Tag Archives: slavery

Jamestown Settlement’s new museum is excellent

One of the things I really wanted to do while in the Historic Triangle was see the new museum exhibit at Jamestown Settlement.  Technically, the exhibit isn’t that new; it opened in time for the 400th anniversary of Jamestown’s founding.  But it was still under construction last time I was there, so I’m going by NBC’s logic.  If I haven’t seen it, it’s new to me.

Just to make sure we’re all on the same page, Jamestown Settlement is distinct from “Historic Jamestowne,” the NPS-run site of the original colony that we visited in the last post.  JS is a living history museum next door to the historic site, operated by the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation and the Commonwealth of Virginia along with Yorktown Victory Center. The old JS museum was extremely impressive, so I had really high hopes for the new exhibits.  I wasn’t at all disappointed.  They really knocked it out of the park.  The new galleries merit a good half-day of touring on their own, besides the reconstructed Powhatan village, colonial fort, and ships that make up the rest of the site.  I spent about four hours inside, and probably could’ve stayed longer.  You can’t take pictures in the galleries, so I don’t have any pics, but you can see some of the artifacts by clicking here.

The tour starts with an introduction to the three cultures that collided in colonial Virginia: American Indian, English, and African.  Museum figures, reconstructed dwellings, and artifacts offer a glimpse at the material cultures of these three groups, their religious beliefs, their forms of government, their languages, and the ways they earned a living. You then move on to early modern Europe’s maritime development and the motives for English colonization, including a look at the investors who made up the Virginia Company.  You’ll meet some of the most important figures in Jamestown’s early history, check out the types of things the first colonists brought with them, and get a glimpse at a couple of items supposedly given to Pocahontas on her visit to England.  Interactive maps demonstrate the spread of white settlement and the loss of Powhatan territory over the years.

The sections on Virginia’s development into a plantation society are particularly strong.  The exhibit covers the emergence of the tobacco colony, the importance of Atlantic trade, the changes in Virginia’s government, and the impact of the shift toward slave labor on African material culture.

Whereas the exhibits at the NPS site focus on excavated objects, the JS galleries’ strength is seventeenth-century Anglo-American furniture, art, and personal belongings.  I had no idea that the foundation’s artifact collections were so extensive, but there are hundreds of original items on display.  The galleries feature audiovisual elements and immersive environments, too, but each gizmo and set piece serves a purpose.  You don’t get the gratuitous overuse of technology and effects for their own sake that mar some big-budget exhibits.  The museum strikes a good balance between original objects and interpretive artistry.  You can walk along a ca. 1600 English city street, step inside a Powhatan home, and look around the bedroom of a wealthy planter, but there are plenty of exhibit cases full of original objects.

My favorite piece of audiovisual gimmickry is in the first gallery, where handsets allow you to hear spoken dialects similar to those of the Powhatans, Africans, and English who made up seventeenth-century Virginia’s population.  (By the way, if you think Jamestown’s English settlers sounded like modern-day Shakespearean thespians, you’re in for a surprise.)

The exhibit is so comprehensive that any visitor who spends a few hours inside should get a pretty solid overview of Virginia’s seventeenth-century history and its larger Atlantic setting.  Whether you want to see artifacts, experience some modern museum showmanship, or get a grounding in the subject matter before heading over to the NPS site, you’ll get your money’s worth.

Now I’m even more excited to see what’s in store when the foundation’s new museum opens at Yorktown next year.

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Filed under Colonial America, Museums and Historic Sites

Suggestions wanted on sources for the US Navy’s war on the slave trade

I’m taking a seminar on African history this semester, and we’re supposed to write a substantial research paper on a topic in which Africa intersects with our own area of research.

Inspired by my visit to the USS Constellation a few months ago, I thought I might look into the US Navy’s suppression of the slave trade in the Civil War era, maybe examining how this activity changed between the Buchanan and Lincoln administrations or something along those lines.

So here’s a question for you naval history folks out there.  What sources would you suggest?  I know where to go to find presidential documents, but I want to see what the Navy itself was doing, and if possible get some accounts from the sailors who were confronting the slave trade in person to see how they felt about it.  Help a landlubber like me get started.

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Filed under Civil War, Graduate School

Yes, the Lincolns had servants…but not slaves

You hate to generalize about people, but modern apologists for the Confederacy tend to be really, really bad at using primary sources.  As Andy Hall once said while discussing a particularly hilarious example, “Forget interpretation. Forget analysis. Forget trying to understand the document within the context of the time and place it was written; these people don’t even seem capable of reading the documents they cite.”

Now Brooks Simpson has drawn our attention to the latest instance of a neo-Confederate trying to make sense of a document and failing spectacularly.  If you haven’t seen it yet, it’s a doozy.

