Public Historian on Vacation: Part 2 – San Antonio

Public Historian on Vacation: Part 2 – San Antonio & The Alamo – April 11

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

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The County Line – where we ate BBQ.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*What originally was to be a 3 part series, will now be more–how many depends on how long I decide to rant about the rest of the trip. I felt the Alamo should stand alone though so as to not make this post too long by continuing to discuss the rest of the Missions in San Antonio that we visited. The next blog post will cover the rest of our trip in San Antonio, I think. 🙂 *

On blogging, or not blogging, and starting over. Again.

I’ve not been a very good blogger lately. I could list several excuses about why I haven’t had the time, but the truth is a lack of motivation because I hadn’t found a topic that really inspired me. I think this may be owing to the fact that in the past I’ve kept this strictly professional, reporting on my projects, academics, and professional experience. In my current position, there just isn’t as much that I can write about owing to the collection being private, many of my tasks and projects being repetitive, etc.

In an effort to give myself a broader source of inspiration for writing, I’ve decided to blend the personal and the professional and write about a broader spectrum of things, while maintaining an inquisitive, historically-minded flair. For example…

Personally, lately, I’ve taken an interest in baking and trying to improve my skill. I enjoy baking, not cooking, as a therapeutic release, a hobby that leads to a tangible (and edible) finished product that I can share (or not 🙂 ) with others. While I enjoy baking, the act of doing so coupled with certain reactions I’ve received from sharing my baking on social media have led me to questions about the history of baking as a gendered activity, one done by women. I plan to investigate the history of baking at home as it relates to women and gender roles. Look out for a post on this soon.

My husband and I also spend a lot of our free time with our dog, Dia. As we are currently childless, we are in a position to give her a lot of attention and travel with her, take her on hikes, to the dog park, etc. As such my historically-minded brain has wandered into questions of how pet ownership has changed over time and the history of domestic pets. These questions haven’t fully formed yet, but look out for more on this in the future as well.

Basically, I’d like to start exploring questions related to what is happening in the world around me or that I come across in my hobbies.

I haven’t read as much since graduate school as I thought I would. During the busy academic years of college and grad school I missed leisurely reading and couldn’t wait till I had the time again, but I just haven’t gotten back into it like I thought I would. I’ve read a book here and there, but not nearly as quickly as I used to tear through them. In an effort to read more, I’m making a list of the books I plan to read this year and in an attempt at holding myself accountable will post it. I will then write reviews of each one as I read them. As many are historical fiction, I will also explore how true to the historical record they hold.

Overall, this platform will take on a more personal flair, with my life and interests leading the historical line of questioning; however, I aim to research and discuss these topics with my academic background and professional historical standards. I will pose questions, perhaps more than I answer, but I will search for answers or at least to open dialogue. I hope this blog shows how history impacts our daily lives in a myriad of ways, not just in big ways such as in the political realm, but also in small ways, such as baking traditions, books, & how we treat our pets.

This new direction will be an exercise in historical thought, research, and writing on a personal level. I may throw in a recipe here and there and updates on the baking techniques I’m working on among the historical posts and book reviews. As well as perhaps some pictures of my dog. 🙂

Thanks for reading–feel free to follow along, comment, or make suggestions. First post for this new direction to come later this week!

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/