Tag Archives: public history

A Monumental Divide

At the center of Raleigh is the North Carolina Capitol building, in the midst of Capitol Square, surrounded by more than a dozen monuments to the memory of statesmen and soldiers. The most recent installation (1990) is the North Carolina Veterans Monument, while the tallest memorial is the monument erected “to our Confederate dead” in 1892, and the only monument referencing women is the 1914 statue honoring the North Carolina Women of the Confederacy. The Raleigh-Durham area has seen several intense protests against Confederate monuments over the past several years, resulting in the toppling of the Robert E. Lee and “Silent Sam” statues in Durham and Chapel Hill, but this past August the special “Confederate Monuments Study Committee” of the North Carolina Historical Commission voted that the Capitol monuments should stay in place, despite the request for removal from North Carolina governor Roy Cooper and the Committee’s own opinion that the statues are “an over-representation and over-memorialization of a difficult era in NC history.”

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I would have to agree with that characterization, particularly of the Women of the Confederacy statue, which depicts a woman as a mother-historian, reading the heroic tales (I presume) of war to her sword-bearing son. The towering Confederate Dead statue nearby (which was very difficult to photograph) features anonymous soldiers and a rather simple message of honoring the dead, and so is perhaps not as confrontational as a statue of an individual and identified Civil War soldier, though there is also a monument to Henry Lawson Wyatt, purported to be the first Confederate soldier killed in action, on the Capitol grounds. In announcing its decision to let these statues stand, the state Commission called for additional interpretation, “to provide a balanced context and accounting of the monuments’ erection in their time in political history” as well as the erection of additional monuments honoring the contributions of North Carolina’s African-American citizens. I did not see such context, nor equal monumental representation, but we are less than a year out from this ruling and a long-term effort to establish an adjacent “Freedom Park,” designed by architect Phil Freelon, the leader of the design team for the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of African American History and Culture, appears to have accelerated over the past year.

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Plan for the proposed “Freedom Park” and monument in Raleigh.

As I wandered around Capitol Square this past weekend looking at all of its installations with my historical and decidedly northern (even more decidedly Massachusetts) perspective, I had the most visceral reaction to a monument which wasn’t even mentioned in the recent debate over Confederate memorials in North Carolina: that dedicated to Samuel A’Court Ashe in 1940. Ashe obviously lived a full life and was revered by many in his native state, but all I could see when I read this plaque was heroic defender of Fort Wagner. Just a few weeks before I was wandering another hallowed ground, Salem’s Harmony Grove Cemetery, where I saw the graves of several men who served with the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment, the first Civil War military unit comprised of African-American soldiers to be raised in the North. The soldiers of the Massachusetts 54th distinguished themselves during the assault on strategic Fort Wagner, which guarded the entrance to Charleston Harbor, at great cost, losing 281 men on July 18, 1863: 54 confirmed casualties (including commanding officer Robert Gould Shaw), 179 wounded, 48 simply lost, while the Confederate troops inside were reportedly “maddened and infuriated at the sight of Negro troops.” Their sacrifice confirmed their promise of hope and glory, in the words of Massachusetts Governor John Andrew, and was memorialized later by the Augustus Saint-Gaudens monument on Boston Common (1897), Robert Lowell’s poem “For the Union Dead”, and the 1989 film Glory. Ashe, the defender of Fort Wagner, has much to say about the war and its commemoration, as his long post-war career was characterized by prolific writing (and Confederate commemoration advocacy) both as a newspaper editor and historian. In his History of North Carolina, he makes no mention of the Massachusetts 54th at Fort Wagner, but only of “the splendid heroism and devotion of the North Carolina troops”, and his “historical” analysis of the causes of the Civil War focuses almost exclusively on the policies of an “unpatriotic” Abraham Lincoln, whom he never refers to as President: it is not true, as Lincoln said, that without slavery there would have been no secession. It was the absence of the spirit of compromise on the part of Lincoln and his party that brought about secession in 1861….Secession would have been averted if Lincoln had copied the example of his patriotic predecessors. But he made his anti-slavery feeling his ‘paramount object’ instead of his desire to save the Union. He was revered as “that stainless leader of the Lost Cause” in the 1940 address given at the dedication of his monument. Frankly, I don’t want to read anything more about or by Mr. Ashe, and the next time I am in Raleigh I will give his memorial a very wide berth.

