the St. Helena Cemetery in Pender County, North Carolina as part of the Volga to Cape Fear Project which resulted in an exhibit entitled Push and Pull: Eastern European and Russian Migration to the Cape Fear Region. 

I chose three related individuals, Anna, Julian, and Paranka Debaylo. Anna was a widow when she immigrated. Her passage was paid by her stepson, Julian. Paranka came to the U.S. to marry Julian and care for his children from his first marriage. Their interlocking stories led me to research the importance of family for immigrants, especially for women, as well as women’s experiences in immigration. I found that there were restrictions at Ellis Island that prevented women from traveling alone unless sponsored by someone already in the United States due to the fear of them becoming public charges. Also, family and community facilitated the transition to life in the United States, helping men to find jobs and older women, like Anna Debaylo, to adjust to U.S. life.

Finding Anna, Julian, and Paranka on census records, Ellis Island ship manifests, birth indexes, city directories, and transit receipts brought them to life in a way, recreating their journey to the United States and their life once they arrived. Why do people leave their homelands, travel on crowded ships, and pay good money to go to a foreign place? For a better life? Is that what they found? How were women’s experiences of immigration different from those of men?

Beginning with the End: Biography from a Gravestone

The St. Helena Cemetery, established for use by the Saints Peter and Paul Russian Orthodox Church, includes graves of community members regardless of church affiliation. St. Helena, a community in Pender County, North Carolina was founded as a farm colony by Wilmington businessman Hugh MacRae. One of six such colonies established between 1905 and 1912 by MacRae’s Carolina Trucking Development Company, St. Helena attracted immigrants of various ethnicities, especially Italian and later, Russian and Ukrainian (or Ruthenian). Immigrants initially came directly from Europe; however, the majority moved to St. Helena from other locations in the United States, learning of the opportunities there from members of the immigrant community or promoters. Advertised as an area fit for farming, St. Helena promotional material boasted the availability of land and a fast and easy way to own a home. The reality of St. Helena did not always live up to the assured conditions; the promised homes were not of the advertised quality and the land was not immediately ready for farming.[1] Despite the difficulties, a community of immigrants grew there and remains a part of St. Helena today.

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The St. Helena Cemetery testifies to the lives of the initial immigrants and their descendants. The headstones, relationships, and lives of three individuals, Anna, Julian, and Paranka Debaylo, all demonstrate the various gendered experiences of immigration and the importance of family connections in enabling immigration and adjustment to life in the United States. Many female immigrants fell into two categories: young women, traveling to reunite with a husband or to meet and marry a man, and older women, usually widows or divorced women, immigrating to join their adult children. Paranka and Anna are examples of these two phenomena. Also, as we will see through the exploration of Anna, Julian, and Paranka’s lives, family connections were important for both men and women, but were more essential for women’s successful immigration.

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The gravestones of Anna, Julian, and Paranka Debaylo introduce visitors to the significance of family in the lives of immigrants as well as to the positions of women in the community. Anna Debaylo (January 21, 1867 – February 11, 1960) lived to be 93 years old. Her headstone reinforces the importance of family and her role in her own family. Her headstone is simple, with few words and limited adornment. Made of granite, it is engraved with her name, birth and death dates, a Russian Orthodox cross, a simple design of grapevines across the top and the inscriptions “Our Dear Mother” and a Ukrainian phrase which translates to “Eternal Memory.” Together with the cross, both the grapevine design and the inscription’s reference to eternity are likely religious references to Christ’s sacrifice and eternal afterlife.  It is clear from the inscription and the flowers present at the grave that Anna was a loved member of her family as well as the community. The headstone also attests to the religious faith of Anna and possibly that of her children who likely commissioned this headstone in honor of their mother.

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The headstone of Julian Debaylo (May 6, 1886 – January 31, 1934) also invokes family. His gravestone is very similar in size and design to Anna’s headstone.  The granite headstone is engraved with his name, birth and death dates, the inscription “Our Father” and a simple design of leaves. However, it does not include the Russian Orthodox cross as Anna’s does. The inscription here signals Julian’s position as a loved and respected member of the Debaylo family. The lack of religious imagery may signal less involvement in the church of either Julian or his children who, again, appear to have commissioned the headstone.

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In addition to the imagery and inscriptions on the headstones, the placement of them also alludes to relationships and connections between the deceased. Paranka Debaylo (September 26, 1899 – November 29, 1960), Julian’s second wife, is buried beside Julian. Her gravestone is identical to his save the name and dates and the term mother in place of father. Her gravestone was clearly designed to accompany that of her husband’s and both stones were most likely chosen by Julian and Paranka’s children. Together with Julian’s grave, Paranka’s headstone reinforces the position of parents in the family and the connections established through marriage. The three headstones described above sparked further questions of family connections, the experience of female immigrants, and the role of family in the lives of immigrants to St. Helena as well as in the lives of immigrants to the United States more generally.

