My Experience with the Slave Dwelling Project

In February 2017, I organized the Slave Dwelling Project, led by Joe McGill, to present a program called “Inalienable Rights: Living History through the Eyes of the Enslaved”.

While slavery is becoming a more integral part of the story of many historic sites, there is still a relatively common problem of how the stories are presented, and it isn’t necessarily the fault of the historic site.  Naturally,  slavery can be difficult to interpret because of a dearth of information.  Short of archaeology, there is very little information available about the personal life of enslaved individuals.  Things that historic sites usually have available might be the total number of slaves, maybe the assessed value of some people, or even a reference or two in some family letter.

Overall, the information does not lend itself well to telling a human story of those held in slavery.  It reduces people to numbers and statistics.

“Living History through the Eyes of the Enslaved” is an attempt to bring out the human side of slavery.  Rather than focusing on the suffering or statistics, the reenactors/interpreters present the enslaved as the individual, as someone with hopes and dreams and aspirations.  Or as rather than someone whose life is miserable toil, present them as they skilled craftsman many enslaved individuals truly were.  The enslaved could be master blacksmiths, world class chefs,  or master carpenters.  This was a skill they could take ownership in.

Right now The Slave Dwelling Project is the only group that puts on this presentation, but I sincerely hope in the future that more interpreters/reenactors will engage with this type of storytelling.

One of the most amazing things happened when the information was presented in this format.   The audience was fully engaged with the experience of learning about the lives of enslaved individuals.  I would like to further explore this method in future interpretation.

I invite my readers to read the words of the interpreters themselves, and how they view this experience and what it means to them as an individual.


Bringing Historic Places to life with Old Photographs

Not every historic site is fortunate enough to have a plethora of historic photos, but some are. I am fortunate to work at a site that does have many historic photos and a well documented past.

Currently I am working to help bring the story of Hampton to life through the use of historic images, in what I am calling a photo-point tour. I got the idea from seeing images of battlefields overlaid with their current positions.

If you are not aware, Hampton Plantation is very similar to Drayton Hall, as in it is not a restored structure. This is great for telling the story of the home as it developed and revealing its architectural history, but seeing a house with no walls or ceilings can make it feel alien. By and large, visitors go to historic homes to learn about life in a different era; they want to relate their own experiences to those of people living in the past. (ie including the Human Element.)

To help bring some of its people to life, I am finding the location of historic photos throughout the home’s history, and lining up their current day counterparts.

My goal for this is two fold:

  1. It will provide a jumping off point for bringing up different themes in the plantation’s history.
  2. It will provide visitors that small glimpse into a past life, that has largely been erased as time marches on.


Here are two examples I have provided.

The first is Henry Rutledge, the owner of Hampton from 1860 to 1921. Here he is pictured in front of a tree from about 1900, with two deer he has hunted on the property. Henry was something of a character, he was always said to dress as an English sportsman. He would impart a love of hunting to his son Archibald Rutledge, who would make Hampton famous through his numerous poems, short stories, and books.

Henry Rutledge Tree

The second is Will Alston on the front steps of the mansion. The photo appears to be in the 1960s, when the Rutledge family still owned the house. Will was the son of Hampton tenants, and life long resident of Hampton Plantation (b. 1912 d. 1992). When Archibald Rutledge was living at Hampton, it was still a tenant operation, but the Alstons held a special place on the plantation. Will and his mother Sue, would assist Archibald in welcoming guests to the mansion, and after the house became a state entity, Archibald requested that Will be retained as a Park Ranger. He was the first park ranger until he passed away, and many visitors today remember Will and hearing some of his stories.

Will Alston


Has your site ever tried anything like this? Let me know.






Preparing to Be a Lone Ranger

A blog post I wrote for the Emerging History Professionals (part of AASLH) in November of 2016.

Lots of awesome feedback on the AASLH facebook page.

Leadership Matters


It’s been a while since anyone at Leadership Matters was a graduate student or applying for first time jobs. (Back then it was a painfully slow business conducted via the U.S. mail.) But we suspect that in the museum bubble there are some career tropes that persist: You’ll become a museum anthropologist and spend half your time in the field; you’ll be profiled in the New Yorker for your work at a major art museum; your work in interpreting slavery or immigrants will become a model for the field. While we hope your dreams come true, it’s a fact that many newly-minted graduate students’ first job will be as “lone rangers”, serving as historic site managers for small, independent heritage organizations or managing sites for larger county or state agencies.

We were prompted to think all this when we read Robert Wolfe’s Experience Beyond the Classroom. Posted on AASLH’s blog, Wolfe’s…

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What belongs in a historic house museum?