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The monument dedicated to Samuel A’Court Ashe in Raleigh’s Capitol Square and one of his telling titles; the Boston Common monument to Robert Gould Shaw and the Massachusetts 54th by Augustus Saint-Gaudens: two memorials which reference Fort Wagner, and the Civil War, in very different ways. The grave of  Salem native of Luis Fenollosa Emilio, a Captain of the Mass. 54th who survived Fort Wagner and lived to tell their tale in A Brave Black Regiment (1894).

 


City of Signs

I have just returned from Raleigh, NC where I attended my stepson’s graduation and made my usual mad dash around the city’s historical sites and streets when not attending attendant graduation festivities! I’ve been to the Raleigh-Durham area many times, but I’ve never really focused on the downtown area of the capital city, so this time I was determined to do so. This region has seen dynamic development for quite some time, and prior visits had given me an impression of sprawling suburbia (apart from the college campuses) which I knew wasn’t entirely accurate. So I spent some time downtown, in the historic Oakwood neighborhood, and at a few historic house museums. In the city center, the attempt to preserve and blend older and new architecture was very apparent, but more than anything I was impressed by the historic markers which are everywhere. At the moment, I’m obsessed with Salem’s inconsistent signage, which is probably one reason Raleigh’s uniform and comprehensive signage was so noticeable to me, and to complete the comparison, I also noted two other essentials of Raleigh’s public history presentation not present in Salem: 1) historic walking tours; and 2) a really great little city historical museum: the City of Raleigh (COR) Museum. Once again I am struck by the amazing commitment that other towns and cities have made towards protecting and presenting their unique heritage, which we seem to take for granted here in Salem.

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20190607_081758Signs everywhere in Raleigh, which has held on to its state heritage markers (even for sites that no longer exist) and added lots more.

I loved the historic Oakwood neighborhood with its mixture of low-slung embellished bungalows and high-style Victorian mansions, but there are some preserved nineteenth-century residences in the immediate downtown as well, several converted to commercial or government uses. The Oakwood neighborhood is apparently not only Raleigh’s largest historic residential district, but North Carolina’s largest “intact 19th century residential neighborhood”, so it’s pretty specialEvery house and garden seemed to be in pristine condition; every porch perfectly positioned. Beyond the Oakwood neighborhood is the historic Oakwood cemetery, which I only had time to run through, and there is a slightly more modest neighborhood of shotgun houses (including some interesting new construction) running alongside that.

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20190609_104252The Heck-Andrews House (under renovation), Polk House, and Executive Mansion in the city center, and Oakwood beyond—and beyond Oakwood.

The oldest houses in Raleigh are two eighteenth-century houses which are now house museums: the Joel Lane House (1769; owned and operated by the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America) and the Mordecai House (1785, owned and operated by the City of Raleigh). They are connected, because Joel Lane, a very important figure in the foundation of Raleigh, built the Mordecai (which is pronounced MordeKEY down there) house for his son Henry. There were interesting interpretations in both houses, with domestic life as a primary focus in both, but as the Mordecai House was situated in the midst of an extensive plantation there was more consideration of both slavery and the estate’s role in the development of Raleigh in the later nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The Mordecai House is now in the midst of a city park, and additional historic structures have been moved to the site, including the birthplace of Andrew Johnson, about whom I learned a lot. He is one of the the three presidents “claimed” by North Carolina, along with James K.  Polk and Andrew Jackson (what a trio! I can’t help but be a bit more proud of the Adamses and JFK from Massachusetts). While I love the Colonial Dames, I do think they tend to be a bit too dependent on plastic food in their houses, and I am remain a bit confused about the Mordecai family’s connections to the small Jewish community in early nineteenth-century North Carolina.

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20190608_112339Exteriors and Interiors of the Lane and Mordecai Houses + their gardens and the Andrew Johnson birthplace, adjacent to Mordecai.

