Tag Archives: public history

Author Interview: Nancy Bercaw

To coincide with our March 2017 special issue on Reconstruction, we interviewed Nancy Bercaw, curator of the Slavery and Freedom exhibit at the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture. Dr. Bercaw contributed to our roundtable discussion on how Reconstruction is represented in public history contexts. In this interview she discusses the challenges, surprises, and pitfalls she encountered while preparing these exhibits, and she also provides some timely advice for those interested in pursuing museum studies.

What were some of the challenges of telling the story of Reconstruction at the Museum of African American History and Culture? How did curators address those challenges?

Perhaps the greatest challenge we faced was how to maintain the complexity of the Reconstruction era without overwhelming the visitor. From teaching, I knew that students get lost in the twists and turns of Reconstruction and drown in legal acts and proclamations. The result is that they can’t see the forest for the trees. We addressed this by using physical space to our advantage. We set the legislative acts on a wall that literally faces another wall that explores the variety of African American expressions of freedom. Then we were careful to make sure each wall referred to the other. The ungodly violence was more difficult to convey. So we made a media piece filled with voices and images from the period to give force and movement to the period.

Do you have any sense of how visitors react to the parts of the exhibits that deal with emancipation, Reconstruction, and the rise of Jim Crow? What questions do they have? What surprises them?

Perhaps the biggest surprise for many visitors is that emancipation was the result of African American thought and action. People are used to the Lincoln story or the fact that “the nation” waged a war against slavery. They see this as inevitable. So when they see the story through the African American lens they understand that the demise of slavery was far from inevitable, far from complete, and that it took thought, action, and political ingenuity. They are also taken aback that African American men held elected office after the Civil War and that so many homes, businesses, and institutions were built in this period. Jim Crow is less of a surprise.

In light of new developments like the museum, the new Reconstruction Era National Monument, and public commemorations of the Memphis Massacre, do you think it’s increasingly possible to talk about Reconstruction in public life today?

I certainly hope so. I certainly see it referred to more on social media and in the press. That being said, we have a long way to go. I think most Americans have no idea what Reconstruction was. We hope to use social media and our website to provide a public forum for debates that are largely confined to academic discussion and social activism.

Many people have drawn connections between Reconstruction and our current moment. What do you personally think is the best, most historically honest way to make those connections and tell that story? What are the stakes when we do so, and what are the potential pitfalls?

I think the pitfalls lie in telling any story that makes history seem cyclical, inevitable, or unchanging. This shapes the way I make connections between past and present. I have really appreciated using the concept of afterlives—a sedimentary vision of history—to display past and present. We can do this in a three-dimensional medium through juxtaposition and repetition. For example, when you enter our history galleries you can see down three levels with the Edisto Island slave house on the first floor and the Jim Crow railcar and the Angola prison guard tower on the second floor. You can see the passage of time but you can also see (quite literally) the past in the present.

You moved from being a history professor to being a museum curator. What are some of the biggest differences between the two jobs? How is writing history different from producing it in a museum?

What I have found so delightful and satisfying is how the two careers really work well together. At the University of Mississippi, I was responsible for teaching survey classes that were often quite large. Lectures, therefore, were inevitable. It turns out that this is quite valuable experience for putting together a museum exhibition. For one thing, you are always concerned about your audience. How can you invite them into a topic? How can you make it useful, engaging, and relevant? How can you leave spaces for them to put together the material themselves and own it? Finally, I really enjoyed surveys because you take a large and complex topic and break it down in such a way that it remains complex, but knowable. Exhibitions work the same way. You are faced with a vast array of material and stories (such as U.S. History to 1865). Then you consider your overarching goal. After you gain clarity on that, you construct “units” (or in the case of an exhibition “sections”) that deepen and challenge that thesis. You provide tools for your audience to make sense of and test your assumptions.

What kinds of work experience did you have, prior to going to the museum, that made it possible for you to get a position as a curator? What advice would you give to graduate students in history and other people interested in making a similar transition? 

My experience is very dated in many ways. There was no pathway into the museum field in the 1980s. In college, I kind of felt my way through it and studied history, art history, and literature. I kept looking for history with a life in it. Today that would be in a studies program but they really weren’t developed much in my day. So I became a history major. When I told my advisor that I wanted to work in museums, he was disappointed with me. I am not sure he took me seriously after that. But I was pretty determined so I found my own way. When I graduated from college I lived at home, worked, and saved money and then applied for an internship at the Smithsonian. Against all odds, that turned into a temporary job where I worked on the Inventory Team, then as a museum technician, and finally as a research assistant for Gary Kulik, the Chair of History and Culture. Over those three years, I got pretty restless because I wanted to be more creative and do history. But only curators could do that. And to be a curator, I was told, you had to have a PhD. So I applied to the Department of American Civilization at Penn which had a strong program for material culture and Southern history, and remarkable scholars in African American Studies. After being credentialed in this way, I again felt the pressure to conform and became a professor rather than a curator. It turns out this was great experience. I taught at Rhodes College and at the University of Mississippi, got tenure and all that and then got restless again. I was working on a book about museums and the reconstruction of race when a job came open at the Smithsonian. I jumped at the opportunity. I think my restlessness paid off in the end. Every deviation from the straight path gave me experience I could build on later.

As far as advice to others? Make sure to study material culture and think about it seriously as a form of evidence. A PhD is helpful but not always necessary. Teaching, either formally or informally, is critical. Don’t take “no” for an answer and slough off disrespect. Jobs and job descriptions may define you and define your value, but life’s too short to let that stop you.

We really appreciate Dr. Bercaw’s willingness to chat with us. If you have questions for her, please leave them in the comments! To learn more about the future of Reconstruction studies, please check out our online forum and the rest of our March 2017 issue, available on Project Muse.

Postscript to “Reconstructing Memory”

The March 2017 issue of The Journal of the Civil War Era includes the article “Reconstructing Memory: The Attempt to Designate Beaufort, South Carolina the National Park’s First Reconstruction Unit.” It addresses a vigorous effort at the national and local level that began in December of 2000 and aimed to establish a new National Park to interpret the Reconstruction era through Congressional action; this initial action failed. The white supremacist interpretation of Reconstruction, flamed by controversies over removing the Confederate flag from the top of the state house in the 1990s and 2000, still had a strong hold on South Carolina. More than a decade later, and in the wake of the massacre at Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, historians and preservationists embraced a new strategy to bypass Congress that finally succeeded.

During Obama’s last two years in office, advocates of a Reconstruction site realized that Congressional gridlock left a Presidential action as the only way forward. Many of the key players who had rallied around the cause in 2000 were pivotal in 2017 in pulling all the pieces together to make this designation possible. On January 12, 2017, just days before leaving office, President Barack Obama used the Antiquities Act to designate a Reconstruction Monument in Beaufort County.[1] The act identified four properties that would be part of the monument: Brick Baptist Church; Darrah Hall, on the Penn Campus; the firehouse on Craven Street in Beaufort, which is within walking distance of over fifty relevant sites; and the site of Camp Saxton, on the Naval Hospital grounds and where thousands freed by the Emancipation Proclamation gathered to hear it read on January 1, 1863.

Darrah Hall, on the grounds of Penn Center, is one of the four buildings designated by President Obama’s act to be part of a Reconstruction Monument in Beaufort. Photograph courtesy of the authors.