Family Ties in Immigration

The lives of Anna, Julian, and Paranka demonstrate the scenarios that women commonly faced in immigration, that of moving to be with their children or that of moving for marriage, as well as the necessity of family connections in order to enter and adjust to the United States.[2]

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Anna Debaylo (commonly spelled Dybajlo on documents) was born in 1867 in Cholojow in what was Galicia in the Austrian province of Poland and is modern Ukraine. She was the third wife of Hrehory (Gregory) Dybajlo. Gregory already had four children from his two previous marriages. His first wife was Anna Lotocka who had three children: Michael, Emilian or Julian, and Dmytro. His second wife was Teklia who had one daughter, Anastazia (Nascha). Anna Shainoha became Anna Debaylo and Gregory’s third wife. They had four children: Paulina, Ilko (Elias), Sophia, and Peter. According to her granddaughter, Anna had wanted to be a nun but was convinced by family that marrying the widowed Gregory and caring for his children would be a better way for her to serve. Gregory passed away in 1914. Anna remained a widow for the rest of her life.[3]

Anna immigrated to the United States in 1923, at the age of 56, with her son Peter (Piotr) on board the George Washington which departed from Bremen, Germany. The ship manifest listed Julian Debaylo as her son (he was her stepson), and as the party who paid for her and Peter’s travel.[4] At that time it was necessary for female immigrants, especially if traveling alone, to be sponsored by a male already in the United States who agreed to be responsible for the woman. This policy was based on ideas that women were more likely to become public charges if not cared for by a male relative or husband.[5] Likely, Julian not only paid for Anna’s ticket, but also served as her legal sponsor. Between her arrival in New York City in 1923 and when she moved to St. Helena in 1928 Anna may have lived with Julian or another one of her children already in the United States. Once she settled in St. Helena she was a member of the household of Eli Debaylo, her biological son. The household at the time of the 1930 census also included Eli’s wife and two daughters. [6] Anna lived in St. Helena until her death in 1960.

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Anna’s life after immigration is an example of the experience of many other widowed, divorced, or separated women who immigrated in order to be with their adult children who had already established a life in the United States. Anna being an aging widow likely made her economically vulnerable and immigration an appealing option. Anna seems to have been part of an increasing number of widowed women who immigrated after 1915 in order to rejoin children. Prior to that time, few older women immigrated.[7] When they did, older women, as well as older men who immigrated, depended on their children and ethnic and religious communities in order to adjust to life in the United States.[8]

Julian Debaylo, whose birthdate is disputed between May 6, 1886, the date on his headstone, and July 1, 1886, the date on his first marriage certificate, immigrated to New York in 1908, becoming a naturalized citizen in 1913. Julian likely came to the United States in search of a better economic situation. In Galicia, economic conditions deteriorated after 1848 when the government ended serfdom. The peasants remained on the land, but partible inheritance was enforced rather than primogeniture. Landholdings became smaller over time, eventually leading to the inability to support a family on one parcel. Adding to the reasons for immigration were high taxes, potato blight, and epidemics.[9] Julian may have had additional reasons for immigrating, but economics were likely a great factor.

In 1916, at the age of 29, Julian married Anna Mikariya Spivak, or Annie as she is identified on the 1920 census, and they had two children, Nick and Helen, born around 1917 and 1918 respectively. At the taking of the 1920 census the Debaylo household was living in the borough of Manhattan in New York City. Also included are the birthplaces of each member of the family. Annie and Julian were both born in Galicia while both of their children were born in New Jersey. The census also gives insight on how Julian and Annie perceived themselves ethnically; a notation appears to replace Russian with “Ruth” (perhaps an abbreviation of Ruthenian) as their mother language and might indicate their ethnic affiliation. The ethnicity of immigrants from Eastern Europe was often unclear. Immigrants entering the United States were sometimes misidentified by officials. Also, the region of Eastern Europe underwent many geo-political changes during its history. Ruthenian was used by those individuals from Galicia or Carpatho-Ukraine, differentiating them from other Ukrainians as well as from Russians.[10] Finally, the census listed Julian’s occupation as a tailor in a clothing factory.[11] No occupation was listed for Annie who most likely stayed home to take care of the children.[12]