I really want to give a shout-out to the City of Raleigh Museum, which presented the city’s history in professional and creative ways while focusing on the connections between the past, the present, and the future. It is: right downtown, in the center of everything, free, designed beautifully, completely engaged and engaging. If it were possible, I would love to entice our Mayor and City Council down there so they could see how powerful a real museum of Salem history could be! The museum utilized several different interpretive strategies and media in its presentations: permanent installations which presented an overview of Raleigh’s history around different themes with objects, texts and videos, a revolving spotlight on collection items, and temporary exhibits on topical themes connected to what is going on in Raleigh right now. I was so impressed, and am very envious.

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20190607_140010The City of Raleigh (COR) Museum: a must-visit spot; this last question is existential!

And finally, a food footnote, because food seems to be at the center of every thriving city, and Raleigh is no exception. I am no foodie (although I do appreciate a well-crafted cocktail), but even I was blown away by my meal (and my drinks) at one of Ashley Christensen’s four (soon to be five) Raleigh restaurants: Death and Taxes. Christensen is this year’s James Beard award winner for outstanding chef, and just based on this one experience, I can see why: beautiful restaurant, beautiful food. The food trucks were lined up along Fayetteville Street for the monthly Food Truck Rodeo yesterday, ending our visit on a very lively note.

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20190609_123009Death and Taxes and my companions’ food truck choices, including meatloaf-on-a-stick!


Cracking Open the Treasure Chest

There are two notable developments regarding the Phillips Library of the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM), the major archival source of Salem’s history, so (fair warning) I am returning to that troublesome topic. I don’t think I’ve written about the Library and its collections since the very beginning of the semester, when I made my first trip up to Rowley: out of sight, out of mind has been one of my major concerns about the relocation of this venerable collection to this rather detached location, and that’s pretty much been the case for me. The Library has regular open hours up there, the staff is very helpful, there are many discoveries to be made, but while I’m sure it is an invaluable repository for the curators of the Museum and specialized researchers, it’s hard to see how it could develop into any sort of a community resource, despite the nature of many of its collections. The PEM (or I should say its leadership to date) has never acknowledged the historical-society-origins of its amalgamated Library, so I’m sure that’s fine with them, but they have taken several strident steps towards open access in recent weeks with the hiring of a new Head Librarian and the announcement of a digitization initiative which will roll out in several stages. Following up on their partnership with the Congregational Library, which has made some important manuscript collections accessible, there are now some very interesting printed materials available in the Internet Archive, with lots more to come, apparently.

PEM atlasmaritime1700mort_0060There is a facsimile edition, but how amazing to see the original 1693 maritime atlas of Pierre Mortier, the “most expensive sea-atlas ever published in Amsterdam in the seventeenth century” according to the eminent Dutch cartographical historian Cornelis Koeman. Stunning plates of beautiful European ships: here is a “Tartane de Pesche”.

This is wonderful: certainly the PEM should be commended for cracking open the treasure chest that is the Phillips Library but I do want to emphasize that this “opening” has been a long time coming and is as much due to outside pressures as inside initiatives. Thanks to all the people who are keeping track of these things in Salem (and to digitization), I have in my (FAT) Phillips Library file a collection of published articles in which a succession of PEM representatives made confusing claims about the museum’s progress towards making its holdings more accessible. In response to a major push-back by scholars and librarians in 2004 after Library hours and staff were reduced dramatically, the PEM indicated that increased internet offerings would compensate for the restricted access. Then-acting “Library Administrator” John R. Grimes made the egalitarian argument that “many of the people interested—or potentially interested—in historical documents are not professional researchers, but students and laypeople with regular jobs, for whom the new digitization technology and the Internet proved access to knowledge they would otherwise never see” (Northeast Regional Library Newsletter, June 2004). A decade later, Phillips Library Librarian Emeritus Sidney Berger published an update on the progress of digitization in the Winter 2014 issue of Antiques & Fine Art magazinestating that in an effort to bring the PEM’s material to a worldwide audience, during the last two years, PEM’s Phillips Library, with the assistance of a team of cataloguers, has gone from having 9 percent of its holdings to more than 90 percent digitally accessible; financial gifts from donors have made this possible. The team has undertaken a retrospective conversion of 175,000 old cataloging records into the preferred Library of Congress system and catalogued another 75,000 previously unprocessed materials. The retrospective conversion connects PEM’s vast library holdings to researchers near and far. One of the particularly gratifying aspects of this project has been to make 50,000 singular, one-of-a-kind documents that only exist in PEM’s Phillips Library Collection available online. We could all see the online catalog, a momentous achievement certainly, but where were the “50,000 singular, one-of-a-kind documents”? No one could find them, and there was also confusion among the general public about the distinction between “records” and “holdings”: both can refer to catalog entries as well as the documents themselves. I think the long-term claims and confusion left PEM in a bit of a vulnerable position when they finally announced that the Phillips Library would not be returning to Salem, because it was apparent that there was no compensatory commitment to digitization. When pressed at the dramatic public forum on January 11, 2018, CEO Dan Monroe would only say that digitization was “expensive”.

