Reinterpreting America’s History
By Kendra Hamilton
Once the home to founding father Thomas Jefferson, today Monticello is one of the nation’s most prized historical sites. It also is among the most popular of Virginia’s tourist attractions, drawing upwards of 500,000 visitors a year.
But, for many African Americans, the word Monticello is a raft of unpleasant associations.
Slaves? Humph, bet the docents call them “servants.” FFVs — those Old South-worshipping “first families of Virginia.” Bet the place is crawling with them.
And what about those “gentleman” historians? Folks like Dr. Merrill D. Peterson, an endowed chair at the University of Virginia who, in 1960, called the enduring story of Jefferson’s slave mistress Sally Hemings a fantasy — “the Negroes’ pathetic wish for a little pride, and their subtle ways of confounding the White folks.”
Gee, what an interesting place. I think I’ll call my travel agent and book a trip right now…
Fortunately, a new breeze is blowing over this Charlottesville, Va., mountaintop.
Last year’s news of DNA evidence purportedly proving that Hemings and Jefferson had at least one son hit the “old guard” at the third president’s shrine with the impact of a category five hurricane. Ironically, the headlines may have overshadowed far more fundamental changes at Monticello. The biggest story that was missed amid the media storm, was that of a quiet, diminutive, almost grandmotherly figure at Monticello — a woman who could always be depended on for a drama-deflating smile or a few words startling for their unflappable common sense.
Her name is Dianne Swann-Wright. She is the first African American hired to a senior staff position at the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation, which owns and operates Monticello. And though her title — director of special programming — is dauntingly vague, Wright is nobody’s “house Negro.” She is the real thing: a potent symbol of change both to an old guard jealous of its inherited privileges and to a yet untapped, and none-too-willing, stream of potential African American visitors.
And Monticello is not the only place experiencing this refreshing breeze.
Earlier this year, Virginia’s Colonial Williamsburg historical site began its “Enslaving Virginia” program, which offers a prickly new spin on Colonial life. The program is a part of a new “inclusiveness” strategy at Colonial Williamsburg, according to Harvey Bakari, manager of African American program development. The historic park has undergone two reorganizations in as many years, both with a view toward “integrating” African American content into all of its programs. The result has been a new visibility for African American interpreters and a headline-grabbing series of programs.
These have drawn a strong response from both visitors and front-line interpreters — especially “The Sword Is Drawn,” which dramatizes the British government’s offer of freedom to slaves who joined the “redcoats” during the American Revolution.
“You’d be surprised at how traumatic this is for some of our White interpretive staff,” Bakari says. And an upcoming program —”Broken Spirit,” a frank depiction of a slave whipping and its aftermath — will likely draw more fire.
But Williamsburg remains committed to the new direction, especially since the controversy hasn’t put a dent in visitorship. About 1.4 million visitors per year buy tickets to the park’s attractions. About 4 percent — or 56,000 — of them are African American. And though that number sounds small, it’s actually a significant improvement.
“How many Black visitors did we have before [Dr.] Rex Ellis started the [Smithsonian Institution’s] African American Interpretation Program in the 1970s?” Bakari pauses a moment to ponder that one: “About zero.”
Zero was most certainly the number of Black visitors drawn to Somerset Place Historic Site in rural Crenshaw, N.C. “And here is the irony about places like Somerset Place,” says Dorothy Spruill Redford, a descendant of Somerset Place slaves and, since 1990, its site manager. “When originally established [as a historic site] by the state, it was designated ‘for Whites only.’ There was a dance hall here and a hunting lodge — for Whites. But just think! This was a plantation with any number of descendants of the people who had built it living [in homes] bordering the site, and they were not allowed on the grounds.”
Those days are long gone at Somerset Place. Redford’s years of independent research — which culminated in a 1986 family reunion of slave descendants and a book treatment in 1988 — have transformed the historic site almost beyond recognition.
The Somerset board now includes descendants of both slave owners and slaves. And even better, “What we’re seeing at Somerset [Place] is Black families, Black church groups, Black summer day schools, camp groups,” Redford says.
They’re drawn by a program that, as at Williamsburg, stresses inclusiveness. Visitors to Somerset Place receive a site orientation and then tour the work areas and slave quarters before ever setting foot in the owner’s house.
The site’s overall visitorship is a fraction of Williamsburg’s — just 25,000. But Redford estimates that 25 percent of the visitors are African American. And now that the “dependencies” — the slave quarters and work areas — are being reconstructed, the numbers may even increase.
Prying Open the Closed Door
You could call them “the Big Four”: Ellis who chairs the division of cultural history at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History; Dr. Robert Watson, now an assistant professor of history at Hampton University; Redford of Somerset Place; and Wright of Monticello.
As central figures in the decades-long transformation of mainstream historic museums, they’ve come to know each other very well. But they’d like the chance to make some new friends.
“Every time Stratford Hall or Gunston Hall or Mount Vernon — all historic sites in Virginia — want to consult with someone or hold a program on African American interpretation issues, they call one of us. Well, we want to share the wealth,” jokes Watson, formerly the head of the African American Interpretation Program at Colonial Williamsburg and now an assistant professor of history at Hampton University.
Of course behind the joshing, he is quite serious — and so are his colleagues — about encouraging African American students to enter museum studies.
“Well, there’s no getting around the facts,” notes Redford, who in addition to her post at Somerset is the author of Somerset Homecoming, a personal memoir-cum-social history that virtually created a new genre of historic writing. The museum field has been closed to African Americans, she says, adding that in some ways, it still is.