For decades the National Park Service (NPS) had been aware of a gaping hole in its telling of the story of Reconstruction. Beginning with the 2000 initiative, the NPS has maintained communication and provided support to individuals in Beaufort working toward a Reconstruction Monument. Robert Sutton, the chief historian of the NPS, had long held that too many Americans continued to think of the Reconstruction era as “a disaster” instead of seeing it as a time when big questions about democracy, race, education, war, and region were being played out.[2]

In 2015 the NPS completed four years of programing, seminars, and special events to remember the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. The time had arrived to move forward on the difficult Reconstruction era, a period that ended slavery and brought great hope, but also frustrations and disappointments. In April 2015, NPS commissioned Associate Professors Kate Masur of Northwestern University and Gregory Downs of the University of California–Davis to prepare a National Landmark Theme Study on Reconstruction that would explore potential places for telling the story. In an opinion piece in the Washington Post in the fall of 2016, the two historians wrote, “we found many historically significant Reconstruction sites across the South, but we believe nowhere exceeds Beaufort County in its density of extant sites and the richness of interpretive possibility.”[3]

Bruce Babbitt, President Bill Clinton’s Secretary of Interior, and Eric Foner, the foremost historian of the Reconstruction Era, came to Beaufort in 2000 to explore possibilities of a Reconstruction monument. Both continued to play crucial roles both behind the scenes and in public settings after the 2003 attempt failed. Babbitt acted as the broker between the local efforts and the Obama administration. In 2009 he helped found the Conservation Lands Foundation, an organization headquartered in Colorado that quietly worked to protect the nation’s significant landscapes.[4] Following up on extensive conversations with the Department of Interior, Congressional leaders, and Beaufort Mayor Billy Keyserling, Babbitt visited Beaufort County in April 2015 to discuss specific sites for a possible Reconstruction Monument. Foner, an ever strong and steady champion for the project, frequently emphasized that Beaufort County was the best place in the country for a new unit of NPS to tell the Reconstruction story. The urgency for Foner rested in his belief that “for no other period of American history does so wide a gap exist between current scholarship and popular historical understanding.” Furthermore, he often stressed how relevant the Reconstruction era is to current discussions of the definition of citizenship, the rights that citizens should enjoy, the relative powers of the federal government, and the relationship between political and economic freedom.[5]

On the Congressional front, on May 26, 2016, Representative James Clyburn introduced H.R. 5358, the Penn School Reconstruction Era National Monument Act. Representative Mark Sanford, Beaufort County’s Representative, joined as a cosponsor. Representatives Clyburn and Sanford were well aware that most monuments designated under the Antiquities Act had first been proposed for some sort of protective designation in legislation.[6]

Local supporters included some of those present in 2000; however, an effective new leader on the scene was Beaufort Mayor Billy Keyserling. He served as the central point of communication between Babbitt, the NPS, Congressional leaders, and local property owners of land or sites that could possibly be a part of the multi-site Reconstruction Monument. After securing passage of a resolution by the Beaufort City Council in October 2016 to support a monument, he coordinated with other local mayors and community leaders for a wide array of organizations to pass similar resolutions.

The most difficult steps in the process were the negotiations between Department of Interior staff and those in Beaufort County who wished to make their property a part of the Reconstruction Monument. Many phone calls and meetings occurred to work through the tedious language on boundaries and easements that had to be hammered out in precise language. For example, Penn Center was deeding only Darrah Hall to the NPS but there needed to be wording about easements for the driveway to access the property as well as shared use of nearby bathroom facilities.[7]

To gauge local support for the Reconstruction Monument, the Director of the NPS, Jonathan Jarvis, and Congressman Clyburn brought delegations from Washington on December 16, 2016, to hold a public hearing. Expressing a ground swell of support, enthusiastic allies filled Brick Church on St. Helena Island. It was standing room only in the space where Penn Center held the first classes for formerly enslaved people in 1862. Over forty people–elected officials, middle school students, historians, leaders of non-profit organizations, and residents who traced their families back to the early days of the Penn Center–all spoke in moving ways about the importance of finally telling the Reconstruction story. Port Royal Mayor Sam Murray said the new monument at Saxton Camp provided “the opportunity to visualize the reading of the Emancipation Proclamation . . . that brings to life the Reconstruction story.” The Mayor of Hilton Head, David Bennett, supported the effort but asked that Mitchelville, the site of the first self-governed freedmen’s community on Hilton Head, be included among the designated sites. Clyburn responded that the recommended properties were just a beginning and that the effort did not need to be limited. No voice of opposition was heard. Director Jarvis, who said he had attended many public hearings, was clearly moved by the outpouring of support and the heart felt words expressed. Michael Boulware Moore, Robert Smalls’s great-great grandson, echoed a frequent message that “now is the time.”[8]

Jonathan Jarvis, Director of the National Park Service, and Representative James Clyburn confer during a visit on December 15, 2016, to the site of Saxton Camp where the Emancipation Proclamation was read for the first time on January 1, 1863 to those freed by it. Photograph courtesy of Page Miller.

In Mayor Keyserling’s internet newsletter on February 28, 2017, he noted that local parties and NPS representatives were making progress at establishing the multi-site Reconstruction Monument. The NPS hopes to have an interim superintendent in place in a few months and plans are underway for a grand celebration in mid to late March to celebrate this new unit.[9]

For all the key players–Secretary Bruce Babbitt, Eric Foner, the NPS, Congressional leaders and Beaufortonians, all who had long known there was something very special about these historic sites and properties–the designation of a Reconstruction Monument brought forth a sigh of relief and a shout of joy. It will be three years before this new monument is fully up and running. Then the National Park Service will finally have the opportunities to tell the story of Reconstruction that has been either ignored or distorted for so long.

[1] Emma Dumain, “Just Under the Wire, Obama Establishes National Monument to Reconstruction Era in Beaufort County,” Post and Courier, January 12, 2017, http://www.postandcourier.com/news/just-under-the-wire-obama-establishes-national-monument-to-reconstruction/article_cb26b062-d91b-11e6-bf8b-7fd195453416.html.

[2] Jennifer Schuessler, “Taking Another Look at the Reconstruction Era,” New York Times, August 24, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/25/arts/park-service-project-would-address-the-reconstruction-era.html?ref=arts; Robert K. Sutton and John A. Latschar, eds., The Reconstruction Era: Official National Park Service Handbook (Fort Washington, PA: Eastern National, 2016), 5.

[3] Gregory P. Downs and Kate Masur, “The Perfect Spot for a Reckoning with Reconstruction,” The Washington Post, October 7, 2016, sec. Opinions, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/the-perfect-spot-for-a-reckoning-with-reconstruction/2016/10/07/b884c1c0-7f60-11e6-9070-5c4905bf40dc_story.html?utm_term=.fcac7e29844c.

[4] Jonathan Romeo, “Former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt Presses Conservation Values,” The Durango Herald, November 12, 2015, https://durangoherald.com/articles/97805-former-interior-secretary-bruce-babbitt-presses-conservation-values.

[5] Eric Foner, “Struggle and Progress,” Jacobin, no. 18 (Summer 2015), https://www.jacobinmag.com/2015/08/eric-foner-reconstruction-abolitionism-republican-party-lincoln-emancipation/; Bill Rauch, “Can the South Make Room for Reconstruction?,” The Atlantic, September 17, 2016, https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/09/can-the-south-make-room-for-reconstruction/500189/.

[6] Penn School – Reconstruction Era National Monument Act, H.R. 5358, 114th Cong. (2016), https://www.congress.gov/bill/114th-congress/house-bill/5358/text; Carol Hardy Vincent, “National Monuments and the Antiquities Act” (Congressional Research Service, September 7, 2016), https://fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R41330.pdf.

[7] These details were discussed in a conversation between Page Putnam Miller and Billy Keyserling on December 15, 2016.

[8] Page Putnam Miller was in attendance and spoke at the meeting. Stephen Fastenau, “Clyburn, Park Service Hear Overwhelming Support for Reconstruction Monument,” Beaufort Gazette, December 15, 2016.

[9] Billy Keyserling, “Update: Reconstruction Era Monument,” Live Work Stay with Billy K, February 28, 2017, http://www.liveworkstaybeaufort.com/update-reconstruction-era-monument/.

Page Putnam Miller and Jennifer Whitmer Taylor

Page Putnam Miller received her PhD in 1979 from the University of Maryland. From 1980 to 2000, she served as executive director of a Washington advocacy organization, the National Coordinating Committee for the Promotion of History. Jennifer Whitmer Taylor, a PhD candidate in history at the University of South Carolina, is completing her dissertation "Rebirth of the House Museum: The Woodrow Wilson Family Home and Commemorating Reconstruction." She will begin a position as assistant professor of public history at Duquesne University in the fall.