PEM DMMr. Monroe at the 1/11/18 public forum at PEM.

So that is why the recent announcements are so welcome. Digitization goals are clearly stated. Mr. Monroe is departing, to be succeeded by Brian Kennedy, the director of the Toledo Art Museum, an institution that seems to have all of its collections online. The newly-hired head librarian, Dan Lipcan, has a great track record of digitization at the Watson Library at the Met (and, if this blog post about the devastating losses at Brazil’s Museu Nacional is any indication, a higher degree of sensitivity about the importance of material heritage to a locale than I have discerned from most representatives of the PEM). The chief of collections, John Childs, has been a pretty steady advocate for more digitization throughout, so I’m assuming that he is behind the initiatives that have already been put into place. The materials “deposited” in the Internet Archive seem very well-curated and seemingly representative of the Phillips Library’s diverse collection: local history, maritime history, natural history, fashion (not a strength of past collecting, but definitely a present and future emphasis), all about China, and more.

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Essex Institute Annual Report 1988

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PEM Hats

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PEM Chinese Junks 1920

It’s very interesting to see the expansion vision that never happened on the front and back covers of the Essex Institute’s Annual Report from 1988, and I really want to dive into the Historic Structure Report for Derby Wharf from 1973, but I’ve also got to admit that I love George Barbier’s beautiful illustrations in Le bon ton d’aprèsguerre (the lady in the Poiret dress avec arrow above) and who can resist a book titled The Romance of Men’s Hats? But what I’m really looking forward to, along with many people, is the promised digitization of photographer Frank Cousins’ large body of work, encompassing images of Salem from c. 1890-1920. Apparently these are coming soon, and after that could we please see some scans from all those papers of Salem families? Almy, Butler & Robson, Crowinshield, Fabens, Lee, Loring, Peabody, Peirce-Nichols, Saltonstall, Waters……..my colleagues and I made a list if anyone’s interested.


Step it up, Salem

Nothing helps to define the distinguishing characteristics of where you live better than travel. I’ve been traveling quite a bit over the past year, near and far, in the US and abroad, but generally to places which are identified as tourist destinations, like Salem. I’m always happy to return home, where I am more appreciative of Salem’s many advantages and resources, but also its lost opportunities, for lack of a better phrase. There are quite a few places that make do with with a lot less than Salem has: they might or might not have streets of historic architecture (though most of the places I visit do), they might not have a “marketable historic event,” they might not have a harbor, they might not have 100 restaurants, but they do have: 1) historical societies and/or museums that provide free exhibits and walking tours for the public; 2) museums that are actually museums–nonprofit institutions with collections and curators; 3) attractive and informative signage; and 4) a sense of pride expressed by effective stewardship of public properties—historical and otherwise. I think Salem could do a lot better; I think we need to step it up in these four areas in particular. I’m not sure how to do that, however, as I’m not really sure who is in charge of Salem’s tourism planning and administration. Free enterprise seems to reign over the city’s tourism, with private institutions taking primary responsibility for selling our city’s heritage, with a few very notable exceptions like the Salem Maritime National Historic Site and the House of the Seven Gables. There should be some role for our city government, but I’m not sure if that role has been defined or exists, so I’m going to make my key points in the form of questions and just cast them out there into the unknown.