It has been a while since I posted. Life got busy and I got a new job, my first professional public history position with South Carolina Department of Parks  Recreation and Tourism.

Recently, thanks to the fine people of The Anarchist Guide to Historic House Museums, I came across a blog post that was questioning the future of historic house museums, as another institution that would be taken over by political correctness. ( In this case, the author is dismayed that the current interpretation of founding father’s homes focuses on slavery more than their political accomplishments.  She also refers specifically to Fort Hill in Clemson SC, the place where I started my public history career.

She refers specifically to two historic house museums that I am familiar with.  Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello and James Madison’s Montpelier.  In these cases I think there is a disconnect between author expectations and tour delivery.  I know for certain at Monticello there is a museum that does deal with Thomas Jefferson’s political career and life.

Personally I believe the house museum should be a much more intimate tour.  You are walking among the rooms where numerous people created lives, created memories, suffered, ate, drank, danced, etc…  In TJ and JM’s case, their luxurious lives and political accomplishments were only possible through slavery.  For that reason, slavery should play a large role in the house tour.  Slaves were just as much a part of that house as the white owners. The house tour’s purpose is to illustrate daily life (generally), and politics would have taken a back seat to agriculture and leisure pursuits in the big house.

Secondly, many of their great political accomplishments did not occur in their homes.  Generally historic sites focus on specific site history, so it would be more appropriate to learn about Jefferson’s law career in Williamsburg, or his contributions to the Declaration of Independence at Independence Hall in Philadelphia.

The Fort Hill example is a little more interesting.  There is an office in the back of the big house where John Calhoun created some of his most important political thoughts.  However, the lion’s share of his political work revolved around defending slavery as a positive good.  So wouldn’t it make sense that the tour would focus on the lives of those his political work impacted?

As a final note, the author makes the assertion that if Madison had freed his slaves they would simply starve without his benevolence.  Seeing as how there was a sizeable free black population in Virginia in 1820 (40,000, the idea that they would starve is simply ludicrous.

This is just a quick blog post, and I hope to come back at it later to flesh out some of the ideas a bit more.  This does not even begin to discuss how difficult it would be to boil down some Founding Father’s political accomplishments in a 30-40 minute tour.

By telling the story of the enslaved and their role in home life, you are actually telling a more complete story of a founding father’s life, rather than omitting the glorious parts.  Perhaps the author should visit Mount Vernon, which does a fantastic job of separating domestic and political spheres of Washington’s life, with no detail spared!

Interpreting Agriculture at Historic House Museums

I would like to start this blog post by thanking one of my undergraduate professors, Dr. Paul Anderson, for teaching me to always look at the root of word when trying to understand its historic context.

With that in mind, let us consider plantation museums and historic sites that revolve around antebellum plantations.  I remember recently reading an article on History News Network.  The article was partly a review of Edward Baptist’s The Half has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism.  The book is unique in that it reinterprets plantations as “slave labor camps”.  The argument behind the change is that plantation has become too romanticized, and I certainly agree to an extent.  But I do not agree with the name change, for the sole reason that it carries too much baggage from the 20th century.  While I am not lessening the horror of plantation slavery, it has very little in common with North Korean labor camps.

In today’s house museum landscape, the only remaining piece of many antebellum plantation complexes is the grand mansion, often known as the big house.  These finely appointed houses were just the focal point of a massive farming operation.  A plantation is not a house, but because the big house is usually the only place standing the two are often synonymous.

This is where there should be a new focus on interpreting plantation sites.  Rather than just focusing on the house, focus on the plantation as a whole.  The word plantation, as it relates to antebellum plantations, has roots in the 16th century.  People in the 16th century understood plantation to mean factory.  So when interpreting sites, they should be presented as they were understood: factory farms (whether it was rice, tobacco, indigo, cotton, or sugar).

Some places are fortunate enough to have working farm examples (like Mount Vernon or Historic Brattonsville), but many smaller museums only have the house and maybe 1 or 2 outbuildings.  While recently at Hampton Plantation (see my post on visualizing lost history), I was amazed by the remnants of the historic rice fields.  Dikes and flooded fields marked the boundaries where many slaves once toiled in rice production.  However, I was stymied by a lack of interpretative material available.  What was the rice process? Why did it require such a complex network of dikes?  How did this impact the environment (creating artificial mosquito habitats!)? Where did all this rice go?  Hampton is trying to go that direction with new interpretive material, and their efforts should be applauded.

To help visitors understand that a plantation is more than a house, a greater focus should be placed on the farming and production activities (The 1860 Agricultural Census is a great place to start for any plantation or farming museum!)