The Plantation Tour Disaster: Teaching Slavery, Memory, and Public History

Plantation tours offer an abundance of learning opportunities, but they can also offer a stereotypical, even anachronistic, portrayal of slavery and life in the Old South. For instance, a tour guide at the Hofwyl-Broadfield Plantation Historic Site near Brunswick, Georgia, stated during a tour that “in the holiday season, one of our volunteers comes dressed as Vivian Leigh.”[1] Such a statement may come as no surprise, since readers familiar with Representations of Slavery know that plantations continue to ignore and literally whitewash the story surrounding their properties.[2] However, some plantations have made a significant effort to incorporate the story of slavery into their tours. Regardless whether a plantation does or does not cover slavery, they provide an interesting mechanism to teach about the institutions of the Old South, collective memory, and public history. For this post, I will focus on visits to a series of plantations that happened in the course of my College on the Move-Living History Tour program, which takes students for roughly two-week trips to explore historic sites.

Picture of Latta Plantation’s big house. A rebuilt cabin resembling a slave cabin sits in the very back corner of the property next to a pig pen. Photo by author.

Besides the above-mentioned experience at Hofwyl-Broadfield Plantation Historic Site, the tour guide said not a single word about the institution of slavery or the slaves who worked the nearby rice fields. Such a state of affairs is certainly discouraging since many plantations continue to outright refuse, even when asked, to engage slavery. During our first tour in 2015, we visited the Alexander H. Stephens State Historic Site in Georgia. Here, the tour guide continuously referred to the slaves as servants, because they were like family to Stephens.[3] At Latta Plantation, near Charlotte, North Carolina, during our 2016 tour, students inquired toward the end of the tour about the slaves who had worked on the plantations, since the tour guide had not mentioned anything on the subject. The tour guide asked the students to wait until the African-American family, who had been on the tour, left, at which point, he answered in vague and circumscribed terms.

While morally and ethically unacceptable in today’s world, the refusal to talk about slavery offers a great teaching opportunity. A central avenue for addressing slavery’s presentation at such sites is in seeking to understand the role of stakeholders. Public history, as a field, prides itself on listening to stakeholders and their desires when putting together exhibits.[4] However, what happens when your stakeholders at the time of creation were the United Daughters of the Confederacy (as in the case of the Alexander Stephens home), or when you have an overwhelmingly white, potentially neo-Confederate audience? How can historians balance historic accuracy and stakeholders’ desires?

Thankfully, there are exceptions to the rule and some plantations have made extraordinary efforts to incorporate the story of slaves. While Whitney Plantation in Louisiana has received extensive media attention, the plantation remains a work in progress.[5] The visitor experience depends heavily on the capability of the tour guide, which unfortunately did not work out favorably for my group. It also relies on the eradication of some errors, such as the 1868 iron box on display to give a perception of slave pens (see below) and the occasional spelling error on signage. Considering the plantation relies heavily on the narratives compiled by the New Deal’s Federal Writers’ Project, and its memorial walls lack context, there are an abundance of teaching opportunities regarding slavery, memory, public history presentations, and oral history. How can curators deal with memories collected seventy years after slavery? Should they display objects of the era, or replicas?

The 1868, Pennsylvania-made jail at Whitney Plantation, which the signage explains as: “The flat steel bars on the doors are typical of the bars that appeared on doors of slave pens in the large auction houses during slavery.” Photo by author.

Just to the north of Whitney Plantation lies the fabled Oak Alley Plantation, which frequently serves as the popular image of the U.S. South. Aware of a negative reputation, according to the slavery tour guide, Oak Alley determined to change and include slavery in the house tour, but also to offer specialized slavery tours. The guide tells many stories about the enslaved people on the plantation, making a conscious effort to tell the story of their plantation’s slaves and avoid generalizations. The guide explicitly avoided talking about material that they had no evidence for at Oak Alley.

Three of the reconstructed slave cabins at Oak Alley Plantation. The first cabin on the right contains a sharecropper furnishing, while the other two contain an exhibit space on plantation slavery. Photo by author.

In order to present the physical element of slavery, the plantation reconstructed six slave cabins to go along with their new emphasis. Two of the cabins are furnished to represent slave homes, with a frame bed for the house slave and a mattress on the floor for the field hands. The other two cabins illustrate the post-emancipation residences of freed people. The final two cabins contain an exhibit, including a polished wood piece acknowledging the names of all the slaves on the plantation; there are shackles, farm tools, clothing replicas, and text panels explaining the institution. Oak Alley is an excellent teaching example where external pressures, reputation, and the growing diversity of visitors and stakeholders required a different story, unable to embrace a big house, planter narrative. Even more, by complicating the plantation narrative with the inclusion of slavery, these locations have to face the question of what happened after slavery.

Besides the two Louisiana plantations, on the East Coast another jewel has recently emerged: McLeod Plantation on James Island near Charleston. The plantation features an empty big house and the tour does not even set foot into this building. Instead, extremely well-trained tour guides, equipped with iPads for pictures, lead tours literally around the outside of the house to the six remaining, original slave cabins.

The slave cabins at McLeod Plantation. Photo by author.
The slave cabins at McLeod Plantation. Photo by author.

The guide personalizes the story of slave suffering, including their work and day-to-day life. The slave cabins not only tell the story of the slaves, but also their descendants. Most impressive about McLeod Plantation is the fact that descendants continued to reside here well into the 1990s, despite the lack of running water and innumerable building code violations. The story of freedmen, freedwomen, and post-emancipation suffering within Southern society during the Jim Crow and Civil Rights era are impressively illustrated by the home firebombed in 1954. The charring is still visible on the floor.

Obviously most of us do not reside anywhere near these plantations to take students on a regular tour. However, we might have plantations around our own home institutions or we can utilize the web to digitally visit these locations with students. Plantations provide an opportunity to tackle not only the Old South’s social, economic, and political situation, but also to explore issues of post-emancipation social and economic change, class distinctions, the adjustments from slave to free society, and finally memory, tourism, and public history. Considering most people, including our students on future vacations, will get their history during plantation tours, it is crucial to illustrate the complex history of these sites and how slavery continues to be an overlooked subject in the public mind.

[1] Statement made during a visit in March 2015 at Hofwyl-Broadfield Plantation Historic Site, Brunswick, Georgia.

[2] Jennifer L. Eichstedt and Stephen Small, Representations of Slavery: Race and Ideology in Southern Plantation Museums (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2002); James O. Horton and Lois E. Horton, Slavery and Public History: The Tough Stuff of American Memory (New York: New Press, 2006).

[3] This is in part confirmed in Thomas Edwin Schott, Alexander H. Stephens of Georgia: A Biography (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1988), 65-66, which calls Stephens a benevolent slaveholder.

[4] Katharine T. Corbett and Howard S. Miller, “A Shared Inquiry into Shared Inquiry” Public Historian 28 (Winter 2006): 15-38.

[5] David Amsden, “Building the First Slavery Museum in America,” New York Times Magazine, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/01/magazine/building-the-first-slave-museum-in-america.html?_r=0 (February 26, 2015); Debbie Elliott, “New Museum Depicts ‘The Life Of A Slave From Cradle To The Tomb,’” All Things Considered, http://www.npr.org/2015/02/27/389563868/new-museum-depicts-the-life-of-a-slave-from-cradle-to-the-tomb (February 27, 2015); Jared Keller, “Inside America’s Auschwitz,” Smithsonian, http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/inside-americas-auschwitz-180958647/ (April 4, 2016).

Niels Eichhorn

Niels Eichhorn is an assistant professor of history at Middle Georgia State University. He holds a Ph.D. in History from the University of Arkansas. His first book, Separatism and the Language of Slavery: A Study of 1830 and 1848 Political Refugees and the American Civil War, is under contract with LSU Press. He has published articles on Civil War diplomacy in Civil War History and American Nineteenth Century History.