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Annie Debaylo passed away sometime between 1920 and 1923. Julian wrote home to his family for a second wife to care for his children after the death of their mother. Paranka, or Frances, Shainoha, a relative of Julian’s stepmother, was sent to be his wife. According to family stories, Paranka did not wish to marry Julian after she saw him due to his “hunchback.” Julian broke his back in a childhood accident in which he fell from a woodpile on a wagon. Paranka ultimately chose to marry him; the other option being to return home.[13] Julian and Paranka had two children, Anna, born in 1923, and Julian Frances Debaylo, born eight months after his father’s death in 1934.[14] Julian and Paranka lived in New Jersey for several years following their marriage. Julian seems to have moved sometime between December 6, 1923, the date of his stepmother’s arrival in New York City, at which time Julian’s address was listed as 515 E 16th St, New York, NY, and the release of the 1924 city directory in Passaic, New Jersey in which Julian is listed as a tailor at 136 Columbia Avenue. Julian continued to be listed in the city directories of Passaic, including the Clifton area, through 1930. The address of his tailor shop changed at least once. Paranka (as Frances) was listed as his spouse in the 1929 directory.[15] Julian, Paranka, and their children moved to St. Helena between 1930 and January 1934, when Julian died at the age of 47 from pneumonia in Burgaw, North Carolina.[16] Paranka gave birth to Julian Francis Debaylo in September, 1934.[17]

Paranka went on to marry Walker Augustine and her, Julian Francis, and Freddie Augustine are listed as members of the Augustine household in the 1940 census. Still living in Pender County, Paranka was listed as a farmer while her new husband Walker was listed as a farm manager.[18] After 1940, Paranka had another son, Walker Don Augustine. All four of her children dedicated a page in the St. Helena History to her memory.[19] Paranka’s motivations for immigrating were likely a combination of economic and personal and possibly included pressure from her family. It was common at the time for Eastern European women to prefer an Americanized husband and many would take the chance of moving to marry a stranger; however, it was also common for parents and other family members to make decisions about immigration for young women as well as to arrange marriages.[20] It is unclear whether Paranka and Julian knew each other before marrying, but she was related to Julian’s stepmother and it was her family who likely made the arrangements for the marriage and Paranka’s passage to the United States.

Once in the United States, the reasons that Anna, Julian, and Paranka moved to St. Helena specifically are not completely known. Julian’s position as a tailor was one of the best in the garment manufacturing industry, but was still low paid.[21] Also, having likely been landless peasants back home, most immigrants saw in the United States the opportunity to own land.[22] It is likely that Julian, as well as his brothers, moved to St. Helena in order to own land and try to prosper as farmers. Other motives likely included the desire to be with family already in St. Helena. For Anna who came to live with her son Elias, it is more evident that family was a major factor. As far as Paranka, it is difficult to determine from the sources if she had much of a choice in moving to St. Helena; however she moved there with her husband and remained there after his death.

From the lives of these three members of the Debaylo family, the importance of family connections in aiding immigration and settlement in the United States is evident. For women especially, these connections legally and economically enabled immigration and assimilation. Julian’s sponsorship of Anna and marriage to Paranka facilitated both women’s entry into the United States, where they likely hoped to encounter better economic circumstances. Women’s experience of immigration often followed the same paths: immigrating for marriage, to follow a husband, or to be with children or other relatives. However, while especially important for women, family connections were important for men as well. Julian Debaylo not only sponsored his step-mother’s immigration, but also at least two of his half-brothers, Peter, who immigrated with Anna, and Elias Debaylo. Julian filed the necessary paperwork to bring Elias and his sister Sophia to the United States while another brother, Michael Debaylo paid for the tickets. Michael was also instrumental in finding work for Elias.[23] The benefits of having relatives already in the United States eased the transition.

