Ford’s Theater: A Tour of Lincoln’s Assassination

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Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C. is an operating theater to this day, but historically it is best known as the site of Lincoln’s assassination. On April 14, 1865, while Lincoln was attending a play at Ford’s Theater with his wife and Major Henry Rathbone, John Wilkes Booth, an actor and Confederate spy, shot Lincoln in the back of the head. He died 9 hours later on April 15, 1865 of his injuries across the street at the Petersen House.

This moment in history, just after Lee’s surrender and the ending of the Civil War, but just before Reconstruction, was a pivotal junction.

The tour of Ford’s Theater which includes self-guided tours of exhibits, a ranger talk in the theater, and partially guided tours of the Peterson house, does a wonderful job of contextualizing both Lincoln and Booth as well as providing the context of what Washington, D.C. was like in 1865. All of this context helps the audience to better understand how the assassination was able to take place and why Booth targeted Lincoln.

Before entering the actual theater, we toured exhibits that presented Lincoln’s Washington. These exhibits showed what D.C. was like in the 1860s, gave context about the Civil War, Lincoln’s stance on slavery, the war, and reconstruction. The exhibits also gave background on John Wilkes Booth, his political leanings, his acting career, and more. The exhibits lead up to the night of the assassination and include on display the gun used to kill Lincoln.

The next stop was the theater itself where a ranger (since the site is a National Park) walks the audience through the series of events leading up to and immediately after Lincoln was shot. Again, the information provided is clear and does an excellent job of contextualizing the event and not sensationalizing it.

The tour follows the series of events, leaving the theater and crossing the street, just as Lincoln’s body did that night, to the Petersen House where the aftermath of Lincoln’s assassination is described including Mary Todd Lincoln’s reaction, Lincoln’s death, the succession of power, and Lincoln’s funeral procession. More exhibits then detail Lincoln’s legacy and the many ways he has continued to inspire people through the present.

I highly recommend visiting Ford’s Theater and doing the full tour including the museum exhibits, the theater talk, and the Petersen House across the street. Tickets are free but are timed and it’s recommended to reserve them in advance.

https://www.fords.org/visit/historic-site/

 

National Museum of African American History & Culture: A Rave Review

The National Museum of African American History & Culture is one of those museums that pulls you in and keeps pulling you in. From the outside, it stands out, strikingly different from all of the other museums, monuments, and buildings on the National Mall, creating a welcome visual focal point. Entering feels like going into a sacred space. The museum is chock full of artifacts that bring stories to life. It was one of my favorite museum experiences ever (and I’ve had a lot). Many have written about why this museum is important and how it came to be. Below is my experience visiting the museum as a white museum professional. It did not disappoint on a professional or personal level and all of its hype is well deserved.

Note on Tickets & Logistics

When my husband and I began planning our trip to DC to visit my brother, one of the first things decided on (after the concert that sparked the conversation) was that I had to go to the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC). The NMAAHC opened in 2016 to lots of interest, high visitation, and big impact on not only the world of public history & museums, but on so many individuals. I had heard so much good buzz about the museum but hadn’t been able to visit yet so it was high priority on our list.

We knew advance tickets would probably be necessary and we planned to go on the Friday of our trip to help cut down on weekend crowding, but I misunderstood the ticket release system and we missed our opportunity to get advance tickets! ūüė¶ The other option was to try and get day of tickets first thing in the morning when they would be released for the day, but after arriving in DC in the wee hours of the morning we missed that opportunity as well. Walk-ins (without advance tickets) are allowed after 1 pm.

Worried that we would be standing in long lines and concerned about the chances of maybe not being able to get in at all, we decided to spend the morning at the National Air & Space Museum (you can read about our visit here) and then go to the NMAAHC after lunch (we ate in the Pavilion Cafe in the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden which you can read about here). Because of hiding out from rain and how busy the Pavilion Cafe was we didn’t get to the NMAAHC until about 2:00pm on a Friday in April. There was absolutely no line and we were able to go right in and get started. The museum was plenty busy but not overcrowded and we were able to maneuver through exhibits with minimal waiting and crowding. The NMAAHC has changed its ticketing policy already in its 3 years and likely will continue to adjust so if you plan to go, check out their website for the latest. We lucked out on being able to easily get in without waiting, but I would still recommend the advance ticketing system so you can get in in the morning and have more time to view the museum. I have to go back as we only grazed the surface of this museum’s impressive exhibits!