Paradise Lost: Florida’s Egmont Key during the Civil War

The Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater area evokes images of sugar sand beaches and crystal-clear Gulf waters. A stone’s throw from St. Petersburg, the Tampa Bay Ferry carts beachgoers two or three times a day between Fort DeSoto County Park and Egmont Key State Park. Egmont Key’s informational brochure boasts that it is a “refuge for wildlife and people,” and it surely is a magnificent place to find solitude, but few vacationers, locals, or historians understand the Civil War history of this island paradise.[1] The story of Egmont Key is not that of a major battle or a significant individual. Egmont Key’s story is about local resistance, disease, and the fight for survival. It reminds the public that the sectional conflict reached even the distant corners of the divided nation and illustrates the challenges that war thrust upon the settlers on the Florida frontier.

In the mid-nineteenth century, the Tampa Bay area was a sparsely populated borderland rife with mosquitoes and disease. Indeed, in 1861, one New York Times correspondent denounced it as a “miserable, God-forsaken hole.”[2] But the U.S. government disagreed and, even years earlier, had perceived the strategic value of Tampa Bay and of Egmont Key, which stands guard where the bay’s shallow waters meet the Gulf. When Florida became a state in 1845, recognition of the bay’s importance heightened. The following year, Florida’s senators pressured Congress to appropriate funds for a lighthouse to guide ships into Tampa Bay. Three years later, a group of army engineers, led by young Lieutenant Colonel Robert E. Lee, recommended fortifying the Key. Fortifications did not materialize, but Congress appropriated ten thousand dollars to construct a lighthouse, which began operating in May 1848. A few months later, on September 25, 1848, a hurricane inundated the Key with six feet of water, damaging the new beacon. The U.S. Congress responded on August 10, 1856, by appropriating sixteen thousand dollars for a new lighthouse. This structure, completed in 1858, stood eighty-seven feet above sea level and could “withstand any storm.”[3] The sturdy lighthouse has needed very few repairs over the years, but one resulted from the actions of loyal Confederates during the Civil War.

A photograph of an 1862 drawing of the Egmont Key lighthouse, from Florida Memory: The State Library & Archives of Florida.

In July 1861, approximately thirty to forty U.S. seamen from the steamer R.R. Cuyler fortified the key with three eighteen-pound guns and erected a battery on the island’s east side. But blockaders did not maintain a constant presence at Egmont Key since blockade duty elsewhere along the Gulf Coast often necessitated their presence. In August 1861, Lightkeeper George H. Richards, an opportunist who feigned loyalty in blockaders’ presence but harbored Confederate sympathies, fled to Tampa in their absence. Upon hearing of the Yankees’ departure, members of the Sunny South Guard and pro-Confederate civilians went out to Egmont Key and removed the lighthouse’s lamp and oil to black out Tampa Bay, scuttle U.S. ships, and frustrate the blockade. The crafty Floridians smuggled the lamp to Tampa and hid it so well at Fort Brooke that it was not rediscovered until after the war, allowing the lighthouse to finally resume operating in June 1866.[4]

One New York Times correspondent decried the theft of the light as “a mark of Southern vandalism,” but the Union persisted in its efforts to thwart blockade runners from reaching Tampa by devising a makeshift light. Union military campaigns, the blockade, and Confederate government directives bled Florida residents of necessities as the war dragged on. Consequently, U.S. troops took advantage of the war-weariness of Bay Area residents, especially those with Union sympathies. Captain Eaton, of the U.S. Ethan Allen blockading Tampa Bay, estimated that there were about forty Unionist families in Tampa and, in February 1862, proposed making Egmont Key into a place of refuge for residents seeking U.S. protection. Nine months later, the New York Times reported that a dozen contrabands and four white refugees occupied the buildings surrounding the lighthouse, cleared the island’s ground, and cultivated sweet potatoes. These men and women recognized that Union forces on the Gulf Coast generally, and on Egmont Key specifically, represented their best hope of survival despite the logistical challenges that U.S. troops faced in supplying refugees and contrabands who sought their protection.[5]

General Collection
A photograph of an 1864 drawing of three vessels (the schooner Stonewall, the man-of-war James L. Davis, and a steamer Sunflower) blockading Tampa Bay, from Florida Memory: The State Library & Archives of Florida.

Egmont Key remained isolated from major engagements, but the men stationed on or near the island felt the ravages of one of the Civil War’s most deadly assailants – disease. A yellow fever epidemic struck the Key in July 1864 and claimed the lives of sixteen young men – seamen and soldiers – whose ages ranged from sixteen to thirty-six. Survivors buried these casualties, along with four others who died from accidental gunshot wounds as well as from unknown causes, in a modest cemetery under Egmont Key’s sandy soil, where they rested until 1909 when the Civil War burials were reinterred in the National Cemetery in St. Augustine.[6] Egmont Key State Park has nonetheless preserved the memory of these lives lost in a replication of the cemetery. The burial ground, which lies only yards from the lighthouse, is harrowing – it is a restricted area filled with the Gulf beaches’ signature sugar-sand and neatly lined white wooden crosses that mark where Union sympathizers and seamen once laid.[7]

On November 18, 1864, the New York Times mourned one of the men buried on Egmont Key. Theodore Woolsey Twining, Acting Assistant Paymaster on the U.S. Bark Roebuck, which was stationed at Tampa Bay, was one of the victims of the smallpox epidemic. A sense of duty summoned Twining into the ranks, and disease stole his life, inspiring both his family and his Yale classmates to grieve his loss. Lives were not the only losses sustained at Egmont Key. The Key’s Civil War history has largely been washed away, and this parallels its current physical state. A significant portion of Egmont Key has been lost to erosion. Its former boundaries are noticeable by looking at the different shades of blue in the Gulf waters.

Despite this loss of land, Egmont Key is a true gem – not only for beachgoers and bird watchers, but also for its rich history, which visitors usually overlook since they come to the Key to escape reality. Visitors really have to dig – and read in advance – to understand the Key’s Civil War history and its pinnacle of importance, which came during the Spanish-American War. As America became an imperial power, the U.S. military constructed Fort Dade in 1898 to protect Tampa, and from there staged military operations in Cuba. Modest interpretive signs offer visitors a self-guided walking tour over neatly laid brick roads through the fort’s remnants and the now absent military town, both of which were active through World War II. These signs get only passing glances as sun, surf, sand, and relaxation beckon visitors down the brick roads that nowadays lead to nowhere.

Contemporary photo of Egmont Key State Park courtesy of the author.

Egmont Key’s Civil War history challenges our assumptions about the memory of wartime conflict. Battlefields of the Eastern, Western, and Trans-Mississippi theaters draw tourists specifically seeking knowledge about the war itself, but most tourists who come to the Gulf coast have a different agenda and forget that the region had an entirely different purpose in the Civil War Era. The wartime history of Egmont Key, specifically, and that of Florida’s Gulf Coast frontier from Key West to Cedar Key, generally, are perfect examples of how formal policy and everyday individuals shaped the war and the lives of their contemporaries. They illustrate the blockade’s economic stranglehold and evidence Unionism, internal dissent, and guerrilla activity on the frontier far removed from main theaters of war. Scholars have only briefly acknowledged this story, but routine beach days and one special trip to Egmont Key can provide inspiration to explore how the few people who inhabited its pristine shores, before it was considered paradise, fit into those narratives.[8]

[1] Florida State Parks, Florida Department of Environmental Protection Division of Recreation and Parks, “Egmont Key State Park,” Created December 2015. Brochure available at Egmont Key State Park.

[2] “From the Gulf Fleet,” New York Times (New York) July 14, 1861, 8.

[3] Donald H. Thompson and Carol Thompson, Egmont Key: A History (Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2012; Kindle Edition, 2013); Florida State Parks, “Egmont Key State Park,” 2015.

[4] “Egmont Key Occupied by a Federal Force,” The Times-Picayune (New Orleans), August 5, 1861, 1. Tampa resident and former Indian war officer John T. Lesley organized the Tampa Guards in January 1861. This unit later became the Sunny South Guard. It attracted local boys and young men to its ranks. Canter Brown, Jr., Tampa in Civil War and Reconstruction (Tampa: University of Tampa Press, 2000), 26; Thompson and Thompson, Egmont Key; Joe Crankshaw and Nick Wynne, Florida Civil War Blockades: Battling for the Coast (Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2011; Kindle Edition, 2012). Tampa Peninsula quoted in The Nashville Union and American (Nashville) Sept. 17, 1861, 2.