[1] W. Frank Ainsley, “’Own a Home in North Carolina’: Image and Reality in Ethnic European Colonies,” in Journal of Cultural History, Vol 5:2, 1985, 61-69.
[2] Maxine Schwartz Seller, ed., Immigrant Women, (Philadelphia: Temple University Press), 1981, 20-21.
[3] Ann Mizerak, “Debaylo Family Genealogy,” 2012, Private Collection of Ann Mizerak, Burgaw, North Carolina; and Personal Communication with Ann Mizerak, Burgaw, North Carolina, September 6, 2013.
[4] Ship Manifest, Ellis Island Foundation, “The American Family Immigration History Center’s Ellis Island Archive,” Ellis Island, (Online:  The Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation, Inc., 2009), <http://www.ellisislandrecords.org/&gt;, accessed September 4, 2013.
[5] Seller, 18-19, 34-35.
[6] Mizerak, “Debaylo Family Genealogy”; and 1930 U.S. Census, Burgaw, Pender, North Carolina; Roll: 1712; Page: 2B; Enumeration District: 2; Image: 569.0; FHL microfilm: 2341446, Digital image, Ancestry.com. 1930 United States Federal Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2002. Original data: United States of America, Bureau of the Census. Fifteenth Census of the United States, 1930. Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1930. T626, 2,667 rolls.
[7] Seller, 21.
[8] Seller, 65-66.
[9] Paul Spickard, Almost All Aliens: Immigration, Race, and Colonialism in American History and Identity, (New York: Routledge), 2007, 193.
[10] Myron B. Kuropas, The Ukrainian Americans: Roots and Aspirations, 1884-1954, (Toronto: Toronto University Press), 1991, 5-7.
[11] Copy of Marriage Certificate, Emilian (Julian) Debaylo and Anna Spivak, January 10, 1916, in Mizerak, “Debaylo Family Genealogy”; and 1920 U.S. Census, Manhattan, New York, New York, Accessed via HeritageQuest, ProQuest LLC, 2013, Original data: United States of America, Bureau of the Census. Fourteenth Census of the United States, 1920. Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1920, accessed via Heritage Quest, accessed on September 4, 2013.
[12] Seller, 66.
[13] Personal communication with Ann Mizerak, Burgaw, North Carolina, September 6, 2013.
[14] Mizerak, “Debaylo Family Genealogy”; and Birth Certificate of Julian Francis Debaylo, Ancestry.com. North Carolina, Birth Indexes, 1800-2000 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2005. Original data: Register of Deeds. North Carolina Birth Indexes. Raleigh, North Carolina: North Carolina State Archives. Microfilm.
[15] Ancestry.com. U.S. City Directories, 1821-1989 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2011. Original data: Passaic, New Jersey, City Directory, 1924, 1925, 1929, 1930.
[16] Death Certificate of Julian Debaylo, Ancestry.com. North Carolina, Death Certificates, 1909-1975 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2007. Original data: North Carolina State Board of Health, Bureau of Vital Statistics. North Carolina Death Certificates. Microfilm S.123. Rolls 19-242, 280, 313-682, 1040-1297. North Carolina State Archives, Raleigh, North Carolina.
[17] Birth Certificate of Julian Francis Debaylo.
[18] 1940 U.S. Census, Rocky Point Township, Pender County, North Carolina, accessed via Heritage Quest, ProQuest LLC, 2013, accessed on September 4, 2013. Original data: United States of America, Bureau of the Census. Sixteenth Census of the United States, 1940. Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1940.
[19] “History of St. Helena”, Community Publication, Private Collection of Ann Mizerak, Burgaw, North Carolina.
[20] Seller, 20, 117.
[21] Doris Weatherford, Foreign and Female: Immigrant Women in America, 1840-1930, (New York: Schocken Books), 1986, 108-113.
[22] Timothy Walch, ed., Immigrant America: European Ethnicity in the United States, (New York: Garland Publishers, Inc.), 1994, 64.
[23] Baltic American Line Receipt, Mizerak, “Debaylo Family Genealogy”, 2012, Private Collection of Ann Mizerak, Burgaw, North Carolina.

Conferences, Guest Blogging, and Thesis Revisions…oh my!

Over the last month or so my UNCW public history colleagues and I have been busy. Those still in coursework have been busy at work on the Still Standing project, taking the visitor evaluation data we gathered last semester and applying it to a new exhibit opening next month at the Bellamy Mansion. While they’ve been hard at work on that, I have been working on thesis revisions and continuing my positions as assistant in University Archives and as archivist at the Bellamy Mansion. However, even in the midst of all of this, we have also found time to attend a couple of conferences and write some guest blog posts about our work.

Jayd Buteaux, Beth Bullock (author), Caitlin Butler, and Bonnie Soper at the poster session at North Carolina Museums Council Annual Meeting, March 30, 2015, Durham, NC.
Jayd Buteaux, Beth Bullock (author), Caitlin Butler, and Bonnie Soper at the poster session at North Carolina Museums Council Annual Meeting, March 30, 2015, Durham, NC.

At the end of March a group of us attended the North Carolina Museums Council annual meeting in Durham, NC where we presented a poster on the Still Standing visitor evaluation project and attended sessions on a variety of topics, including collections management, graduate training and job skills, and exhibit techniques and collaboration. The conference and the poster session offered excellent opportunities to meet other North Carolina museum professionals and share our work while learning about other successful projects across the state. While there we were asked by North Carolina Connecting to Collections to turn our poster presentation into a guest blog post. The post can be read here: Collections Conversations Guest Blog Post. Both the poster presentation and the blog post described our methods and results in the visitor evaluation project conducted last semester. The visitor surveys and focus group interviews revealed a need to interpret slavery and slave dwellings more fully, better contextualizing the wide variety of experiences of slavery. Many visitors had a limited view of slavery and slave dwellings based on movie portrayals of large, rural plantations. Slavery in other locations, such as urban areas, looked a lot different. Our visitor evaluation data points to this issue as a gap in need of being filled. We were happy to share our project at the poster session where we had many engaging conversations and to expand the conversation via the Connecting to Collections blog.

American Tobacco Campus, Durham, NC. Enjoyed a great networking dinner at Tyler's Taproom during NCMC's Durham conference. Photo by author.
American Tobacco Campus, Durham, NC. Enjoyed a great networking dinner at Tyler’s Taproom during NCMC’s Durham conference. Photo by author.

