Summer of ‘64… We drove our old, woodie Mercury three-seater, oil-burning station wagon with a one-wheeled trailer piled high with a family-of-six’s earthly belongings in tow, across the continent from Fresno, California, to Waxhaw, North Carolina–the birth place of Andrew Jackson and Billy Graham. (That one-wheeled trailer turned out to be a very poor choice —stranded us in the dessert on Route 66 one flat tire after another…but that is another story.)
We did indeed cross a continental divide. There was much culture shock for this soon to be 8th grader. It wasn’t that life in California’s Central Valley in the 60’s was sophisticated—visualize Ron Howard in the movie American Graffiti (which was set in Bakersfield not Fresno, so just picture grapes and irrigation canals rather than oil wells)–but the southern Piedmont region of the Tar Hill State would be nearly as much an eye-opener as living among the Mayan Indians in Chiapas, Mexico had been for our family two years before…
We didn’t like being called Yankees–we were “westerners”—and we didn’t take kindly that more than one filling station in Mississippi and Alabama, seeing our California plates, would not pump gas for us. We were not “Freedom Riders”–but missionaries…
The Appalachian Mountains were very pretty …the rolling red clay hills of the Piedmont on their eastern slope, much less so. An unpaved gravel road (and another flat tire) led us at last to our “Tara”: the Belk Department Stores founder’s ancestral home, “The Walkup House had been loaned to the missionaries as a group house.
I knew a Southern plantation when I saw one…white with columns, tall on a hill, big enough for four missionary families … and I easily recognized the three little slave cabins still standing on the edge of the woods behind it, half overgrown with kudzu. One of these slave cabins (the farthest one) would become my own private adolescent retreat, not quite100 years after the end of the Civil War…I mean “The War Between the States”…
Summer of ’71–Seven years (a nice biblical length of time) after discovering the South, I rode into Old Deerfield to discover New England. Many of the giant elms were still shading the old main street. I loved the astonishingly beautiful houses, church, and the park-like Common with its War of the Great Rebellion Monument…and of course, Memorial Hall Museum of the Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association with its famous “Old Indian House Door” from “the massacre.” I little knew then that I would later move to Deerfield and spend 35 years as PVMA’s director.
I was in Deerfield as a Heritage Foundation Summer Fellow (now Historic Deerfield Fellowship Program) to study New England history and to be introduced to the museum profession. It was the “whitest” place I had ever been, with perhaps the exception of DuPage County, Illinois, where I had attended Wheaton College. There were literally no people of color in Deerfield that summer. And even with a summer-long, focused academic study on Deerfield history, there was no reference at all to enslaved or free African Americans. So it was with the other illustrious New England museums I visited as part of the fellowship program. Those entrusted with the sacred responsibility of “keeping” history had lost track of New England’s slaves. They had forgotten this part of their history. I returned to the Mid-West still ignorant that there had been slaves in New England from its very founding.
The South will not let you forget slavery. New England has a problem remembering it.
The South’s physical and cultural landscape, oral traditions, and large African American presence, along with the wider American popular myths keep public awareness of Southern slavery alive. New England has reasons to forget. Largely I think we are embarrassed. Our superiority as New Englanders around slavery is a popular, comforting, myth. It is hard to “eat crow” and admit to a troubling past.
“The tendency to ignore the Negro’s contribution to American life is as old as the earliest history books and as contemporary as the morning’s newspaper,” stated Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He also said, “Before the pen of Jefferson etched the majestic words of the Declaration of Independence across the pages of history, we were here.”
Until recently, the history of African American members of New England towns in the earliest periods of the 17th and 18th centuries has been a casualty of what Benedict Anderson referred to as “characteristic amnesia.” As Joanne Pope Melish points out in her compelling study, Disowning Slavery, the process of “erasure by whites” in the 19th century of the history of local enslavement in communities like Deerfield diminished a complex social and economic landscape that included enslaved Africans, white European settlers, and Native Americans. Scholars have been working for twenty years studying this topic, but the story has not gotten out. The public needs to know.
Fortunately, a confluence of factors is making possible current efforts by PVMA staff and other historians to reconstitute African American life in an early New England community and to share that history with the general public. These include extremely well-documented individuals and town history, the interest and energy of local citizens like Bob Romer, author of the recent book Slavery in the Connecticut Valley of Massachusetts, and others serving on an advisory committee, and grants from MassHumanities and the National Park Service among others. Court records, account books, medical records, and journals are helping us to recover, through tantalizing glimpses and often remarkable detail, the lives of people whose very presence has until recently been little known or recognized.
Taking a cue from Dr. King, PVMA started with a simple “we were here” approach. Under the leadership of our curator, Suzanne L. Flynt, a plaque designed by an African American artist was added to the European and Native American plaques in the museum’s Memorial Room. At that same time, through an anonymous gift, we were able to create a map documenting African American sites throughout Old Deerfield. If you visit PVMA’s educational website at http://www.AmericanCenturies.mass.edu you will find our initial work, an annotated map that identifies 23 specific sites up and down the historic street, with a little nugget of the history on specific enslaved or free African American persons. The map can be printed off the website. A commercially printed walking tour version of the map will be available next year.
Establishing African American presence at specific geographical locations is an important step, but how do you “map” the invisible context of their lives, including the day-to-day interrelations of slaves and free blacks with the larger community? Those slave cabins next door to the “big house” down South make compelling visual statements about the relationship of owner and slave. New England towns like Deerfield, in contrast, lack a Gone with the Wind Tara or slave quarters to readily illustrate New England slavery. The surviving mansions of New England men who made their fortunes in the slave trade or the related slave economy have no visible slave “reminders” lingering next door. (An exception that proved the rule is Ten Hills Farm, a six hundred acre estate in Medford, MA with its slave quarters intact. Ten Hills Farm is the title of a very interesting new book subtitled “The Forgotten History of Slavery in the North” by C.S. Manegold. Ms. Manegold, who teaches at Mt. Holyoke College, has agreed to join those working with us on the Deerfield project.)
Dr. Barbara Mathews and Dr. Darlene Marshall, coordinators of our project, recently returned from Oklahoma City where they jointly presented with Kristin Gallas (Director of Education for the recent film Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North) and two other museums on “Interpreting Slavery and the Slave Trade at Historic Sites in the North” at the national meeting of the American Association for State and Local History.
As part of their presentation Barbara and Darlene used strands of yarn to visually represent the wide “web” of relationships a slave might have that extended beyond his or her owner. They chose one Deerfield slave, Titus, for whom we have numerous citations in various sources. As Darlene read each reference to Titus’ activities, Barbara extended a strand of yarn to a volunteer who held a placard identifying the specific Deerfield resident who had interacted with Titus in some way. When all fourteen references had been read, each volunteer held up their individual strand of yarn to reveal that Titus was at the center of a complex social and economic web of community connections. This simple activity reinforced the point that an enslaved person’s presence and impact on their community extended well beyond his or her relationship with an individual owner.
Our present challenge is to translate this contextual history of slavery into our walking tour. Our new approach is to design an iPad based version of the map. This approach will allow us to use creative graphic design and links to additional visuals and text to address larger themes of African Americans in an early rural New England community. Over the next couple of years PVMA will be presenting a number of public events and launches of new web products on early African American history. Watch for them. It is a fascinating story.