[5] “West Coast of Florida,” New York Times (New York), November 17, 1862, 1. “Union Feeling in Florida,” New York Times (New York), February 28, 1862, 3. Florida’s residents grew weary of conscription and other Confederate government acts, such as the War Tax Act of August 1861, the Impressment Act of March 1863, and the General Tax Act of April 1863, and the Confederate tithe, which imposed a tax-in-kind of 10% on all agricultural goods. These inspired desertion and heightened Union sympathies by 1864. Canter Brown, Jr., “The Civil War, 1861-1865,” in The New History of Florida, ed. Michael Gannon (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1996), 239-240. Floridians were offended that the Confederate government, in February 1864, removed salt makers from the list of individuals exempt from conscription. Thompson and Thompson, Egmont Key; Crankshaw and Wynne, Florida Civil War Blockades; for an overview of Floridians’ disaffection, see John F. Reiger, “Deprivation, Disaffection, and Desertion in Confederate Florida” Florida Historical Quarterly 48 (1969-1970): 279-298.

[6] Thompson and Thompson, Egmont Key. One of the men buried on Egmont Key died of typhoid fever. Information from “Civil War Burials – Egmont Key Lighthouse Cemetery,” interpretive marker, Egmont Key State Park.

[7] The Egmont Key Lighthouse Cemetery also houses burials from the Spanish-American War Quarantine Camp (1898), the U.S. Lighthouse Tender “Laurel,” the U.S. Marine Hospital Service, the Seminole people who were detained on Egmont Key in the 1850s, the Lighthouse Keeper’s Family (the Moore and Bahrt families), and one unknown coal tender for the lighthouse. Information from “Egmont Key Lighthouse Cemetery,” interpretive marker, Egmont Key State Park.

[8] The author wishes to thank Mr. Tom Watson, Assistant Park Manager, for the tour of Egmont Key that he provided on July 8, 2016.

Angela Zombek

Angela M. Zombek is Assistant Professor of History at St. Petersburg College in Clearwater, Florida. She received her Ph.D. from the University of Florida in 2012. Her book manuscript, Penitentiaries, Punishment, and Military Prisons: Familiar Responses to an Extraordinary Crisis during the American Civil War, is under contract with Kent State University Press. She can be reached at zombek.angie@spcollege.edu.

Camp William Penn and the Fight for Historical Memory

If you were to drive down Cheltenham Avenue north of Philadelphia today between Penrose Avenue and School Lane, you would pass standard urban blocks, nothing extraordinary. A cemetery, gas station, a mixed collection of residences, and a community center. Casual passersby—many residents, even–do not recognize the historical significance of the site, the part those few city blocks played in history. For on those four blocks on Cheltenham Avenue lie the ruins of the largest training camp for African American soldiers in the Civil War, Camp William Penn. A Pennsylvania State Historical marker describing the camp’s history can be found along Sycamore Avenue, situated near where former gates to the camp are located. The Veterans Association (VA) of Pennsylvania erected a stone monument nearby that honors the camp. And about twenty yards from the VA monument, a small former firehouse serves as a seasonal museum, where a small staff of volunteers interpret this history using objects and artifacts from the camp. No federal or state money is spent on the museum, and the volunteers who run the place fight periodically to protect what little they have. Beyond the marker, the monument, and the firehouse-museum, all of which can be missed if you blink, there is no other indication that between 1863 and 1865, more black soldiers in the United States Colored Troops (USCT) trained at Camp William Penn than any other camp in the Union. Nothing here gives a hint of how central the camp was to African American life during the Civil War era. Indeed, without increased awareness, the site is in danger of being erased, entirely. For some time now historians have underscored how important black enlistment was to U.S. victory in the Civil War—nearly 200,000 of these men entered the fight as fresh recruits just when the U.S. Army most needed them–and, yet, this most significant site in that story is in danger of being lost.

CWP Gates
A picture of the Pennsylvania State Historical Marker near the surviving gates of the camp. Picture from the Camp William Penn museum site, by Jonathan White.

Several unique developments came together to make Philadelphia the home to the U.S. Army’s Camp William Penn. Philadelphia-area Quakers boasted a long and distinguished history of abolitionism, and when the war began, and were able to generate enthusiastic support for the USCT. Gentlemen’s clubs like the Union League provided the financial muscle necessary to support the camp and recruit troops. The North Pennsylvania Railroad that traveled through Cheltenham supplied the infrastructure to transport soldiers. And, most importantly, Philadelphia’s free blacks pressured city and state leaders to be included in the fight against slavery and the Confederacy. “Men in earnest don’t fight with one hand, when they might fight with two,” Frederick Douglass said in 1861, “and a man drowning would not refuse to be saved even by a colored hand.” The Camp opened in the summer of 1863, and by the time its gates closed in 1865, approximately eleven thousand soldiers trained at the site. Eleven Camp William Penn regiments saw fighting in the final years of the war, from Olustee to Petersburg. But beyond the camp’s important work producing black soldiers, Camp William Penn became a center of black community life and a place where recruits and others fought for civil rights.

Camp William Penn, camps and headquarters from the Historical Society of Pennsylvania Digital Library.
Camp William Penn, camps and headquarters from the Historical Society of Pennsylvania Digital Library.

Racial tensions and conflicts ran through life in the camp, as black city residents, recruits and those who came to support them, came in contact with Cheltenham’s white community members and U.S. Army officers, and white and black Americans negotiated the racial limits of a country in the midst of emancipation. Slave owners from Delaware and Maryland traveled to the camp on several occasions in an attempt to reclaim escaped slaves. Tense showdowns ensued between the masters and the soldiers, a mix of free blacks and formers slaves. According to The Philadelphia Inquirer, the troops often became “excited.” On one occasion, soldiers surrounded a slave owner and threatened him, forcing him to “beat a hasty retreat.”[1] White neighbors complained loudly about “uncivilized” blacks who visited the camp. “Unless [black visitors] soon change their course,” an unnamed author threatened, “the residents in the neighborhood of the camp will take the matter in their own hands and teach a few how to behave themselves.”[2] Violence in and around the camp was not uncommon. In August 1863, a sentinel named Charles Ridley shot a local white man who had been harassing him while on duty, leading to a public debate over Ridley’s fate. The case extended all the way to the state capital in Harrisburg, when in June 1864, following a campaign by Pennsylvanians who believed the sentinel had been unjustly convicted, Governor Andrew Curtain decided to pardon Ridley, reversing the court’s decision. The soldiers’ white US Army officers treated black civilians harshly. In 1864, black women suspected of bringing liquor to the men were made to wear signs that read “I brought whiskey into camp” while they were paraded around camp. When one woman resisted the shaming, officers shaved her head and expelled her from the grounds.[3]

The racial animosities of the period were on full display. USCT soldiers were initially paid a fraction of the wages received by their white compatriots, were held suspect by white soldiers who thought they could not fight, and were threatened by Confederate soldiers with either death or enslavement if caught. While they fought for equal treatment in the army, that fight continued at their training ground. Friends and family of Camp William Penn soldiers wishing to visit loved ones at the camp suffered the humiliation of being barred from some of Philadelphia’s segregated street cars. These and other hardships engendered a sense of disillusionment among men who had enthusiastically turned out to fight for their country. While in the field, one man in the 6th USCT Regiment wrote in the midst of the struggle over wages,

When I was home I could make a living for [my wife] and my two little ones; but now that I am a soldier they must do the best they can or starve. It almost tempts   me to desert and run a chance of getting shot, when I read her letters, hoping that I would come to her relief. But what am I to do…I thought I was a soldier, and it   made me feel somewhat proud to think that I had a right to fight for Uncle Sam…but my wife’s letters have brought my patriotism down to the freezing point,             and I don’t think it will ever rise again.