Over at Cold Southern Steel, a diligent researcher and defender of Southron Heritage presented what he believed to be evidence that Lincoln had a slave.  This supposed evidence had been hiding in plain sight in the 1860 U.S. census, but had apparently gone unnoticed for lo these 150 years.

Here’s a close-up of the census list which was posted to Cold Southern Steel.  As you can see, it indeed names one Abraham Lincoln of Springfield, IL, occupation “Lawyer,” along with the members of his household.

Lincoln Household

Included in the list is “M. Johnson,” an eighteen-year-old female.  Her occupation?

“Servant.”

So right there it is, proof that Abraham Lincoln had a “servant” in 1860.  Ergo Lincoln was a slaveowner.  Right?

Well, no.  “M. Johnson” was not a slave.  She was Mary Johnson, a free white girl employed by the Lincolns.

In this context, “servant” doesn’t mean an enslaved person.  It’s a job description.  In the nineteenth century, many middle-class families employed young women and girls as house servants, often on a live-in basis.  A lot of these women were immigrants from Ireland or Germany.  In Springfield, about one-fourth of the homes had hired help of this kind around the time Lincoln lived there.

As a prospering family headed by a respectable lawyer, the Lincolns employed several women over the years, some of them as live-in servants.  For example, eighteen-year-old Catharine Gordon was working and living with the Lincolns in 1850, and appears in the census for that year.  In 1860, the same year that Mary Johnson turned up in the census, Mary Todd Lincoln employed a Portuguese teenager named Charlotte Rodruiguis as a seamstress.  A woman named Margaret Ryan claimed that she witnessed some of Mary Todd Lincoln’s worst behavior during her employment in the house, although the chronology behind her claims is iffy.  (Richard Lawrence Miller discusses the Ryan evidence in the third volume of Lincoln and His World.)  These women and girls were not slaves bound to work for life.  They were not the property of the people in whose homes they worked.

Now, here’s the really funny part.  The proof that Mary Johnson was a free woman is right there in the 1860 census, the very source being offered as evidence that she was a slave.  In other words, the problem here is that the blogger in question simply doesn’t know how to read the document.

Here’s the page in question.

1860 Census Lincoln

 

See the very top, where it says “SCHEDULE 1.—Free Inhabitants”?

Free Inhabitants

That’s sort of an indicator that all the folks in that list were, you know, free inhabitants of Springfield.  The 1860 census counted slaves separately.  You’re not going to find any slaves officially listed in a census list of free inhabitants.

Of course, you’re not likely to find many slaves documented in the census lists for Illinois at all, since Illinois was a free state.  (Funny thing you’ll notice about slave states and free states: the slave states tended to be the ones with slaves.  An interesting coincidence, that.  You know how Peanut M&M’s are the ones with peanuts, whereas the plain M&M’s are the ones without them?  It runs somewhat along those same lines.)

Now, check out the very bottom of the list, where all the individuals are tallied up by race and gender.

Race Inhabitants

Twenty-six white males, fourteen white females.  All forty people on the page present and accounted for, and each one of them white.  This list does not include any African-American residents of Springfield, let alone enslaved ones.  Incidentally, the Lincolns did employ a free black woman named Mariah Vance as a cook and laundress a couple of days a week for ten years.

Now, just because these women and girls were free doesn’t mean their lives were all beer and skittles.  By many accounts, Mary Todd Lincoln was an absolute Gorgon as a boss, difficult to please and tight-fisted.  She was particularly critical of Irish girls—the “wild Irish,” as she referred to them in a letter to a relative.  According to the NPS, Mary Johnson was of Irish background herself, so she was probably on the receiving end of Mrs. Lincoln’s temper at one time or another.  (For information on Mary Todd Lincoln’s domestic help, check out Jean Baker’s fine biography, pp. 105-08).

But the women and girls who worked for the Lincolns were not chattel slaves, and were not the family’s property, despite the fact that they worked in the home and sometimes lived there.

There’s a lot of neat information to unpack in that list of names.  It shows us a time when middle-class Americans were very conscious of their status, when hired help was an indicator of that status, and when working in someone else’s home was the fate of many a young European-born immigrant girl.  It tells us a lot about the Lincoln family’s economic and social circumstances, about how they saw themselves and wanted to be seen by others.  It offers us a glimpse of a world somewhat similar to our own, but also strikingly different in terms of the way people conceived of their ranks and roles.

But it doesn’t show us evidence of slavery, and it takes a spectacularly negligent misreading to make it say otherwise.  Primary sources are wonderful things, but only if you know how to make sense of them.

UPDATE: Now the guy is claiming that he never said the Lincolns had slaves, despite the fact that he titled his post “Lincoln and his slave.”