Why can’t we ditch the Red Line? I’ve written a whole post about this and my feelings have not changed, so I’m not going to belabor the point, but the Red Line–as one of the few truly public history initiatives visible in the city—makes Salem look regressive (I’m sure it must be based on Boston’s Freedom Trail, which dates to 1951! Come on, times have changed in historical interpretation! Where is our app?) exclusive (there is no African-American history on the Red Line; at least Boston’s Freedom Trail intersects with its Black Heritage Trail. Salem has no Black Heritage Trail and no markers on black heritage sites), and exploitative (because it’s really all about shops and witch “museums” obviously). Plus it just looks bad. We can and should do a lot better: the foundation is already laid with some great tours produced by Salem Maritime and Essex Heritage  (here and here), among others. We just need to consolidate, repackage and go digital.

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20190506_142906Is the Red Line going to take us across North Street to the beautiful Peirce-Nichols House? Of course not, sharp left to the Witch House, after we’ve just been to the Witch Dungeon Museum.

Why can’t we transform this beautiful Greek Revival courthouse which is currently empty into the Salem History Museum and Visitor Center?  There is a nice display of placards providing an overview of Salem’s history called the Salem Museum at Old Town Hall and a Visitors Center with much more regular hours run by Salem Maritime in the drill shed of the former Salem Armory, but I think we need to consolidate these two services into one building and this former courthouse happens to be empty and in the possession of the Salem Redevelopment Authority (SRA). I’m sure the SRA wants to develop it–and its adjacent courthouse next door–but this would be a great spot for Salem to really own its history. It’s right across from the train station and its parking lot. Salem needs permanent and professional exhibitions of its entire history, including the Witch Trials, which has always been its biggest draw. Doesn’t Salem Maritime have its own story to tell? Why does it bear the primary responsibility for visitor orientation in Salem? We know that the Peabody Essex Museum is not interested in historical interpretation, but they might be persuaded to loan some things, as would the Salem State Archives (I think!) which has been collecting quite a bit of local history over the past few years. 

20190511_124916Two empty courthouses downtown: can’t ONE play a key public role?

Why can the city of Salem regulate tour guides but not “museums”? Most historical interpretation in Salem is offered by private tour companies and private “museums” which are really not museums at all: they offer presentations and dioramas rather than collections and context. (This is not just my opinion! Check out reviews for the Salem Witch Dungeon Museum, the Witch History Museum, and the Salem Witch Museum on Yelp or TripAdvisor: even the people that like these places say “this is not what you would think of as a museum.”) The City of Salem licenses tour guides, but anyone and everyone can open a museum. This seems like an inconsistent public policy regarding historical interpretation to me. The other issue with the “museums” and haunted houses is their seasonality: they can be absolutely deadening if situated in a central location, as is the case with the juxtaposition of the Witch History Museum, Count Orlock’s Nightmare Gallery and the delightful Witch Mansion or whatever it is called along central Essex Street. This is Salem’s main street and you can hear a pin drop on a Friday night as these places are shut up tight; I think the last two were open only in October even during the day–but as you will notice, the Red Line runs right by.

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20190508_153716Thank goodness for Wicked Good Books and the Hotel Salem, otherwise there’s not a lot going on on the Essex Street pedestrian mall, day or night. 

Why can’t we have consistent, attractive, and informative signage? And why do these private “museums” get to stick their signs on all over town on public utility poles?

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Look at these signs! Clearly the owners of the Salem Witch Museum and Witch Dungeon Museum can just place signs wherever they like. I’m assuming the numbers on this last sign refer to the Red Line and (obviously) the Salem Trolley tour, another private purveyor of history in Salem. I think we need some contrast here, so here’s just one of a succession of well-designed signs I spotted around North Adams last weekend.