The Museum

Upon entering, we picked up a map which advised that in order to make the most of your time (and we were already limited on time having gotten there in the afternoon) you should start at the top and work your way down. We didn’t realize until later that this meant we would miss the museum’s main history exhibits which traces African American history from slavery through the present. These history exhibits are all below ground (where 60% of the museum lies). Where we began was with the museum’s culture exhibits which all come off of a central area called Cultural Expressions. This circular area is so immersive with exhibits around the outside, seating in the middle, and large screens encircling above head with images, video and quotes about various forms of cultural expression including writing, music, dance, sport, film, etc. featuring famous or trailblazing African Americans in their respective fields. We began with the exhibit about music.

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The music exhibit was full of information and artifacts about African American musicians and singers who have made lasting cultural impressions in American popular and musical culture. Jimi Hendrix, Ella Fitzgerald, Celia Cruz, Whitney Houston, James Brown, Louis Armstrong, and more well-known artists were represented, but so were lesser-known names and contributions to American music including black country and bluegrass artists. The exhibit included an interactive “record store” room in which you could flip through “albums” and learn more about artists and select music on a digital touch screen. It was a rich visual experience with so much to take in.

The next exhibit was all about acting, from the stage to the screen. The final exhibit we toured in full was about sports. All of these exhibits showcased the cultural contributions of African Americans to American culture, highlighting inequalities overcome, civil rights advanced, and culture enriched. Black history and culture is American history and culture and these exhibits make that clear by focusing on how African Americans have been a part of it all by focusing on these overarching categories of music, film, sport, relatable categories for people of all backgrounds. 

I wish we could have stayed longer but tired brains and feet won out. We skipped the rest of the regular exhibits in favor of checking out the educational area which has a large digital, interactive kiosk of touch screens from which you can browse the museum’s collection. You can select items based on a wide variety of intersectional topics. This was a truly impressive digital resource that had information on so many artifacts both on exhibit and not.

I can’t wait to return to this museum and tour more of the exhibits. The importance of this museum for celebrating African American history and culture, for educating the public on the history of systemic racism, for educating the public on the history of black Americans, and for showcasing the important role African Americans have and continue to play in the development of culture in America cannot be overstated. I highly recommend visiting, taking your time, and taking it all in.

#19ForThe19th: Why Are Our Heroines Hidden?

Over the next 19 weeks, the US National Archives is celebrating the 100th anniversary of the 19th amendment, giving women the right to vote. On June 4, 1919, Congress voted to pass the amendment which would then go to the states for ratification before becoming law of the land in 1920. Each Wednesday is a different theme or topic. Today’s is Hidden Heroines.

I did a lot of brainstorming and soul searching trying to decide which woman from the past, who is often overlooked, I should devote my attention to. Because of the anniversary of women’s suffrage I thought of Lucy Burns, the suffragist who endured prison, forced feedings, and more in the fight for women’s right to vote. I thought of Lucretia Mott, a major driving force in both women’s rights activism and abolitionism. Of Iba B. Wells, a major figure in civil rights, co-founder of the NAACP, and women’s rights activist, often left out of the circles of white women’s rights activists. I thought of Mamie Till, the mother of Emmett Till, the young black boy who was murdered for talking to a white woman. This grieving mother boldly and bravely insisted her son’s coffin be left open for the world to see what had been done to him and allowed media to use graphic images of her son’s beaten body in order to advance civil rights, using her grief and her son’s tragically short life to affect change for others.

I thought of these and many other women, but I couldn’t decide on one woman to highlight or profile. One “hidden heroine.” There are so many women whose stories aren’t well known. Or aren’t as well known as other women’s stories. But they are all worth telling.

I decided instead to write about why women’s stories are hidden, less well-known than their male counterparts, and why some women’s stories are less told than others.

Why Are Our Heroines Hidden?

Issue 1: Sexism – Women were (& are) not offered the same opportunities as men. Speaking of history generally, women had less access to formal education and therefore more difficulties in achieving goals in academic fields and research. Legal restrictions on women’s right to vote, to own property, etc. kept them from enacting change. Societal expectations have kept many women in the home as wives and mothers, relegating them to domestic work. The field of history has traditionally been dominated by male academics. Prior to the wave of social history that swept through the academy in the 1970s and 80s, many historians focused on major public figures (historically predominantly male due to the restrictions on women mentioned above), military and state history. Social history began looking at history “from below” and taking into account minority voices, ordinary people, and the lived experience of people from many walks of life. But for years and still today, textbooks largely stick to the national narrative which prioritizes state and military history–domains traditionally and at times legally reserved for men.