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A slave cemetery study and a TSM exhibit

Next year the Tennessee State Museum is mounting an exhibit on slavery at the Wessyngton plantation, which at one point was the largest farm in the entire state and the biggest tobacco-producing plantation in the country.  Archaeologists from UT have been studying the plantation’s slave cemetery, site of some 200 burials, as part of the preparation for the exhibit.  USA Today has the details.  Looks like it’ll be an interesting display.

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Filed under Archaeology, Museums and Historic Sites, Tennessee History

The exceptional Solomon Northup

I saw 12 Years a Slave the other day, and it’s a darn good movie—certainly the most visceral onscreen depiction of the peculiar institution I’ve ever seen, rivaling the harrowing slave ship scenes from Amistad.

One reason the film is so powerful is because Solomon Northup makes for an especially relatable protagonist. Anyone who’s thought about the history of American slavery has probably sympathized with the people who were victims of it, but sympathy for someone is not the same as identification with them. Identification requires you to be able to see yourself in a character, and living your whole life as someone else’s property is so foreign to the experience of most modern Americans that it’s difficult to put yourself in that place.

Northup wasn’t born into slavery; he had his freedom, a home, and a family before losing it all when he was abducted. You can see yourself in him. And in the movie, he’s thrown into this brutal new reality at the same time you are. You’re on his journey alongside him, and that lends the experience a special kind of impact.

Of course, if Northup’s exceptionalness makes him a useful surrogate in approaching the subject of slavery, it also means that we have to remind ourselves of how atypical his story is. Most slaves were born into bondage, lived their entire lives in that condition, and died without publishing their stories. Peter Malamud Smith explains the dilemma:

It’s just so hard for us to identify with “the regular slaves,” in whatever form they may take. 12 Years a Slave is constructed as a story of a man trying to return to his family, offering every viewer a way into empathizing with its protagonist. Maybe we need a story framed on that individual scale in order to understand it. But it has a distorting effect all the same. We’re more invested in one hero than in millions of victims; if we’re forced to imagine ourselves enslaved, we want to imagine ourselves as Northup, a special person who miraculously escaped the system that attempted to crush him.

In other words, this individual’s story can’t take the place of millions of other slaves’ untold stories. But it more than compensates by reminding us, as few other slave narratives can, that behind each of those untold stories was an individual.

Northup as depicted in his book, via Wikimedia Commons

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Filed under History and Memory

Various items worthy of note

  • I can’t believe I forgot to mention this until now, but it’s time for John Sevier Days Living History Weekend at Marble Springs State Historic Site in Knoxville, TN.  The action starts tomorrow and continues through Sunday—reenacting, demonstrations, food, and presentations on the Lost State of Franklin and King’s Mountain.  It’ll be a blast, so stop by if you get the chance.
  • While we’re talking about Marble Springs, let me also recommend a great way to support the site and get some nifty benefits for yourself.  Join the Governor John Sevier Memorial Association and you’ll get free admission when you visit, discounts on gift shop items, access to special events, and more.  Memberships start at just $25.
  • Late September-early October is King’s Mountain season.  If you can’t make it to Knoxville for the Marble Springs event, there’s another option for those of you in southwestern Virginia.  On Sunday, Abingdon Muster Grounds is hosting Sharyn McCrumb, who will read from her new novel about the battle.  They’ll also have living history demonstrations and the unveiling of a new painting of William Campbell, whose unit marched from Abingdon to Sycamore Shoals to meet the other Overmountain Men.
  • Some Connecticut parents are quite understandably upset over a school function where students got a taste of slavery…including the racial slurs.  What.  Were.  They.  Thinking?
  • Here’s a Rev War infographic from 1871.
  • Some folks are working to preserve the area around Kettle Creek battlefield in Georgia.
  • A supplementary AP history text is drawing criticism for the way it refers to the Second Amendment.
  • Next time you’re driving through Shepherdsville, KY keep an eye out for the new John Hunt Morgan mural on an underpass along Old Preston Highway.

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Filed under American Revolution, Appalachian History, Civil War, History and Memory, Museums and Historic Sites, Teaching History, Tennessee History

New slavery museum on the horizon?

There’s a plan in the works to build a National Slave Ship Museum in New Orleans, and it’s getting some support from the city council.

Speaking of slavery museums, the folks behind the National Slavery Museum in Fredericksburg, VA are trying to figure out how to keep their site from being sold to make way for a stadium.  The facility still hasn’t been built, and they’re so deep in the red they might have to file for bankruptcy again.

I wonder if the Fredericksburg fiasco will make it harder to find donors for the slave ship project.  I hope not.  There’s been a trend toward more experiential exhibits in some of the big history museums lately, and I think the Atlantic slave trade is a subject where that could really be effective.

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