The story of Camp William Penn provides historians and the general public a window into not only the story of the USCT, but also racial tension and civil rights activism of the Civil War era. [4]

The photograph that became the basis for the "Come Join Us Brothers" United States Colored Troops recruitment painting.
The photograph that became the basis for the “Come Join Us Brothers” United States Colored Troops recruitment painting.[5]
Thanks to the work of the volunteers at Camp William Penn Museum and the Citizens for the Restoration of Historical La Mott—and the latter’s strong online presence–remnants of this important piece of U.S. history remain. Yet their conservation efforts have yielded few visible results. Only fragments of the camp walls and gates remain. A walking tour of the blocks might allow interpreters to point out where barracks or camp streets were once located. Indeed, fragments of the destroyed barracks and buildings have been repurposed to construct homes in the neighborhood, but these are not marked nor is it clear if these remnants of the city’s distinguished civil rights history are one home remodel or urban renewal away from vanishing too. Although the battle to preserve the camp has been underway for decades, a bigger fight remains to be waged—this one against the public’s nearly complete lack of interest in the site. The story of Camp William Penn is about how hundreds of thousands of men, young and not so young, free and enslaved, turned out to fight for their country, often with other Americans actively working against them. In the process these men realized they had another fight to wage at home, for equality and for respect. Yet our memory of these men, like the camp where they trained and lived, has been slowly disappearing for more than one hundred and fifty years. Out of respect for their memory, Camp William Penn deserves more than a marker and a seasonal museum.

     [1] “Incident at Camp William Penn,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, September 21, 1863, America’s Historical Newspapers.

     [2] “The Negro Camp,” The Age, February 1, 1864, in David I. Harrower and Thomas J. Weickowski, A Spectacle for Men and Angels: A Documentary Narrative of Camp William Penn and the Raising of Colored Regiments in Pennsylvania (West Conshohocken, PA: Infinity Publishing, 2013).

     [3] “Temperance Movement at Camp William Penn,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, March 31, 1864, America’s Historical Newspapers.

     [4] A Grand Army of Black Men: Letters from African-American Soldiers in the Union Army, 1861-1865, ed. Edwin S. Redkey (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 237.

     [5] Jerome S. Handler and Michael L. Tuite, Jr., “Retouching History: The Modern Falsification of a Civil War Photograph,” the University of Virginia.

Blake McGready

Blake is a graduate student at Villanova University and interested in early American history and public history. In addition to his coursework and assistantship, he works as a tour guide for the Encampment Store at Valley Forge National Historical Park in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania. He can be reached at bmcgread@villanova.edu.

“A History They Can Use”: The Memphis Massacre and Reconstruction’s Public History Terrain

On May 20th and 21st, a group of scholars, students, and public historians gathered at the University of Memphis to discuss a dramatic event often overlooked in the narrative of Reconstruction, the Memphis Massacre of 1866. The symposium, and the Memphis Massacre Project, informed the public about the massacre and began a difficult and necessary conversation about how Americans approach the history of Reconstruction–how we rethink and repurpose existing spaces and create new public spaces to reflect on that history. The symposium’s directors, Dr. Beverly Bond and Dr. Susan O’Donovan, spoke with Muster about their work and their hopes for the project’s future.

From the capture of Memphis by Union forces in June 1862 through the final surrender of the Confederacy in April 1865, Memphis experienced dramatic demographic, social, and economic change. Thousands of enslaved African Americans fled area farms and plantations for sanctuary in the city. These new arrivals were housed in camps near the Union Army’s Ft. Pickering, on President’s Island, and in surrounding areas. After the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, African American men were allowed to enlist into segregated units of the U.S.C.T. Some of these soldiers were garrisoned at Ft. Pickering and a U.S.C.T unit from Ft. Pickering was among the black soldiers killed in the 1864 Ft. Pillow massacre, about forty miles north of the city.

The city’s white population also changed during the Civil War. Some Confederate sympathizers left the city to fight with the Confederate army or to refuge deeper into Confederate-held areas. Union military personnel, northern businessmen or war profiteers, teachers and other agents of northern missionary aid societies, and Freedman’s Bureau officials and workers poured into the city. As conflict wound down, some self-exiled white Memphians, returned to the city, hoping to take advantage of President Andrew Johnson’s generous amnesty programs and to reclaim homes and other property. Control of city services shifted back to civilian authorities.

These Memphis populations – newly emancipated African Americans, former Confederates (including many former slaveholders), former free people of color, ethnic whites (including many Irish immigrants), northern military and civilians – were negotiating the new terrain of freedom in the post-Civil War south. As was the case across much of the former Confederacy, white Southerners wanted to confine black Southerners to the narrowest of freedoms. White Memphians were willing to concede the end of slavery, the right to marry, and the right of former slaves to assume responsibility for the economic support of their families, but were not willing to extend full equality, full citizenship or even the fullest exercise of free labor to their black neighbors. Touting the presence of “surplus” African Americans in the overcrowded city, and beginning as early as fall 1865, white civilians and city government officials, sometimes with the complicity of the Union Army and the Freedman’s Bureau, encouraged (or pressured) black Memphians to return to the countryside to satisfy the labor needs of white farmers and planters.

Depiction of the 1866 Memphis Massacre. Image from the Memphis Massacre Project site, http://www.memphis.edu/memphis-massacre/.

This volatile situation in the spring of 1866 engendered a series of minor confrontations between black soldiers at Ft. Pickering and members of the Memphis police, which escalated into a much larger massacre, a three-day wave of violence that left at least forty-six African American men, women and children dead. Other black Memphians were beaten and/or driven out of the city. Every African American church and schoolhouse was destroyed, homes and businesses were burglarized and burned, and at least five women were raped. Within weeks, a Congress that had already been at logger-heads with President Johnson over Reconstruction policy, dispatched a delegation to Memphis to investigate the massacre and its origins. What they learned, and how they responded to that new knowledge, led to the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment, changed the course of Reconstruction, and with it, the constitutional underpinnings of the nation. And then, as a nation, we “forgot” about Memphis along with the rest of Reconstruction’s history.

Bringing Reconstruction back into public view poses a number of challenges, both political and practical. The first, of course, stems from the fact that for 150 years, this history has been confined near exclusively to academic circles. Until May 1, 2016, when the Memphis NAACP unveiled a marker to commemorate the victims of the Memphis Massacre, there had been no National Park Service recognition of any aspect of this history anywhere. For reasons best explained by Cecelia O’Leary, David Blight, and others who work on the politics of memory, Reconstruction has been denied a place on our national historical landscape. But aside from having to carve out commemorative space that has for more than a century been claimed for marbled generals, Civil War battlefield sites, and more recently, Confederate battle symbols, Reconstruction didn’t happen in any particular or clearly defined place.   Unfolding more as a guerilla action or grassroots insurgency, Reconstruction worked itself out wherever people might meet – on workshop floors, inside white people’s homes, on plantations and farms. This has made it hard for historians to identify a physical location for an interpretive site or a monument. Still, there were moments when debates over black freedom flared largely and violently, and as Kate Masur and Greg Downs have observed, those acts of public violence can both be plotted on a map and used to open up discussion about a deliberately “forgotten” past. The Memphis Massacre of May 1866 gave us that chance.

Historical marker of the massacre. Image from Depiction of the 1866 Memphis Massacre. Image from http://www.memphis.edu/memphis-massacre/.
Historical marker of the massacre. Image from Depiction of the 1866 Memphis Massacre. Image from http://www.memphis.edu/memphis-massacre/.

What we quickly realized, however, was that teaching an event like the Memphis Massacre required teaching a wider and deeper historical context too. Reconstruction is such a cypher that no one knows how to think about it, or where to fit it into our national narrative. But in doing more to teach Reconstruction, we stumbled onto what turned out to be a winning strategy for making the Memphis Massacre meaningful to a 21st-century audience. By broadening our field of inquiry, our audiences quickly came to see that what happened in Memphis in 1866 was more than an idiosyncratic episode of only local interest. By broadening the story, they saw that what happened in Memphis is key to knowing how the nation we live in today came to be. As a number of our May symposium speakers revealed, many of the legal and constitutional rights we now take for granted owe their origins to the nation’s response the Memphis Massacre, and most especially, to the role played by former slaves in prompting those changes.