Issue 2: Racism – Women of color have been doubly restricted from aspects of public life, facing racism and sexism simultaneously. Their stories are even harder to find and have more often not been preserved.

Issue 3: Sources – Despite the above limitations women still led lives of importance, of interest, and of value. Of course some women made notable, public achievements in the face of discrimination, but even more women were hidden heroines, living in their own space, making an impact on the lives around them, much as many of us live today. Their stories are worth studying as it illuminates what daily life was like for the majority of people in any given historical era, not just those who held power or made public strides. It is the actions of the populace that move culture and society, not just those of great men or great women. These women’s lives are harder to uncover though since fewer written historical sources were made by women and even fewer have been saved. Women’s identities are sometimes obscured by the tradition of naming them only as Mrs. Husband’s Name in public sources. Women who lived in eras where they participated minimally in public life will have less written sources left behind than men in the same era. African American women during slavery will be even more difficult to find in the records than white women.

Issue 4: Interpretation/Public History – Strides are being made in this regard all the time, but the study of women’s history needs to go beyond the academy. Historians are increasingly studying women’s and minorities’ lives, but these findings need to be disseminated to the public via history classes and museums. The public is interested in the past and wants to know how it relates to them. This has been shown in studies, in the popularity of popular historical dramas, and other media. Half the population are women and so half of what’s included in museums should be about women. If I visit one more house museum that talks more about the crown molding than the life of the woman who lived there…but I digress. More public interpretation of women’s history, both notable women and ordinary lives, can help bring these stories forward and integrate them better into our national narrative.

This Instagram Challenge is one of many initiatives encouraging the study and interpretation of women’s history and many museums and historic sites will be taking part, highlighting their own women’s history and making connections to the 100th anniversary of women’s right to vote. Be sure to follow along and let them know you are interested in these women’s stories.

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Over the next 19 weeks I plan to take part in the Instagram challenge each week and will do my best to highlight a woman or women who fit the theme that is lesser known, particularly women of color. Let me know if you know of a woman you’d like me to research and highlight.

Why else do you think women’s stories remain hidden? Who is your favorite “Hidden Heroine?”

Follow along with the Instagram challenge from @usnatarchives #19forthe19th and check out my posts @bethnevarezhistory. 

La Malinche: Traitor, Victim & Survivor, or Mother of Mestizos?

La Malinche, whose given name was most likely Malinalli, was an indigenous woman in what is now Mexico in the early 1500s. She has also been known as Malintzin¬†and Do√Īa Marina (as the Spanish called her.) Most well known as the indigenous woman who helped the Spanish conquer the Aztecs by serving as translator, La Malinche could be considered, and is by many Mexicans, a traitor to her people. However, others consider her a victim or a survivor who made the most of the position she found herself in. Still others see her as the mother of mestizos and modern Mexicans. So which is true or can it be all of them?

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Hernán Cortés and La Malinche meet Moctezuma II in Tenochtitlan, November 8, 1519. Facsimile (c. 1890) of Lienzo de Tlaxcala [History of Tlaxcala].
Malinalli was born sometime between 1496 and 1501.¬† She was born between the Aztec empire in central Mexico and the Yucatan Peninsula where the- Maya lived. As a child, her father was a cacique (what the Spanish called indigenous leaders); however, he died and her mother remarried another cacique and had a son. Malinalli’s family then sold her to Mayan slavers.

Those slavers then sold her to the Mexicas (Aztecs) where she learned their language, Nahuatl. War between Mayas and Mexicas resulted in Malinalli being given as tribute (possibly a sex slave) to the cacique of Tabasco (Mayan) where she learned the Maya-yucateca language.

It was Malinalli’s language skills that made her role in the conquest possible as she could speak at least two major native languages. It was in Tabasco where Malinalli met Hern√°n Cort√©s, a relationship that altered her world and that of Mexico. The Spaniards arrived in Tabasco and defeated the indigenous people. After the battle, the¬†Tabascan people ‚Äúbrought a present of gold, consisting of four diadems, some ornaments in the form of lizards, two shaped like little dogs and five little ducks, also some earrings‚Ķ,‚ÄĚ as well as twenty indigenous women, including a ‚Äúmost excellent person who when she became a Christian took the name of Do√Īa Marina.‚ÄĚ (Yes, these enslaved women were given as peace tokens together with inanimate objects.)