Redford cites the example of Florida’s Kingsley Plantation, “which was operated by a Black Wolof woman whose Spanish husband bought the plantation for her back when Florida was part of [Hispaniola]. Would you believe that place doesn’t have one Black person on staff, not even cleaning up?” she asks.
Redford’s outrage that her daughter — a history and foreign affairs graduate (B.A.) of the University of Virginia — is still the only African American professional at the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh is clearly palpable, too. And as happy as she is about her friend Dianne’s new opportunity at Monticello, she’s still distressed that this “first” came so late.
“This is almost the new millennium!” she wails.
Redford finds the situation quite grave, and its gravity was only underlined for her when she collected statistics on Black employment in state cultural resource management for a class she was developing for Elizabeth City State University. The statistics were absolutely abysmal, she says.
Combing over the dismal data also made her realize that, “Historically Black institutions trained people for fields that they knew they’d be able to find employment in: education, medicine, dentistry, pharmacy. They knew good and well that [the museum] field was closed, especially in the South.”
But that was then, and this is now.
Now, the “new social history” has forever broken the lock the “dead White men” approach once had on historiography. The African American Interpretation Program pioneered at Colonial Williamsburg by Ellis and carried forward by Watson has shaken up the safe, smug little world of Southern historic house museums. Bookshelves now groan with the weight of volumes that follow the Somerset Homecoming model — including last year’s National Book Award winner, Slaves in the Family, by former Village Voice columnist Edward Ball. And, if Wright’s appointment is any indication, even Virginia’s sacred Monticello — home of founding father Thomas Jefferson — is demonstrating a firm commitment to the new social history model, a sure sign that the status quo in the museum world has begun to shift.
Black Colleges Seize New Opportunities
All of this activity in the museum and historical sites community has compelled historically Black universities to take a second look at the museum field, as signaled by two programs – one old and one new.
Hampton University began offering master’s degrees in museum studies in 1984, says Vanessa Thaxton-Ward, curator of history and director of membership and community programs at the Hampton University Museum. Since 1986, the program has graduated 36 students who are currently working in a variety of fields at locations such as the Schomburg, the Smithsonian, and Birmingham’s Civil Rights Museum – and of course, Hampton’s as well.
But for a particularly bold, new approach, one would have to look to the Museum Fellows Program, which kicked off in 1994 with a $300,000 grant from Cola-Cola Foundation. Dr. Billie Gaines was wooed from the board of directors of the Atlanta Historical Society to head up the program. And under the auspices of the AHS’s Atlanta History Center, Gaines put together a model program.
“When African Americans approach the gatekeepers in careers from which they’ve traditionally been excluded, they’re hit with three questions,” Gaines says, adding the questions function as locks — “and unless you’ve got keys to all the locks, the doors stay closed.” The questions are: What do you know? What’s your job experience? Who do you know?
Gaines’ graduates — 19 thus far — have soared through all the locked doors onto careers that, even in their beginning stages, can only be called stellar. They’ve gone on to graduate programs at Seton Hall, Stanford, and Columbia universities. One recent grad designed the Atlanta History Center’s exhibit in the international concourse of Atlanta-Hartsfield Airport. Others have interned at Sotheby’s, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Smithsonian, then moved on to art acquisitions posts at Goldman Sachs, J.P. Morgan, and the Studio Museum of Harlem.
Not surprisingly, the Museum Fellows Program is going national next year. The Atlanta, Chicago, and Minnesota historical societies will sponsor 18 students next year — 11 African American, three Hispanic Americans, two Asian Americans, and two Native Americans.
“And I thought I’d have to beat the bushes to find students,” Gaines chuckles. “But people are dying to enter this field.”
These are encouraging words for people like Ellis . “[African Americans] really need to be in this field,” he says — and his work as chair of the division of cultural history for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History gives him a particularly broad perspective from which to explain why.
“Museums hold the patrimony of America,” Ellis says. “Museums are the place where our ‘stuff’ is: where the things we believe, the ideas we champion, the struggles we fight, the unions we form, all that stuff is here. And years from now, when you and I are gone, what this museum [the Smithsonian] and others like it choose to collect, choose to exhibit, choose to showcase as their representation of America will live on. And if we are not here, in these museums, what they collect will be their perspective of what’s important, not our perspective.”
And to begin a career in the field, it’s not even necessary that one have a background in museum work. “All you really need is a passion for history, especially state or local history, because this is where we often don’t see our history being discussed,” Ellis says.
His advice could be boiled down to three words: Just do it.
“One of the ways to get in the front door is simply to begin doing the research. And then you can find all kinds of ways to partner with your local institutions. This is something that can be done even at the level of a college or high school student — or even as a volunteer,” he says.
The idea is a simple, if revolutionary, one. It’s only by getting involved, by seizing ownership, that museums can be made accountable for what they give to the public. That’s exactly what Redford did at Somerset Place. She began by trying to answer her daughter’s questions about from where their family came. She ended up running the historic site where her family was enslaved. Subsequently, her work has broadened the audience that Somerset serves.
Watson maintains that Redford’s and Wright’s successes can be repeated in communities all over America.
“There’s been a Black presence in every region of this country, particularly in the South and the Midwest, but in the West as well,” he says. “Not only do we have a right to tell these stories, but we do our ancestors honor by articulating things about the past that they weren’t able to articulate.”
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