Indeed, if there was one aspect to this history that hooked our audiences most securely, we would venture to say it was the degree to which Black Lives–and black truths!–Mattered in 1866. Congress listened. A nation listened. And the outcome was a radical shift in American civil and political life. Imagine, for instance, where we would be today without the 14th Amendment, which Congress put the finishing touches on in the wake of the Memphis Massacre. Imagine where we would be today if black truths and black testimony carried the same weight that they did in 1866 when a congressional delegation took those testimonies seriously. For most of the people with whom we worked on the symposium this spring, this aspect of the Memphis story resonated the most deeply. Here was a history they could use.

We brought all these themes together in our capstone event, a two-day public symposium held on May 20-21 at the University of Memphis. It featured historians and scholars from across the country, including Robert K. Sutton, former Chief Historian of the National Park Service.  Presenting to an audience that numbered in the hundreds, their presentations pried open what has for 150-years been the carefully concealed history of Reconstruction, its legacies, and the significant role that Memphis played in both. The discussions that followed each presentation were lively, informed, and illuminating.  We learned much over these two days: about ourselves, our city, our nation, and the role of public memory in public life.

A picture of the Memphis Massacre Symposium. Image from the "Memories of a Massacre: Memphis in 1866" Facebook page.
A picture of the Memphis Massacre Symposium. Image from the “Memories of a Massacre: Memphis in 1866” Facebook page.

Now that we’ve brought the Memphis Massacre and through it, something of Reconstruction, to the surface, we intend to keep it there. But in the absence of a brick and mortar interpretive center, our efforts to commemorate, remember, and understand one of the watershed moments in national history will unfold in the digital domain. As it develops, the Memphis Massacre website will be museum, schoolroom, and public forum. In a sense, the amorphous nature of a digital interpretive center is appropriate given the amorphous character of Reconstruction’s history. Anyone, anywhere, at any time will be able to visit our site to learn more about this historic period. Anyone, anywhere, at any time can relive our May 2016 symposium, all of which was filmed and is now available on the Memphis Massacre blog. Panel four, “The Memphis Massacre,” aired recently on C-SPAN3 and panel 5, “The Radicalization of Reconstruction,” will air on the same channel on July 23. Both sessions will also be available in the C-SPAN Civil War video library.

Our plan in coming months is to continue adding new resources and teaching materials, including primary sources. We will use our blog, Facebook page, and Twitter feed to promote Reconstruction commemorative initiatives in other communities as well as nineteenth-century African American history more generally.   We’ve found our website and social media “machine” to be very powerful and effective teaching and advocacy tools; our intent is to keep using them to permanently break what have been long-standing silences and to bring about a deeper public awareness of our past and the people and events that have shaped it.

Susan O'Donovan and Beverly Bond

Susan Eva O'Donovan is Associate Professor of History at the University of Memphis. A former editor at the Freedmen & Southern Society Project and author of Becoming Free in the Cotton South, Professor O'Donovan specializes in African American history with a focus on the transition from slavery to freedom in the Civil War era. Beverly Greene Bond is Associate Professor of History at the University of Memphis. Past president of the Southern Association for Women Historians, Professor Bond specializes in nineteenth-century African American history with a focus on African American women and their experiences.

Bidding on History: The Strange Afterlife of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Birthplace

In May 2016, the remains of a dismantled eighteenth century wooden house appeared for sale on eBay. The online listing specified that, “Every single thing has been saved including the original plaster walls.” The seller asked $14.5 million to purchase the structure, claiming that the pieces constituted the “most important Dismantled American House that is available for reconstruction.”[1] In the nineteenth century, the Reverend Lyman Beecher raised his family of activists and abolitionists within these rooms, including reformers Catherine and Henry Ward Beecher, and the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe. In the home along North Street in Litchfield, Connecticut, the Beecher family developed an activist ethos, which encouraged Lyman Beecher’s children to advocate for emancipation and women’s rights. Yet despite the family legacy, the building’s neglected remains recently emerged for sale online. The surviving boards and plaster are a stark reminder for students of history about how easily significant sites and historic places are lost.

The Beecher house; image courtesy of the Litchfield Historical Society.
The Beecher house; image courtesy of the Litchfield Historical Society.

Rev. Beecher purchased the North Street house in 1810. His daughter Harriet described the home as a “wide, roomy, windy edifice that seemed to have been built by a succession of afterthoughts.”[2] Soon after Harriet left Litchfield for the Hartford Female Seminary in 1824, Lyman sold the house and moved the family to Boston. Over subsequent decades, the building endured several transformations. (At one point in the twentieth century, one of its rooms housed a young student of the nearby Spring Hill School named Pete Seeger). In 1996 the Forman School, the property’s owners, placed the old Beecher home on the market, beginning a series of noble but failed attempts to preserve the structure. One of the men to acquire the building was Chandler Saint, who proposed to disassemble the structure, located on land now occupied by a school, and reconstruct the building in another spot in town. An antiques dealer, Saint became the face of the Beecher project. He dealt with the press and led public tours, oversaw the property’s disassembly, commissioned forensic studies of the paint, and directed the search for a location to reconstruct the house. While some Litchfield residents resisted Saint’s ideas, the state historical commission endorsed Saint’s proposal.

In August of 2000, two truck trailers carrying the house triumphantly arrived at the proposed reconstruction site adjacent to the Litchfield town hall. By the end of the month, however, a number of events were set in motion that would result in the house’s disappearance. In response to neighbors’ concerns, the state’s attorney general, now senator Richard Blumenthal, ordered the trailers off the property. Chandler Saint refused. Six months later, the Connecticut Historical Commission declared threated to seize the trailers if Saint failed to comply. In response, Saint declared that he wouldn’t move the trailers until a safe place could be secured. But while he was speaking, amidst a raging snowstorm, the trailers were quietly moved away. Saint refused to divulge the remains’ location, remarking only that the house “went on the Underground Railroad. It disappeared. It went to safety.”[3] Despite Saint’s garbled Underground Railroad metaphor, it pays to remember that Stowe stubbornly refused to help real fugitive slaves such as Harriet Jacobs and her daughter. And, of course, the antislavery novelist imagined many futures, but none of them involved blacks and whites living together as equals. While some old Connecticut families might have been shocked to see their history sold on auction block, the descendants of slaves like Jacobs might have instead enjoyed a bit of schadenfreude. But, to get back to our story, had Saint, the man once celebrated as a preservationist visionary, kidnapped Stowe’s house?

A drawing of the Lyman Beecher House from 1929; image courtesy of the Litchfield Historical Society.
A drawing of the Lyman Beecher House from 1929; image courtesy of the Litchfield Historical Society.

Like Harriet Jacobs, who hid in her grandmother’s small attic crawl-space for seven years, wherever Stowe’s house went into hiding, it stayed there—for fifteen years. Until a few weeks ago, when the surviving pieces appeared for sale on eBay. Stowe wrote of her childhood home, “Many a pensive, wondering hour have I sat at our playroom window, watching the glory of the wonderful sunsets that used to burn themselves out, amid voluminous wreathings, or castellated turrets of clouds–vaporous pageantry proper to a mountainous region.”[4] In that house, Stowe found her voice. Uncle Tom’s Cabin helped to transform the national conversation and perception of slavery. In the book’s opening pages, in the person of Mr. Shelby, the novel’s “good” slave master, Stowe condemned the selling of human beings as, among other things, depriving enslaved peoples of family and history. The sale and subsequent saga of the Beecher home is a powerful reminder of the stakes of historic preservation, and the need to protect the places where we tell the history of slavery and anti-slavery.

Please share with Muster stories of other endangered Civil War-era properties, objects, and sites by contacting the editor, Blake McGready (bmcgread@villanova.edu).

