Links to students’ digital projects are embedded in this post.
James Oliver Horton, the great scholar of African American History, often said “African American history is AMERICAN history.” There is no need to distinguish among the pasts created and experienced by Americans of any ethnicity, race, gender, or status.
Yet, slavery remains difficult for public history sites to interpret fully, as an institution that was central to the American economy and formative for the American people.
During the fall of 2014, public history students at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, studied the literature on slavery in public history, identified common problems in the way slavery has been interpreted at historic sites, and sought to develop new frameworks that might engage audiences in a meaningful conversation about the historical significance and contemporary relevance of slavery in American social, cultural, and political life.
Working with archivists from the Maryland State Archives, and guided by a variety of experts in the field of public history, sixteen students created thirteen StoryMaps exploring the struggle over slavery and freedom as it played out on the border between Maryland and Pennsylvania.
Taken as a whole, their projects reveal two core strategies for interpreting slavery.
First , the projects seek to identify slavery as part of a useable past. In their watershed study of public history audiences, Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen found that people visit historic sites, read works of history, see documentaries, and otherwise explore the past because they recognize it as a well of experience. They look to the past for models they can use to help them address contemporary problems and concerns. With this in mind, students developed interpretations that illuminated ways in which the history of slavery can be relevant for those who wish to understand, discuss, and engage in contemporary social and political culture.
Second, the projects are determined to emphasize the human experience of slavery. Too often, the interpretation of slavery at historic sites is abstract and uncomplicated. Visitors may hear about “slaves” or “servants.” They may learn about the slave trade. But, typically, they are exposed to slavery as an abstract institution, and they are not invited to recognize enslaved people as active agents in American history. With this in mind, students told stories about people whose choices and actions shaped the landscape of slavery and freedom.
Some students were most interested in crafting a useable past. Michael Stone recounts the 1851 kidnapping of Rachel and Elizabeth Parker to raise questions about the relationship of political borders to human rights. Gregory Williams documents the methods by which Quakers opposed to slavery gradually forced their community of faith to renounce the practice, and he draws attention to their use of non-violent forms of protest and pressure. Talbot Mayo analyzes the way newspapers in free and slave states reported the escape and recapture of Thomas Mitchell, making plain the ways in which real people’s complicated lives can be lost under the weight of political maneuvering and propaganda. Stephanie Smith views the War of 1812 from the perspective of enslaved people, demonstrating that a shift in perspective can help build empathy. David Barbato crafts a biography of John Needles, encouraging doubts about whether or not small acts of protest are sufficient to address deeply institutionalized inequalities. Sidrah Shayiq tells the story of George Bond, a free man who volunteered to fight for the Union in the Civil War, testifying to the war’s significance in defining American freedom as well as to the work left unfinished at the war’s end. Susan Philpott explores Charles Torrey‘s activism on behalf of abolition, drawing attention to a long history of civil disobedience on the issue of racial equality.
Other students focused their attention on reclaiming the humanity of those whose lives and fortunes were defined by slavery. Jacob Bensen reminds us that Margaret Morgan’s life hung in the balance while the Supreme Court debated the relative rights of black people and of property owners. Heidi Carbaugh and Megan Hardy document James Pennington’s lifelong effort to achieve freedom, and, in doing so, examine the deep psychological trauma inflicted by slavery. Yamid Andres Macias and Francis Mohammed reveal Hope Slatter, a slave trader, as a man constantly working to justify his fortune; their story challenges the popular argument that slave traders and slave masters were simply “men of their time,” unaware of the moral, political, social, and economic problem slavery posed. Rachel Rettaliata combined second hand accounts and descriptions to reanimate the life of Daniel Hawkins, a man whose escape from slavery ended tragically. Kymberly Peters and Robin Martin reconstruct Baltimore’s black community, showing us the fluidity with which free and enslaved people sought to define their lives in the 1840s. Allyson Schuele similarly draws attention to the ways in which black leaders and black institutions enabled free and enslaved people to establish meaningful relationships and to create enclaves for free expression.
As we look for ways to continue and expand this project, we welcome your comments, suggestions, advice, and praise.