Do√Īa Marina was described as ‚Äúthe prettiest, the most active and lively of the number‚ÄĚ and as having an appearance that attested to her status as ‚Äúa truly great princess, the daughter of Caciques.‚ÄĚ Do√Īa Marina was originally given to conquistador Puertocarrero, but upon his return to Spain, she ‚Äúlived with Cort√©s, to whom she bore a son named Don Martin Cort√©s.‚ÄĚ

So this summarizes Malinalli’s life up until meeting Cort√©s.¬†Her story and that of the conquest is complicated and unfortunately her own viewpoint, goals, and intentions are lost to history as she did not write her own story. Her life is documented purely through the lenses of others, both Spanish and indigenous.

The Spanish considered her a great asset and regularly described her as a princess–beautiful, regal, great, and “most excellent.” Several conquistadors claimed that without her they would not have been able to conquer the Aztecs, or at least not as quickly and they would not have been able to communicate with [and ally with some of] the indigenous people they encountered along the way.

One of the most detailed accounts of the Spanish conquest of Mexico is that of Bernal Diaz del Castillo, a soldier under the leadership of Hern√°n Cort√©s. He described Do√Īa Marina in a positive light in every mention of her in his memoirs of the conquest of New Spain.

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English translation of Bernal Diaz del Castillo’s memoir.

Diaz relates the story of when Marina was reunited with her mother and brother. Upon seeing Marina, they felt guilty and anxious, but she ‚Äúcomforted them‚ÄĚ and ‚Äúfreely forgave the past.‚ÄĚ Bernal Diaz saw this incident as proof that ‚ÄúGod‚Ķturned her away from the errors of heathenism and converted her to Christianity.‚ÄĚ He even compared Do√Īa Marina‚Äôs story to that of Joseph and his brothers in the Bible, in which Joseph forgave his brothers for selling him into slavery because it ultimately led him to a place of power.

Indigenous people also depicted Malinalli in codices relating the events of the conquest. The Aztec codices always show Malinalli next to Cort√©s, demonstrating how closely she worked with him, helping him to negotiate with Aztec leaders. The Tlaxcala, an indigenous group that allied with Cort√©s to defeat the Aztecs, also depicted Malinalli (who they called Malintzin). In fact they so closely associated Malinalli with Cort√©s that they called them both by the same name — Malintzin, identifying him as being with her. (The -tzin suffix is an honorific or formality much like sir or lady.)

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La Malinche and Hernán Cortés in the city of Xaltelolco, in a drawing from the late 16th-century codex History of Tlaxcala. 

Some indigenous codices and other evidence have caused some historians to speculate that Malinalli had power beyond her role as translator–that she influenced diplomacy and decisions during the conquest. One story exists that she warned Cort√©s about a planned trap and attack by indigenous people. This story, along with her overall role in helping Cort√©s to be successful in his defeat of the Aztecs, has caused her to be known as a traitor-traiconera. However, not all indigenous groups in the area were allied with the Aztecs and some suffered from the empire’s requirement for tribute, making some historians argue that she saved her people from the Aztecs.

Outside of her role as translator, Do√Īa Marina‚Äôs life was not all that different from the lives of many other indigenous women who the Spanish encountered. She was given as a peace offering to the Spanish, baptized and renamed as a Christian, and then given to one Spaniard after another.

She, and the other nineteen captive women given at the same time, had no choice in their placement with the Spaniards, but Do√Īa Marina‚Äôs actions while with the Spaniards demonstrate that she saw in her new position an opportunity to survive and maybe even improve her station in life. Her ability to translate for Cort√©s elevated her status in the party and granted her certain protections.

Less is known about her later life, but it seems she lived outside of what is now Mexico City, married Juan Jaramillo and had a daughter. Her son with Cort√©s, commonly thought of as the first mestizo or first Mexican, was taken to Spain and raised by his father’s family. Malinalli died either in 1529 or 1551 as is disputed by historians.

Her role in the conquest remains contested & debated by Mexicans as well. The word malinchista means a disloyal citizen who prefers foreign influence and is used as an insult in Mexico. But many feminists have defended her, pointing to her lack of choice as an enslaved woman and the difficult situation she was placed in.

Traitor, survivor, victim, mother of modern Mexicans? All of the above? What do you think? 

Quotes are from: Bernal Diaz, The Conquest of New Spain, Trans. J.M. Cohen, (London: Penguin Books, 1963).