More recently, several of us also attended the National Council on Public History’s annual meeting in Nashville, Tennessee. This national conference offered many interesting sessions and the opportunity to meet renowned public historians from all across the U.S. and Canada. I attended several interesting sessions, including one entitled “Edging in Women’s History” which offered case studies of museums and sites working to further their inclusion of women’s history in collections, exhibits, and programming. This session offered some inspiration and interesting ideas for me to ponder as I finish my thesis on women’s history in the collections and exhibits at the Cape Fear Museum here in Wilmington. Most interesting to me was a presentation on finding women in collections, which pointed to some similar challenges as I have noticed at the Cape Fear Museum, including cataloging methods that focus on the obvious physical description or donor without acknowledging more nuanced connections to women or issues of gender.

Another session explored issues of race and gender in leisure culture and how histories of segregated recreation spaces or histories of concert venues can be used to highlight and better understand these issues. Recreation and leisure activities offer easy access points to today’s visitors. These topics and spaces offer a way to make history of race and gender relatable to today’s public.

Public Historians in the historic Downtown Presbyterian Church in Nashville, TN. The conference's public plenary featured a discussion between a former Freedom Rider and the woman behind the documentary about the Freedom Rides. The plenary was held in this beautiful Egyptian Revival church.
Public Historians in the historic Downtown Presbyterian Church in Nashville, TN. The conference’s public plenary featured a discussion between a former Freedom Rider and the woman behind the documentary about the Freedom Rides. The plenary was held in this beautiful Egyptian Revival church.

At the conference Leslie Randle-Morton and I were also able to accept the NCPH Student Project Award Honorable Mention for our work with Jayd Buteaux on Push and Pull: Eastern European and Russian Migration to the Cape Fear Region. Prior to the conference we were also given the opportunity to write about the exhibit development process and share our experience working with the community who helped bring the project to life. That post can be read here: NCPH Guest Blog – Push and Pull.

Our award for Push and Pull. We were so honored to receive this at the Awards Breakfast in Nashville. Photo by Leslie Randle-Morton.
Our award for Push and Pull. We were so honored to receive this at the Awards Breakfast in Nashville. Photo by Leslie Randle-Morton.

In addition to the engaging sessions and the opportunities to hear from and meet interesting public historians, NCPH offered a chance to see Nashville. Rich in history and music, it was a great host city for the conference.

Ryman Auditorium, The Mother Church of Country Music, Nashville, NC. Photo by Author.
Ryman Auditorium, The Mother Church of Country Music, Nashville, NC. Photo by Author.
Downtown Nashville. Photo by author.
Downtown Nashville. Photo by author.
Boubon Street Blues and Boogie Bar - where we had a delicious lunch and heard some great live blues music. Photo by author.
Boubon Street Blues and Boogie Bar – where we had a delicious lunch and heard some great live blues music. Photo by author.

Both conferences were such wonderful experiences. Moving forward, I am focusing on my thesis revisions and preparing for my summer thesis defense and graduation. I am also wrapping up my time as graduate assistant in University Archives, a position that ends with the semester next week. However, I will be continuing to work at the Bellamy while I complete my thesis this summer and continue my search for a full-time position.

Women’s History in Museums

In honor of Women’s History Month, I thought I would share a bit more information on my thesis. My research began as a resource evaluation for the local history museum in Wilmington. I was aiming to discover what kind of materials the museum already had in its collection that could be used to improve its interpretation of women’s history. The current exhibit, while inclusive of women in some parts, does not present a balanced interpretation. Women are largely missing from the earliest sections of the permanent exhibition on colonial and Revolutionary era Wilmington and remain marginalized in the interpretation of the 19th century. The only sections of the exhibition that include women in more balanced numbers are those interpreting the 20th century. However, even then women’s roles are not placed in their gendered context. Differences between men’s and women’s lives aren’t explored. Furthermore, the 20th-century exhibit sections focus on women’s public roles rather than also including their domestic roles.

My earliest theory as to why the museum lacked a more balanced or in-depth interpretation of women was that perhaps the collection was lacking in artifacts that could offer insight into women’s lives. This led me to assess the collection. I found instead that the collection was full of possibilities; however, the collection also needs more research and a clearer collecting focus on gender in order to fill in gaps and better understand the materials that are available.