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While I’m on the subject of signs, I would be remiss if I didn’t commend the City of Salem for putting up some lovely neighborhood and park signs—which they have—but the information presented on these signs has to be correct. I’m particularly concerned about the sign for the relatively new Remond Park adjacent to the Beverly Bridge. This is a memorial to the Remond family, a very successful free black family in mid-nineteenth-century Salem whose members advocated for school desegregation, abolition and myriad other social justice issues while operating several successful businesses. It’s great that they have a park! It’s great that this park is one of only two Salem sites on Tufts University’s acclaimed African American trail project. But the sign has the wrong information: Salem had a vibrant African-American population in the nineteenth century downtown; there was not “a large population of African Americans” who lived in this rather remote section of Bridge Street Neck. As if the location of this park wasn’t off the beaten path (Red Line) enough, Salem’s African-American population is marginalized geographically by this sign, just as they are marginalized (or omitted) from Salem’s history.

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20190511_132347Bridge Street Neck was not “home to a large population of African Americans” in the 19th century: just check the city directories!

Why can’t we protect Salem’s sacred sites? Salem’s downtown cemeteries, especially the Old Burying Point or Charter Street Cemetery, are besieged during October: why can’t the gates simply be shut? I have seen terrible things in Charter Street: many tourists don’t seem to realize that it is a real cemetery rather than some sort of stage set. The City of Salem has an obligation to protect this sacred site, and it could do so by simply locking its gates. Salem’s Quaker Cemetery on Essex Street is always locked up; why can’t Charter Street be locked up for the month of October? This is a question that people have been asking for years and there is never any answer.

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Streets of North Adams

I found myself in the western Massachusetts city of North Adams on this past Saturday morning, having driven across the state to sit on a panel for an honors thesis defense at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts the day before. I love the Berkshires, but I must admit that if I’m driving out on Route 2 I generally drive right through North Adams to reach more pastoral destinations except for a few visits to Mass MoCA, the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, splendidly housed in an old textile/electrical factory in the city center. But as I woke up in North Adams (in a beautiful bedroom at Porches, quite literally in the shadow of Mass MoCA), I was determined to stay there and explore for a bit. So I set off on foot, armed only with my phone, which was loaded with a walking-tour app provided by Historic North Adams, a collaboration between MCLA’s History Department, the North Adams Public Library, and the North Adams Historical Society. After I got the downtown down, I headed up one of the city’s several hills to discover its houses.

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Judging from the simple house plaques that adorn many of North Adams’ eclectic Victorians, North Adams became a boomtown in the last three decades of the nineteenth century, with the Arnold Print Works (1862-1942) turning out textiles for a global market from its complex of mill buildings along the Hoosac River—later the home of Sprague Electric, and now Mass MoCa. The Hoosac Tunnel was completed in 1875 (at great cost of treasure and lives—its workers named it the “Bloody Pit”) making North Adams a railway gateway to the west. Walking the streets of the city, you can feel and see the expansion of that era through the architecture: every single structure seems to date from the 1870s and 1880s with nary a Colonial in sight. The sound of hammers must have been constant in this period, along with the smell of smoke. There were several larger Victorians in divided and dilapidated states, but it was also clear that preservation was at work in North Adams, and as our entire region was plunged into a prolonged period of gloomy rain last week, it was nice to be among more colorful houses. This is just a small sampling: I’ll need to go back!

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20190504_090957Some of the larger Victorians on Church Street (just above) need some help, but just up the hill is a lovely neighborhood of mostly-restored structures. Below: the Arnold Print Works produced a full line of textiles over their long history, but one of their popular products in the 1890s were these stuffed animal templates (examples below from the collections of the Rhode Island School of Design Museum & Cooper Hewitt): the finished products are very collectible and you can buy reproductions too (here are some Etsy examples). 

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Slaves in the Hunt House

There were two prompts for today’s post, both of which came as I was getting ready for the spring semester, after a productive sabbatical in which I thought and wrote very little about Salem’s history. The first prompt was the wonderful recognition of the work of one of my colleagues, Dr. Bethany Jay, whose book (co-edited with Dr. Cynthia Lynn Lyerly of Boston College) Understanding and Teaching American Slavery won the prestigious James Harvey Robinson prize for the “most outstanding contribution to the teaching and learning of history in any field for public or educational purposes” at this year’s annual meeting of the American Historical Association. The second prompt came from a former student of mine, now an archivist-in-training and public historian-by-passion, inquired as to the location of the remains of the burial ground of Salem’s Bulfinch-designed Almshouse on Salem Neck, a property which is now the site of a 1980s condominium development. I looked through the usual sources to try to help her, but then (as usual), got distracted: by this obituary in the Liberator, dated April 30, 1836.