     [1] “Elijah Wadsworth Harriet Beecher Stowe House Litchfield Ct Civil war Slavery”, http://www.ebay.com/itm/Elijah-Wadsworth-Harriet-Beecher-stowe-House-Litchfield-Ct-Civil-war-Slavery-/3116055235170?hash=item488d1e8de2:g:oJOAAOSwLs5XKQ-w, accessed 21 May 2016.

     [2] Annie Fields, ed., Life and Letters of Harriet Beecher Stowe, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin and Company, 1897), 31.

     [3] Joel Lang, “Who is Chandler Saint and Why Did He Hide Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Birthplace?,” The Hartford Courant, April 8, 2001.

     [4] Fields, Life and Letters, 31.

Peter Vermilyea

Peter C. Vermilyea teaches history at Housatonic Valley Regional High School (Falls Village, CT) and at Western Connecticut State University. A graduate of Gettysburg College, he is the student scholarship director of his alma mater’s Civil War Institute.

Home Sweet Home?: Slave Dwellings and the Politics of Home

Perhaps nothing better encapsulates our personal histories than our homes. From the slightly outdated furniture to the embarrassing school-age portraits to the perfect warm spot by the fireplace, the amalgam of objects, images, and spaces that comprise home shapes our core. So too do those within; our families, friends, and pets influence our experience and memory of home. At once a thing, a place, and people, home is also an idea, a mix of the imagined and the real. We define our past, our present, and our future through homes.

Home reveals both personal and national histories. Historians of architecture, material culture, and family, for example, have long argued that American history is made in the home. Americans have always demanded the right to private domestic spaces in which to safely house their families, goods, and hopes for the future, since the time of the fifth amendment, which states, “No Soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the Owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law.”

Screenshot 2016-04-22 at 6.03.32 PM
Figure 1. Booker T. Washington remembered his mother’s earnest prayers for her family’s freedom. The possibility of sale and violation of her home always felt imminent. Booker T. Washington, An Autobiography: The Story of My Life and Work (Toronto: J. L. Nichols & Company, 1901), 14.

But not all Americans have possessed that right. Millions of enslaved African Americans struggled to build and maintain homes within an institution that sought to strip them of their humanity, including their right to private domestic spaces. The threat and reality of sale meant that slave homes were tenuous (fig. 1). And enslaved people responded to this anxiety in disparate ways. Writing of his life in slavery, Thomas Jones expressed his belief that enslaved Americans shared a natural, acute longing for home: “no one can have…such intensity of desire for home and home affections, as the poor slave.” On the other side of the spectrum, the British abolitionist John Passmore Edwards proclaimed in his supplementary book to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s massively successful Uncle Tom’s Cabin that “slaves have no home.”

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Figure 2. Joe McGill has spent nights in more than fifty slave dwellings in twelve states since 2010. Photograph from http://slavedwellingproject.org/sleeping-on-preservation/.

My own research has been animated by the question: how did enslaved people build private homes, physically and psychologically, while under the impossible burdens of slavery? This past October, I attended the Slave Dwelling Project Conference in North Charleston, South Carolina ready to engage this question more deeply. The Slave Dwellings Project (SDP) is the product of Joseph McGill, who, after spending years as a Civil War re-enactor in South Carolina, began campaigning for the preservation of an oft-ignored Old South relic: the slave cabin. And McGill did so, by determining to sleep in every single extant slave dwelling in the United States (fig. 2). After gaining national attention, McGill formed the SDP as a way to continue his work. The Project brings together groups that too rarely engage one another. From scholars to activists, legislators to business people, the SDP and corresponding conference are great ways for like-minded individuals and organizations to coalesce to save the dwellings of enslaved people.

This mixture of like-minded but methodologically diverse professionals resulted in consensus over some issues and fierce contestation over others. We all agreed that preserving and presenting the history of enslaved people is absolutely crucial to an accurate national story.

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Figure 3. Derelict slave cabins, often inhabited by freed people long after the Civil War, still stand throughout the U. S. South. This one is located outside St. Francisville, Louisiana, where a number of antebellum “Big Houses” are carefully maintained. Photographs by the author, 2012.

The grand “Big Houses” of the antebellum South are seemingly omnipotent in America’s physical and mental landscape. The dwellings of enslaved people should have a similar presence (fig. 3). But what constitutes a slave dwelling? Is it always a small log cabin, as pictured in popular culture (when they’re depicted at all)? Does it even have to be a physical building, or simply a space where one might sleep? Historians are well aware that enslaved domestic laborers might have slept in the “Big House,” possibly in their own room but more likely wherever their owner demanded. George Womble related to a Works Progress Administration interviewer in the 1930s that he had “slept in the house under the dining room table all of the time.” Conversations did not even begin to address the dwellings or homes of enslaved people living in cities or on small yeoman farms. Home was never a homogenous concept; the diversity of enslaved living conditions and lived experiences meant that home meant many things and took many forms. If we focus all our efforts on preserving wooden slave cabins on large plantations, are we accurately presenting the history of slavery?

Additionally, many were so focused on the materiality of the slave dwelling, that we sometimes lost the humanity of the dwelling, how enslaved men, women, and children, actually experienced and imagined home. Of course the physical space and conditions of the dwelling are crucial to understanding slavery and our past. As a dedicated material culturist, I will always support that position. But, for enslaved individuals, home was about more than its physical incarnation.

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Figure 4. Thomas Nast, Emancipation, 1865. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

When we talk, write, think, and construct exhibits about slave dwellings – actually, about any aspect of slavery – let’s not forget the ideas of home held by enslaved people. Home – a true, private, safe home – exemplified the most desired fruits of liberty. At the heart of emancipation was the reunited black family in a comfortable, protected home (fig. 4). As Margrett Nillin, a former slave in Palestine, Texas, noted in a late 1930s W.P.A. interview, “In slavery I owned nothing and never owned anything. In freedom I own a home and raise a family. All this cause me worriment and in slavery I had no worriment, but I’ll take the freedom” (fig. 5). The struggle did not end with emancipation. Housing was a central issue in the twentieth-century civil rights movement, and remains so today. It’s vital that we recognize not only the long history of discriminatory housing practices, but also how home as both physical space and evolving idea shaped the black freedom struggle.

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Figure 5. “Margrett Nillin, ex-slave, Ft. Worth,” 1937. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs

Whitney Nell Stewart is a PhD Candidate in History at Rice University and a 2016-2017 Barra Foundation Dissertation Fellow in Early American Art and Material Culture at the McNeil Center for Early American Studies. Her dissertation, entitled “The Racialized Politics of Privacy: Meaning and Materiality in the Nineteenth-Century Black Home,” has been supported by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History & Culture and National Museum of American History, the Huntington Library, and the American Antiquarian Society, among others. Additionally, she has held curatorial fellowships at the Bayou Bend Collection at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and The Henry Ford museum.


“10 Homes That Changed America.” 10 That Changed America Series. PBS. 2016.

Arnold, Sandra A. “Why Slaves’ Graves Matter.” New York Times. 2 April 2016.

Desmond, Matthew. Evicted Poverty and Profit in the American City. New York: Crown, 2016.

Edwards, John Passmore. Uncle Tom’s Companions: Or, Facts Stranger Than Fiction. A Supplement to Uncle Tom’s Cabin: Being Startling Incidents in the Lives of Celebrated Fugitive Slaves (London: Edwards and Co., 1852), 144.

A short account of Joe McGill as a re-enactor at Fort Sumter can be found in Horwitz, Tony. Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War. New York: Pantheon Books, 1998, 47–48.

Nillin, Margrett. WPA Slave Narrative Project. Texas Narratives. Vol 16. Pt 3. Federal Writer’s Project. Manuscript Division. Library of Congress, 153.

Jones, Thomas H. Experience and Personal Narrative of Uncle Tom Jones; Who Was for Forty Years a Slave. Boston, Mass.: H. B. Skinner, 1854[?], 23.

Wright, Gwendolyn. Building the Dream: A Social History of Housing in AmericaNew York: Pantheon Books, 1981.

Womble, George. WPA Slave Narrative Project. Georgia Narratives., Vol 4. Pt 4. Federal Writer’s Project. Manuscript Division. Library of Congress, 187.