As a small part of my research, I also conducted a visitor survey with 20 visitors to the museum over the months of December 2014 and January 2015, collecting data on about 5 different days in that time span. While this is not a large sample, it does provide some insight into what visitors know about women’s history and what they would like to know more about. The survey revealed that visitors are interested in women’s history and would like to see more of it at the museum. When asked to rate their interest in women’s history on a scale of 1 to 5 with one being not interested and 5 being very interested the overall average interest level was 3.85. Women made up 11 out of the 20 visitors surveyed and their average interest level of 4.45 clearly indicates that seeing the history of people they can relate to is important. The nine men surveyed, however, still came up with an average interest level of 3.1. Those who commented on why they rated their interest level as they did mentioned their female relatives and one explained his daughters’ interests in sports and science. Furthermore, when asked if they would like to see this museum specifically include more information on women’s lives, 15 visitors gave an affirmative answer (ranging from “sure” and “yes” to “absolutely”) with only 2 visitors giving negative responses and 3 visitors being unsure. Of those 15 visitors who wanted to see more about women, 10 were women and five were men. Those who did not want to see more were both men and two out of the 3 who were unsure were men. Only one person described their impression of the museum’s current interpretation as “balanced” while most others were able to name topics they would like to know more about or weren’t included in the museum. When asked to give words or images they associated with women’s history visitors commonly spoke about women’s suffrage, women’s rights, and specific notable women from history. Also noted often were women’s accomplishments and how women’s lives had changed over time. However, when asked to give words or images they associated with the word gender, most visitors felt unsure or simply stated “male/female” or “men/women,” indicating a lack of understanding of the concept of gender. Five visitors gave no associations only stating that they were unsure or could think of nothing. Based on the findings of the survey, it seems that visitors could benefit from exhibits that discuss the daily lives of both men and women and explain how ideas about gender informed these lives and how those ideas changed over time. Overall, museums need to better incorporate women’s experiences in the past but also place those experiences in context of gender. It is no longer enough to just add women to the mix.

In my case study I point out the wealth of resources available and offer specific examples of objects and topics to consider integrating into the exhibits. I also explore past exhibits, collections policies, and collections planning materials in order to try to determine the museum’s institutional relationship with women’s history, finding that the topic of gender has not been explicitly included in planning. Ultimately, I argue that women’s and gender history need to be more explicitly considered in museum collections planning, research, and exhibitions in order to fully consider the impact of gendered expectations on women’s and men’s lived experiences. This case study also offers a road map for other museums, outlining the steps necessary to improving interpretation including assessing the existing collection, critiquing current exhibits, and taking stock of local primary sources. I think most museums will find that more materials are available than they think for interpreting the diversity of women’s history.

My thesis is still undergoing revisions, but ultimately I hope it helps museums to advance their interpretation of women and gender and demonstrate the need for a more balanced representation of women as well as the need for making better use of available resources. And while it’s Women’s History Month, I hope museums will consider making women’s history a priority all throughout the year, integrated throughout their exhibitions.

This coming weekend is the North Carolina Museums Council conference in Durham. I’m looking forward to some great sessions on collections and my classmates and I will be presenting our poster on the Still Standing visitor evaluation about slave dwellings. Wish us luck!

Thesis Drafts, Archives, and Conferences – Updates

Since my last post, I’ve been busy at work on my thesis, continuing my work in University Archives, starting a new archivist job, and preparing to attend a couple of conferences in the spring.

First up, my thesis. I have officially drafted a complete thesis, from introduction through conclusion. I am now officially in the revision process, working to make my central argument stronger and clean up my prose. My next post will share a bit of the insights of my thesis, which is about the need for improved interpretation of women’s and gender history in museums. As it is Women’s History Month in March, I will celebrate by sharing more on my thesis in its own post. Stay tuned!

In the meantime, my work in University Archives continues. I recently had the opportunity to curate a small exhibit on the history of the Honors Program at UNCW. I worked with the Archivist, Adina Riggins, and the head of the Honors Program to identify items we could use to tell the story of 50 years of Departmental Honors and 20 years of a cohesive Honors Scholars Program. The exhibit drew on documents and objects representing major milestones, such as the first honors thesis, a photo of the first graduate of the Honors Scholars Program, and the dedication of Honors College, renamed to emphasize the success of the Honors Scholars Program. The exhibit also showcases the various activities and endeavors that students in Honors participate in including a research journal, a literary publication, an award-winning newsletter, research conferences, and field trips. The exhibit is located on the second floor of Randall Library between Honors’ offices and University Archives. You can read more about it in a post I wrote for Archives/Special Collections’ blog, Dub Collections: Honors Exhibit.

In addition to my position as graduate assistant in University Archives I have begun working as the part-time archivist at the Bellamy Mansion Museum in downtown Wilmington. This position entails reorganizing the museum’s archival and artifact collections for better use by researchers. Some of the items will be deaccessioned or put on long-term loan to other institutions so that they can be better cared for and more easily accessed by researchers. Also, items not in line with the museum’s mission will be deaccessioned. An archive relating to the museum as an institution and its history will also be organized and set up. So far, I have been taking stock of the various materials and arranging the documents into categories for easier processing, removing damaging attachments, duplicates, and unnecessary materials.

Besides starting a new job, I have a couple of other announcements. First of all, my classmates and co-curators on the Push and Pull exhibit project and I received honorable mention for the National Council on Public History’s Student Project Award and we will be traveling to Nashville in April to attend the annual conference and awards breakfast! We are very excited to be acknowledged for our work and so thankful for all of the community members who shared their stories, artifacts, and expertise with us so that we could curate such a wonderful exhibit that has now been shared so widely. It’s amazing the feedback and interest the project has received. The news of our award was shared by UNCW. You can read more about it here: UNCW News – Public History Students’ Project Receives Honorable Mention from National Organization. 