Some museums may struggle with additional interpretation, particularly if their plantation big house is now in a built up area, it can be much more difficult for visitors to visualize that it was once a working farm.  In this case, there are wide variety of research materials you can draw on to create exhibit material (Historic prints and farming manuals, agricultural records from contemporaries, etc).

This is just a short post, and I would love to see some interpretative materials that push to explain the plantation as a whole unit, not just a house where some people lived.  Expanding the interpretation will provide for more stories (of the African slaves who worked the fields, to overseers, to merchants who dealt with agricultural products) and a better understanding of the plantation economy.



Confederate Iconography

On March 28th, 2016 I had the privilege of participating in AASLH’s webinar, “Grappling with Confederate Monuments and Iconography”, and I wanted to share my opinion on how these monuments should factor into our current cultural landscape.

I would like to begin by saying I agree largely with one of the speakers on the webinar, that it is ultimately up to local communities to decide the fate of their monuments.

However, I think that public historians should play a vital role in this process.

The first step of any debate is to understand why such a monument would exist in the first place, to help the public understand where it came from.  To assist with this, interpretive signage would be a good start, to help explain the history of the lost cause and the history of the statue/monument.  Explaining the culture that created a monument reduces its capacity to memorialize.  It becomes a relic of a different time period.

I believe a good example of using past cultural bias to interpret the present can come from the plaques at the Bear River Massacre site, a situation I read about during my first year of graduate school.  There are two plaques at the site (with a future one planned), with the most controversial being the one placed in 1932 by the Daughters of the Utah Pioneers.  The plaque refers to the massacre as a “battle”, against hostile Shoshone Indians.  The reality of the massacre is that it was a US Army attack on a Shoshone camp, and around 300 men, women, and children were killed.  The Shoshone tribe plans to erect their own monument commemorating the dead.

So what should happen to the existing monument?  As a piece of history, it serves more as an artifact to its own time.  As an actual memorial, it doesn’t have much merit.  But I think it might be important to keep it there, to demonstrate where we have come from.  Perhaps, move it to a less prominent position within the park, but I believe that throwing it away damages our understanding of the past (not of the massacre itself, but how Americans have related to American Indians).

See the original 1932 plaque

I have seen it brought up a few times during this debate, about other societies tearing down statues, with particular references made to the destruction of the George III statue during the American Revolution and the removal of the Saddam Hussein Statue during the Iraq War.  I am not sure these accurately represent

This brings me to my hometown’s own Confederate Monument.  A great history of the monument can be found here .  As far as I know, it has generated no controversy, but that might be because of its location.  While once prominently in downtown, it has since been moved to the outskirts of town to make way for development in the later part of the 20th century.  Perhaps one day the innumerable Confederate monuments will occupy a space similar to Hungary’s Memento Park.  A place dedicated to the toppled statues of Hungary’s communist past.

Perhaps this is the answer.  Move them out of the way, but let them tell the story of the society that produced them.  The question is clearly a complex one, and as mentioned earlier the answer should ultimately come from the local level. I do think it is important for historians to be involved at each level, so that the public has an accurate accounting of our history.





Visualizing lost history

As a life long resident of the South, I have grown up surrounded by historic house museums.  The majority of these are plantation homes, remnants of the Antebellum slave system.  There are a number of publications that deal with the absence of slave history in the “big house” of plantation museums.  However, I have seen less work regarding the interpretation of slave life outside of the big house.

Very few slave structures have survived into the 21st century, owing to their construction and also a lack of preservation concern.  Typically when I have taken a tour, exhibits or tour guides have alluded to slavery outside the big house, usually with “there were slave cabins there” or “slaves worked in fields over there”, but this doesn’t really give an idea of the world slaves occupied outside of the main house.

So to conclude, I was really excited and intrigued by this unique way to give visitors an idea of a slave space.  At the Hampton Plantation State Park in SC, the slave cabins on site are currently being excavated by archaeologists.  This has given the site a nice outline of the slave cabin.  To help visitors visualize the archaeological site into a living space, the park installed a glass etching of what the slave cabin would have looked like.  When standing in the right place, the etching gives the visitor an idea of the size and scale of the slave cabin.  Interesting way to get visitors thinking and also keeps the site a more unique look than a traditional reconstruction project.IMG_0909

Hampton Plantation also has extant rice fields which provide a unique possibility for agricultural interpretation.  I plan to write about it in the future, after I have given some thought to how agriculture has been interpreted at other historic sites I have visited.

What do you guys think?  Have you seen historic sites that interpret slavery outside of the big house?  What did you think about it?