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Here we can read of the death of a long-time resident of the Almshouse, centengenarian Flora Jeans, an African-American woman who was once the widow of Bristow Hunt, a slave belonging to Capt. Wm. Hunt, who resided at the corner of Lynde Street. At the time of the general emancipation of the slaves in New England, Bristow partook of the sweets of freedom, in common with others of his race, and in the elevation of his feelings consequent on his being placed on a level with his fellow men, he nobly fought for the liberties of his country and was killed in battle by the side of a connection of his master’s family, who is now living. Sigh. Yet another amazing Salem story, drawing me back in: this city’s African-American history, as well as its revolutionary history, and its nineteenth-century history, and virtually all of its history, is so minimized and marginalized because of the incessant drumbeat: 1692, 1692, 1692, 1692, 1692, 1692, 1692, 1692, 1692, 1692, 1692, 1692. 1692, 1692.

bucks of america mhsThe paint-on-silk “Bucks of America” flag in the collection of the Massachusetts Historical Society, 1785-86, commemorating what is “believed to have been a Massachusetts militia company composed of African Americans and operating in Boston during the American Revolution, although no official records of the unit seem to exist”.

I don’t know much about American history; I began this blog partly because I wanted to learn more about Salem’s history because it seemed so overwhelmingly focused on the Witch Trials and I was curious about other eras and institutions. The last time I studied American history was in high school, where I can assure you I learned nothing about slavery and its myriad consequences. I avoided American history in college studiously, because it seemed so short and one-dimensional compared to the European and Asian history (I didn’t even think about African history). By the time I finished my doctoral program and started teaching I had learned a lot about slavery in the early modern Atlantic world, or about the slave trade, and I assumed that it formed a larger part of the secondary-school curriculum than when I was in high school. But that’s not the case, even now. Dr. Jay consulted with the Southern Poverty Law Center on their Teaching Toleration project, which surveyed 1000 American high-school seniors, 1700 history teachers, along with popular textbooks and state standards, in 2017 about their knowledge and presentation of slavery. The results were alarming, to say the least, and really surprising to me, although I suspect not as surprising to my Americanist colleagues: only 8% of high-school seniors identified slavery as the cause of the Civil War, few than one-third identified the 13th amendment as the formal end of slavery in the United States,  and less than half could define the “Middle Passage”. Eight percent.

I feel fortunate to have learned a lot about slavery—its structures, consequences, and abolition—from my colleagues as well as my students. It’s not an easy subject; I really would prefer to look at our founding fathers as heroes rather than hypocrites, believe me (but Martin Luther and both Cromwells are troublesome creatures too). I teach our capstone seminar, in which students write long research papers over the course of the semester, pretty regularly, and I let students choose whatever topic they like, within reason and with my qualifications. Because Dr. Jay is such a popular professor, I’ve supervised papers on slave children, anti-slavery societies, the circumstances surrounding the abolition of slavery in Massachusetts, and The Liberator, among other related topics. So I’m not surprised to see such a detailed obituary of a poor African-American woman in 1836. Another popular professor in our department is Dr. Dane Morrison, who teaches the Colonial and Federal eras: he has inspired a full range of Revolutionary topics in my seminars, including one on African-American soldiers who fought for the American side despite the enticements of the British. So I’m not surprised to read about Bristow Hunt either: despite the flowery rhetoric in the obituary, I assume he was offered manumission in exchange for his military service, rather than absolutely, as slavery was not formally abolished in Massachusetts (by judicial review) until 1783. I don’t really know this to have been the case, but the fact that he died by the side of a connection of his master’s family is pretty telling. I wish I knew more about Bristow—and Flora—and their lives rather than just their deaths. I wish we all knew more about them, and I’m a bit embarrassed of my previous preoccupation on the house in which Bristow and others were enslaved. I’ve always been fascinated by this first-period house, which was demolished during the Civil War. It survives in paintings and photographs, neither of which offer us any insights into what went on inside.

hunt-house-cousins-and-riley

hunt-house-on-washington-and-lynde-streets-salem-hneCirca 1857 photograph of the Hunt House in Frank Cousins’ and Phil Riley’s Colonial Architecture in Salem (1919); undated drawing, Historic New England.