Another project from the UNCW Public History program will be getting some attention at the North Carolina Museums Council conference later this month. My classmates and I will be presenting Still Standing, our visitor evaluation project on the preservation of slave dwellings, at the conference’s poster session, sharing our process and the results of the visitor evaluation. Those still enrolled in courses have used that information to work on an exhibit this semester that will open in April. We look forward to sharing the first part of the project’s insights with the North Carolina museum community.

I’m looking forward to attending the conferences and meeting other public historians, finishing my thesis, and continuing my work in archives.

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 did share 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.

While some parts of the discussion were interesting, engaging, or fruitful, others meandered off topic. The overall experience was not what I had expected, with no one asking tough questions and no attempts at helping those staying for the first time to harness the power of the place. 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. I think that the Slave Dwelling Project could more effectively harness the power of place by encouraging these thoughts and reflections in those who choose to participate in the overnight stays. Had I not known a little about the history of slavery and the Bellamy Mansion, the experience might not have been as powerful. Mr. McGill could make his overnight stays more educational and more meaningful if he gently encouraged the free-flowing discussion in certain directions.

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.

However, I understand why he does not. Mr. McGill’s mission with the Slave Dwelling Project is to raise awareness of the need to preserve slave dwellings. He does not extend this mission to include educating the public about the value of slave dwellings and the stories they can tell. But perhaps he should. If the power of place was harnessed to help people better understand slavery and the lives of those who lived in slave quarters, cabins, and numerous other kinds of slave spaces then the need to preserve those spaces would be even clearer.

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. However, I think the experience could have been deeper if the context of slavery at the Bellamy Mansion had been discussed, if I knew more about the lives of those who resided in those quarters, if not only their work and negative living conditions were considered, but also their fellowship, family life and resistance, and if I had been confronted with more challenging questions of race and the influence of the past today. I think if the Slave Dwelling Project shifted its focus from awareness and preservation to education its programs could resonate deeper, if not wider, with those who join Mr. McGill for his overnight stays.

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 reflection 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/

A Perfect (Public History) Week

Last week was one of those busy, exciting weeks full of public history on all fronts. Last Monday I attended a meeting at the Burgwin-Wright House, a colonial house museum in downtown Wilmington, where my Museum Administration classmates, professor and I presented the products of our work from last semester on a Friends group sort of program. Because the Burgwin-Wright House is owned by the NC Colonial Dames Society, a membership program is not really needed (plus it would be confusing as membership in the Colonial Dames is limited by ancestry). Thus, we worked in consultation with the director and the museum manager to create a support program that more closely resembles a Friends group like those seen at state historic sites and museums. The group would be considered philanthropic only, not managerial, and would support the maintenance of the house as well as the educational programs held there. In the course last semester we worked to create drafts of a solicitation letter, informational brochure, return card, and thank you letter for the program. Monday’s meeting was to share the final products of this work with the house committee and answer their questions. It went well and I hope to see the program successfully implemented at the Burgwin-Wright in the near future.

Tuesday and Thursday were normal days in the University Archives where I am continuing to assist the archivist in assessing one of the collections for possible deaccessioning. Much of this material is from UNC General Administration rather than materials from UNCW specifically. The assessment and deaccessioning process will help to focus the collection and make it more useful for researchers. The current organization of the materials in this collection obscures its contents. The materials we are keeping from this collection will be reorganized so that they will be more accessible to researchers. Also, logistically speaking, the process frees up much-needed storage space.

Over the course of the week I also made some strides on my thesis, completing a rough draft of my first chapter and doing research for the second chapter. The first chapter needs some revisions, but focuses on the problems facing museum collections in terms of collecting and cataloging objects related to women’s history. It offers some suggestions for improvements at the Cape Fear Museum based on solutions used at other museums as well as scholars’ proposals of solutions. My next chapter will deal more directly with the use of these objects in interpreting women’s history and will provide some idea of the resources available for interpreting Wilmington women’s history at the Cape Fear Museum.

The Bellamy Mansion and UNCW Public History Program hosted a two-day symposium last week on the preservation of slave dwellings featuring Joseph McGill, the founder of the Slave Dwelling Project. This event is in connection with the Still Standing project that the public history program began last semester. Because this was such a major evet, including a lecture, a panel, and an overnight stay in the slave quarters, and I have so much to say about it, a separate post will be devoted to it. Stay tuned!

Finally, Saturday I volunteered at the Cape Fear Museum’s Mystery at the Museum annual event. This family learning event features the use of forensic science and logic skills to help solve a mystery. The event was a lot of fun and a big hit with kids and parents alike. Children were detectives who worked together with their parents to try to determine who had stolen some food–all of the suspects were animals, with only one being a human. I helped at the station entitled, “What’s My Name?” which had the detectives use a dichotomous key to learn about taxonomy. The detectives learned about various characteristics of different classifications of animals to help them narrow down who their suspect might have been. I thoroughly enjoyed working with the kids (many of whom were wearing fake mustaches!) and learned a little about animals, taxonomy, and logic myself.

