[I decided to share my notes from conferences I attend in the hope that people with similar interests (archives, history, the Atlantic world, digital humanities) will find these notes useful. I was inspired to do so by my good friend Dr. Laurie Taylor, who in her blog often posts notes of papers, articles, and books that she reads, wanting to share references and quotes.]
This past June, I gave a presentation at the “Transforming Public History from Charleston to the Atlantic World” conference, organized by the Carolina Lowcountry and Atlantic World (CLAW) Program at the College of Charleston. More on this presentation in a post currently…under construction.
The following are notes from the conference sessions, workshops, and lectures that spanned 3 days, from June 14 to June 17, 2017. It is certainly not a complete report of the conference, just my own ‘reading’ of it.
The conference “examined the ways that violent encounters, power struggles, cultural exchanges, labor systems, and economic ties in the Atlantic world starting at the fifteenth century became ever more complex and globally intertwined, producing distinctive race, class, and gender experiences and hierarchies. Its aim was to ask the following questions: “How have cultural heritage institutions, public historians, scholars, artists, activists, filmmakers, and educators in various international regions engaged with and depicted the diverse histories of the Atlantic World? How have these representations changed over time, and how will they continue to change in the twenty-first century?”
The conference started out with a series of workshops. I attended the workshop “Historical Documentation and the African American Experience,” led by Schmoburg Center archivists Miranda Mims and Steven G. Fullwood. The workshop focused on collecting diverse and sometimes unexpected archival sources primary sources for uncovering African American stories, and making them more accessible to a wider public. Insurance companies slavery era policies (now housed at Schomburg) were such unexpected records, containing names of enslaved individuals insured by their owners. Today, a database with data from these ledgers has been created by the California Insurance Department, available also through Ancestry. Another resource mentioned was “In Motion: The African-American Migration Experience.” A variety of other topics came up during discussion among workshop participants. Discussing community archives: items in them are more important for their communities, rather than the institutions holding them. Sometimes, such items are handled by many “irrelevant” people and ‘hands’, while people who are directly related to these items do not even know that they exist. On Deriving names from records: names are not necessarily always correct, it depends who writes them down. On search engines: they can narrow things down, and also leave things out. On Wikipedia and archives: Wikipedia can make archives more findable. It can also provide a useful skillset for students through their involvement in Wikipedia projects.
Dorothy J. Berry, Umbra Search Digitization and Metadata Lead at the University of Minnesota Libraries, presented on Umbra Search and discussed enhancing metadata and archival description at the folder level in order to make clear the relevancy of aggregated material for African American History.
Kerric Harvey, George Washington University, presented on using ethnographic theater to address America’s racial divide. One of her comments on feelings and emotions made me think about the line of work we archivists are in. She said that “you can never change a feeling through a fact, even if you bombarded someone with hundreds of facts. You can only change a feeling with another feeling. Thinking through somebody else’s perspective, we take it to the human level.”
My presentation was on archival work completed with the Barbados Synagogue Restoration Project records, and the possibilities that this offers to do further research into slavery and the Atlantic world. More on this presentation soon.
Mariaelena DiBenigno, College of William and Mary, discussed “Interpreting Ruins: Legacies of Ensavement at the Menokin Glass House.” “Should these buildings be allowed to ruin? How do we use them to tell uninterogated histories? How do we work with the ruins, in order to connect them with our mission?”
Jessica Irwin, South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology, presented about “Maritime Archaeology from Slave Ships to Rice Boats: Reflecting on South Carolina’s Underwater Archaeological Record and its Representation of Enslaved Life.”
Jason Young, SUNY Buffalo, presented about “The Slaves Who were Ourselves”: Public History, Race, and Slavery in Post-Postracial America.” Some points from his lyrical, quasi-poetic presentation: “Blacks cast our shadows that haunt the West.” “Slaves were central to the creation and development of modernity and the rise of capitalism.” “Sites of public memory have migrated on smartphones.” “While building new archives, we are losing our archives to social media.”
In his introduction of the Thursday morning plenary session speakers, Simon Lews, Department of English at the College of Charleston and one of the co-conveners of the conference, defined the Atlantic as not a set of events, but ideas and people circulating and of memories on the move.” “Images of the past are memorialized in the language of monuments.” “Use history not only for public history purposes, but as a way to affect public policies.”
Rex Ellis, Smithsonian Institute National Museum of African American History and Culture, admonished that we need to be open to underrepresented groups. To listen more than talk. Such underrepresented communities “don’t care how much you know, but that you listen.”
Kristin O’Brassill-Kulfan, Rutgers University, presented on “Silent Histories, Public Audiences: Using Archives and Exhibitions to Introduce Challenging Subjects.”