You can read more about the mythology and legacy of La Malinche in the below interesting article which compares her life and legacy to that of Pocahontas. 

https://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2015/11/25/457256340/despite-similarities-pocahontas-gets-love-malinche-gets-hate-why 

Some of this blog post was inspired by and adapted from an academic paper I wrote during undergrad about how the Spanish conquistadors used indigenous women to help accomplish the goals of conquest: God, gold, and glory. In it I argue that Do√Īa Marina‚Äôs life demonstrates two major themes present in the Spanish conquest of Mexico: the use of conversion to Christianity and interracial relationships in order to promote assimilation and loyalty. Both of these tactics were used to achieve the goals of conquest. Spanish conquerors sought to claim territory, convert and assimilate natives, and find wealth. Through the writings of Cort√©s and Diaz, it becomes evident that the conversion of indigenous women to Catholicism, and Spanish men‚Äôs relationships with them, were not secondary aspects of colonization.¬† Rather, this paper argues that it was through their relationships with indigenous women that Spanish men achieved their goals of conquest. You can read the full paper here.¬†

Public Historian on Vacation Series: Final Stop – Louisiana

Finally coming to the end of my Public Historian on Vacation series. I spent so much time writing about San Antonio even though we were only there for 2 days because we packed a lot into 2 days, it was our first time visiting, and it was so beautiful and interesting. After we visited the Missions we also checked out the San Antonio Japanese Tea Garden, went back to the River Walk and ate at Casa Rio, the oldest restaurant on the River (1946)–(another example of commercialization of history, drawing on the past to create a certain atmosphere, and to substantiate the quality of the restaurant. Which was pretty yummy Mexican.)

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After San Antonio, we drove back towards the East and stopped over in New Iberia, Louisiana, an adorable small town and home to my wonderful friend and graduate school support person, Jayd. It is also home to the historic site Jayd works at, the Shadows-on-the-Teche, a historic house museum owned by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. We visited Jayd at the Shadows and took a tour from one of the regular guides.

Built along the Bayou Teche, the Shadows was constructed in 1834 for sugarcane planter David Weeks and his wife Mary Conrad Weeks. To be honest, house museums are not my favorite kind of museum as their tours are often formulaic, focused a great deal more on architectural and design history than social history (my personal interest) and I often have a difficult time keeping the various generations of the family and all of the family names organized in my mind as we go through the house. But this house and this tour are interesting for the various ways that the house’s origins and its more recent history are alongside one another.

The house stayed in the same family for a very long time, from its construction through 1958, creating the opportunity to trace one family over several generations. The house has mostly been restored to the antebellum time period in which it was built, but one section of the house interprets more the life and times of the house’s last private owner, William Weeks Hall. His life stood out to me as the most interesting. He was an accomplished artist and knew many other artists and visionaries of his time, including Walt Disney, Henry Miller, Emily Post and more. Visitors to the Shadows during William Weeks Hall’s time were asked to sign an old door that remains on display.

Like most plantation homes today, the interpretation included something about the enslaved people who lived and worked both in the home and in the fields and other properties owned by the Weeks family, though like most historic house museums today that interpretation could use a little something more. We were told that the family depended on and supported slavery, secession, and the South in the Civil War, but less is known about the enslaved people and as such less is shared about them than the white plantation family. But I know more research is being done with the intentions of adding more about the enslaved African Americans at the site. And more information about slavery at the Shadows is available on their website. Overall, well worth a visit and they do some really interesting educational and special programming as well. I may be biased, but Jayd is a passionate public historian and educator who is doing some great work there.

After our tour we went to dinner with Jayd and Graig for some local Cajun food at Pelicans on the Bayou. We had poboys and Crawfish Kickers (a fried crawfish appetizer, kind of like a hushpuppy). And awesome Magic Dust (Cajun seasoning) french fries. And then we set off with Jayd to New Orleans for the rest of the weekend.

We went to New Orleans last year as well and we love NOLA. This year’s foray was with a native Louisianan but unfortunately it was also during a monsoon. I’m exaggerating a little. Rain, wind, clouds, and thunder made Saturday rather gloomy. Before it really started pouring we went to Cafe du Monde, the iconic cafe known for their beignets and cafe au lait. Cafe du Monde has been in operation since 1862 and is one of few things I find totally worth the line, which, thanks to the staff’s efficiency, moves pretty fast. Delicious beignets, wonderful coffee, and the simplicity of it–that’s quite literally all that’s on the menu–all combine into a warm, fuzzy experience. Cafe du Monde is another example of a restaurant successfully capitalizing on its history and longevity. So much so that it doesn’t have to offer anything else. But even after becoming a must see for any New Orleans tourist, the quality of the food and the experience remain. Because, trust me, there are plenty of other places to get beignets in the French Quarter without the line, but there isn’t a line for a reason–they simply aren’t as good.