The antiquarian approach focuses on the house, on physical remainders rather than social history. So I was being an antiquarian, just like Sidney Perley, who wrote in the Essex Antiquarian [Volume II, 1898] that William Hunt (whom he does not call Captain) died in 1780 possessed of the “mansion house”, bake house, barn and lot; in the division of his real estate in 1782, the buildings and eastern portion of the lot were assigned to his son Lewis Hunt [who was] a baker, and had his shop in the front end of the house”. When William Hunt died in 1780, slavery was still technically legal in Massachusetts despite its brand-new constitution’s provision that “all men are born free and equal, and have….the right of enjoying and defending their lives and liberties”. And in the early 1770s, when the public discourse calling for freedom and condemning tyranny was intense and incessant, he placed a series of advertisements in the Salem papers offering a reward for the return of another of his slaves, Cato. This much we do know.

slavery 1771 essex gazette may 28Essex Gazette, May 28, 1771.


Remembrance Roundup

Never have I been so happy to live in the time of the world wide web, as I could see and share all the forms of remembrance this past weekend as the world marked the centenary of the end of World War I. I have been profoundly touched by the cumulative efforts in Britain, starting with the amazing installation Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red four years ago, and under the auspices of the 14-18 Now WWI Centenary Arts Commission more poignant and engaging initiatives and installations followed, right up to the centenary of Armistice Day. The culture of commemoration in Britain appears deeply ingrained from my vantage point, but as the First World War was a global event so too is its remembrance: there were thoughtful exhibitions and installations in all of the Commonwealth countries, across continental Europe, and here in the United States. Here in Salem, I was really happy to see the Salem Maritime National Historic Site tell the story of the Second Corps of Cadets during the Great War on facebook all day long on Sunday, and more than a little confused that the Peabody Essex Museum decided to have a festive “dance party” the night before.

My favorite expressions of remembrance are below, but please nominate others! There is a much more comprehensive roundup of #ArmisticeDay100 in its entirety on Google Arts and Culture.

Blood-swept-lands-seas-of-red-Tower-of-London-poppies-002

Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red, Paul Cummins and Tom Piper, 2014.

Wave Poppies

Wave Poppies at Yorkshire Sculpture Park, 2015. Paul Cummins and Tom Piper. Getty Images.

Were Here

We’re Here because We’re Here, 2016. Jeremy Deller in collaboration with Rufus Norris.

There

There but not There Tommy Silhouettes in Arundel Cathedral, June 2018. An initiative by the UK Charity Remembered.

"La Nuit Aux Invalides : 1918 La Naissance D'Un Nouveau Monde" - 1918 The Rise Of A New World Show In Paris

La Nuit aux Invalides, Bruno Seillier, Summer 2018. Getty Images.

FRANCE-HISTORY-WWI-CENTENARY

Dame de Couer, October 2018. Ludovic Marin / AFP / Getty.

Poppies-1-1020x765

Weeping Window poppies @Imperial War Museum, London, Paul Cummins and Tom Piper, 2018.

A visitor looks at a dove-shaped formation of thousands of artificial red poppies, made out of red bottle tops, at the Botanic Garden in Meise

A Dove of Poppies, Meise, Belgium, November 2018. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir.

Tervuren

A “Trench” of Poppies, Tervuren, Belgium, November 2018. Sven Vangodtsenhoven and Hans Tuerlinckx of Art-Ex.

Some of the 72,396 shrouded figures that form part of the 'Shroud of the Somme' installation by British artist Rob Heard are seen in London's Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, in Stratford, London, Britain

Shrouds of the Somme, 2016-2018, Rob Heard. Toby Melville / Reuters.

Pages of the Sea

Pages of the Sea, November 11, 2018, Danny Boyle.

Ghost Soldiers

“Ghost Soldiers” in a Gloucestershire cemetery, November 11, 2018. Jackie Lantelli.

Poppies

Sydney Opera House, November 11, 2018.


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