Presenters in the panel titled “Drayton Hall: A Changing, Evolving, and Expanding Landscape of Interpretation” discussed the subtleties of the idea of power: the ability to do something vs the idea of dominance over someone. Through the case study of the Drayton plantation, they presented plantations as the juxtaposing of magnificent architecture and the labor of people who built them, and thus how race and power is reflected in the ornaments, bricks, etc.
Mari Carpenter, independent public historian, and Rev. Jerry Colbert (John Wesley UM Church) presented on the “Singing and Praying Bands of Maryland and Delaware.” The oral histories with elders of the community and the video excerpts of the singing-praying bands made this a very intimate, powerful presentation. Although culturally I have no connection to the Methodist church and its patterns of worship, the presentation was utterly mesmerizing, and made me cry. I left my notebook aside, and here rather than facts, I convey feelings.
Paul Sivitz, Idaho State University, presented on “African Americans in 1790s Philadelphia: Land of the Free and the Home of the Slave.” He discussed the project mappinghistoricphiladelphia.org and insights gained from a spatial understanding of residential data on the map.
The day ended with a keynote lecture by Dr. Lonnie Bunch III, Director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum for African American History and Culture. The lecture was given in the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, and coincided with the second anniversary of the tragic shooting. Dr. Bunch gave a captivating talk in front of a full-house, speaking about the role of the historian making the past ‘useful and usable’.
Alisea McLeod, Rust College, spoke about “Toward Archival Justice: Charleston Contraband Registers.” In the context of Archival Justice, she presented the following principle: “Publication or digitization of sensitive historical information should be preceded by organized consideration of social impact and consideration of appropriate media.” Mentions the Eaton-Bailey-Williams Freedpeople’s Digitization Project. She then read out aloud 63 name of slaves in Bass plantation of whom only first names exist. She reads them as a way of calling them out and remembering them. McLeod argues that by cross-listing these contraband records with other records (e.g., Registers of Freedmen; Freedmen’s Bureau Bank records etc.) you can get back a more complete view of history. Bank records asked questions such as what plantation a slave was from, the owner’s name, and many times it cites parents or sibling names. Thus they can be valuable sources for genealogical research. Cross-referencing: information multiplies, and then we can go beyond the “1870 wall” of African American genealogy. Alisea’s closing comment was: “Having the names of your ancestors back would be one aspect of archival justice that goes beyond reparation to promote family restoration.”
Angela Sutton, Vanderbilt University, presented about “Revitalizing the Digital Archive of Ecclesiastical and Secular Sources for Slave Societies.” The digital archive holds records of 4-6 million slaves not only from the US but also from Cuba, Cape Verde or other Caribbean countries. There are records even from the 15th century. Catholic priests documented everything about slaves (baptisms, marriages, any disputes with the ‘owners’ and so on), so there is a lot of information, not simply names. A lot of thought has gone into what categories to encode so that search will benefit best people who are looking for their enslaved ancestors. Angela also discussed Matrix at MSU: Project PAST [People of the Slave Trade] database. Super database that can search across databases and promotes interoperability.
During the brown bag lunch, there was a presentation about the International African American Museum in Charleston, the port of arrival for nearly half of all African captives that were carried to North America.
In the afternoon, a team of presenters (Mary Barr, Clemson University; Kiara Boone, Equal Justice Initiative; Iva Carruthers, Northeastern Illinois University; Ronnie Galvin, We Say Enough; Francis Guerrier, Kenyon College; Doria Johnson, University of Wisconsin-Madison; Thee Smith, Emory University) discussed “How do we build collaborations among historic sites, museums, cultural centers, academic institutions, community organization, and local stakeholders to address underrepresented histories in the Atlantic world.” Some of the comments in the panel: “Narrative and consciousness are another dimension of power.” “By putting up markers of historical incidents (e.g., lynchings) not only serve to document these spaces, but as a way to prevent people from cowering away from an unpleasant past.” “Commemorating gives relief from trauma.” “How to create social justice: a) Create proximity, b) Develop counter narrative, c) Maintain hope, 4) Become uncomfortable.”
This was an amazing conference with lots of great presentations and opportunities for networking with colleagues working on the Atlantic world. The interesting, stimulating conversations taking place both at the conference, as well as social times, reinforced the theme of the conference: that the diverse histories of the Atlantic world are indeed complex and intertwined and each cannot be fully understood without positioning it in the web of ties spanning geography and time. The conference certainly planted seeds for future collaborations (and some good friendships) among scholars, researchers, and practitioners from diverse disciplines.