After pumping ourselves full of caffeine and sugar we set off without a plan into the French Quarter to find something to do. We considered the Cabildo, but it was closed for an exhibit installation. The weather began to get worse and worse so we stopped off at the 1850 House Museum located in the Lower Pontalba Building on Jackson Square. This was a unique house museum in that it was more of an apartment building that had had many different residents over the years. It interprets upper-middle-class life of antebellum New Orleans. Most interesting to me is that the building and its mate, the Upper Pontalba Building across Jackson Square, were designed and financed by a woman,¬†Baroness Micaela Almonester de Pontalba. Both buildings were intended to be combinations of residential and retail spaces.¬†The 1850 House is small and it’s a quick tour of the three floors, including going through the back staircase to the slave and servant quarters and working spaces. (Picture on left above shows one of the Pontalba buildings, but on Sunday when the sun came out.)

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When the weather continued to get worse it drove us from the French Quarter to what we thought would be a safer, drier, and more enjoyable visit to the National World War II Museum.¬† Well, every other tourist in New Orleans, which was also holding the rained out French Quarter Festival that weekend, had the same idea and we waited in line to get tickets, then to see exhibits, then to eat, only to arrive at the extra experience we had paid for (Final Mission: USS Tang) to find that it was down due to technical difficulties (we were reimbursed, but had walked to that separate building in the rain just for it). Overall, it was a pretty disappointing and frustrating day. It called into mind issues on the visitor experience side of museums. All three of us had been to the WWII Museum before and we knew that it was an impressive, well-done Museum with interactive exhibits, special features, and more. But what if that rainy day had been our first visit? We may have left with a very negative view of the Museum or at least not feeling like it was worth it. Visitor experience and basic qualities of comfort such as benches, crowding, accessibility, etc. really affect visitors’ ability to learn and get the most out of the museum.

It was difficult to focus on what was presented in the exhibits and hard not to feel like you were in someone else’s way. I was pleased to find they had added an immersive exhibit about the home front, often an excellent opportunity to discuss women’s roles during the war, with home interiors set up in 1940s style with places to sit, listen, and read; however, it was also full to the brim and we felt rushed through the space.

Some busy Museums use timed tickets to help control the number of visitors. Independence National Historical Park does so for visitors to Independence Hall, an effort which keeps the small structure from being overcrowded, a preservation necessity that also aids in creating a more positive visitor experience. Visitor caps might also help, keeping the number of visitors allowed in at any one time to a number that allows visitors access to exhibits without too much crowding. Museums have to weigh access, i.e. allowing as many visitors as possible to view the exhibits, with visitor experience, and often with financial concerns as well. Small museums need all of the admission fees they can get to help finance their collection, programs, and often simply operating expenses. However, the World War II Museum likely turns a profit and has been able to invest greatly in new buildings, high quality exhibits, etc. The tickets to the World War II Museum aren’t cheap ($28 for adults), which does give you access to a huge array of exhibits in several buildings, but when your experience is muddled by crowds and ultimately cut short by the exhaustion of dealing with them, you begin to question the value. This coming from two museum professionals (and a good sport of a husband).

Of course, the last time we visited the World War II Museum last year, it was busy without being overly crowded and perhaps we simply caught the unlucky rain-induced visitor onslaught. However, if the Museum finds itself having more and more of those days it may want to institute some sort of control over the number of visitors on forecasted busy days.

After leaving the National World War II Museum wet, tired, and a bit grumpy we went back to our AirBnb, took our host’s suggestion for dinner at the delicious Sassafras, drank the wine left graciously by our host, played cards, and called it a night. The weather cleared and the morning was sunny and breezy. We revisited Cafe du Monde, took a glorious walk around the French Quarter and said our goodbyes.

Our whole trip was full of wonderful times with family and friends, beautiful places, interesting history, and good times. Can’t wait to go back and see family again in Galveston, explore more of San Antonio, visit Jayd and explore more of New Iberia and Southeast Louisiana, and as always, eat more beignets in New Orleans. And of course looking forward to the next trip to anywhere–I always find the history.

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/