Little Bit of Everything

Another semester is coming to an end. It has been a very busy one with taking my last 2 courses, studying for comprehensive exams, researching for my thesis, and working in the University Archives. Thus, it has been months since my last update. There are several projects and events to share:

AASLH in St. Paul

In September I traveled to St. Paul, Minnesota where my co-curators and I presented about the Push and Pull exhibit from last academic year at the American Association of State and Local History Annual Meeting. We created and shared a poster during the poster session, explaining the importance of the concept of shared authority in the project and describing how members of our community advisory board were instrumental in the process and final product of the project. We were able to speak with public historians from all across the country about the project and received a great deal of positive feedback. In addition to presenting our poster we were also able to attend many interesting sessions and volunteer our time doing session evaluation. There were several sessions, such as those on interpreting slavery and expanding museum accessibility, that provided interesting perspectives for the Still Standing project as well as other topics and readings from the Museum Education course this semester. Our trip also included visiting the Minnesota History Center, a very engaging museum offering lots of opportunities for hands-on participation in the exhibits. The entire experience in St. Paul was both very beneficial and enjoyable.

Jayd Buteaux, me, and Leslie Randle-Morton at the poster session presentation on Push and Pull. Photo by Tammy Gordon.
Jayd Buteaux, me, and Leslie Randle-Morton at the poster session presentation on Push and Pull. Photo by Tammy Gordon.

Still Standing Visitor Evaluation

The Still Standing Project produced a visitor evaluation report as part of the Museum Education course. By conducting focus groups and visitor surveys we produced a large volume of data that we then analyzed and researched in context of the history of slavery, slave dwellings, and the field of preservation. In my report I focused on several trends I noticed in the visitor data from the surveys and focus groups and formed recommendations for the exhibit team that will produce an exhibit on the history and preservation of slave dwellings. From my research and analysis I found that it will be important for the exhibit team to make clear differences in slavery by locality (urban vs. rural), as well as over time. Also, emphasis must be placed on the agency of enslaved people. Slave dwellings especially offer the opportunity to discuss the lives of enslaved people in terms of their daily activities, private family life, beliefs, struggles, and accomplishments. In the survey data it seemed that visitors focused only on the aspects of slavery imposed on enslaved people by their masters. While this aspect of slavery is important to represent, it is also important to demonstrate how enslaved people lived in spite of those restrictions and how they responded to them as active participants in history. Another important topic to consider is that of authenticity in preservation. Participants in focus groups spoke at length at the need for exhibits and tours to present an authentic history without whitewashing it. This concern is rooted in years of repressed and marginalized representations of the history of slavery. Overall, the need to present the history of slave dwellings and their preservation in light of the complex, varied history of slavery became clear. Visitors clearly expressed interest in slave dwellings and the lives of those who lived in them. The exhibit team will have to make sure to keep visitors’ expectations and assumptions in mind during the design process.

Museum Administration

The Museum Administration course also took a small part in the Still Standing Project. The class researched 3 different historic sites’ institutional histories in relationship to slave dwellings. One group researched Somerset Place and its reconstructed slave quarters while another team researched the Aiken-Rhett House and its preserved urban slave quarters in Charleston. Finally, the team of which I was part researched the Latimer House’s slave quarters which have been rehabilitated as a townhouse apartment. Through each of these, the different reasons and motivations for the preservation and interpretation of slave quarters can be seen as well as practical considerations some institutions consider when deciding whether or not to preserve extant slave quarters. These reports will be useful to the exhibit team in serving as case studies of how slave dwellings have been preserved in various places and at various times. These examples also provide 3 very distinct outcomes.

University Archives

In my graduate assistantship in the UNCW University Archives, I continued to assist the archivist with fulfilling research requests while also starting a new, long-term project. I began a preservation priority database in order to take stock of the conditions of many of the older collections as well as to consider the value of certain inherited collections that may not fit the archives’ collection policy. I assessed three entire collections, making notes of poor storage or other preservation concerns while also recording the kinds of materials and topics covered. The next steps are to correct the preservation issues and to reorganize collections remaining after deaccessioning some materials. I will be continuing my role as graduate assistant in the archives next semester and continue to work on this project.

Comps, Thesis, and What’s Next 

This semester I also studied for and finally took my comprehensive exams and I am very happy and relieved to report that I passed! I also worked on researching my thesis and am currently in the process of completing a visitor survey of visitors’ interests and assumptions in regards to women’s history at the Cape Fear Museum as part of that research. Next semester I will continue to work in University Archives while I write my thesis– I look forward to sharing interesting thesis research and my progress over the course of the semester.