And just like that, the number of states that I have now spent a night in a slave dwelling is seventeen. On Friday, May 13, 2016, I was joined by Jerome Bias and Jodi Barnes to conduct that sleepover.
Dr. Jodi Barnes is Station Archeologist & Research Assistant Professor of Arkansas Archeological Survey at the University of Arkansas at Monticello. I first met her at the Behind the Big House Tour in Holly Springs, Mississippi in April 2015. At that time, she expressed a desire to do something similar in Arkansas. I immediately verbally signed on because Arkansas was not yet in the portfolio of places of which I had spent a night in a slave dwelling. It is my modus operandi that when these sleepovers are proposed by individuals, I discuss the requirements and let the rest happen. I do this because there is usually a bureaucracy that has to be dealt with before the event can occur. Knowing that everyone is not buying what I’m selling, those requests are sometimes met with denial. Jodi Barnes negotiated the bureaucracy well and made it all happen.
The stay would occur at Historic Washington State Park in Washington, Arkansas and be financed by the Arkansas Humanities Council. The park is a collection of buildings that are original, some are recreated and some have been moved to the current site. You can find out more about the park by following this site:
The building of which we would spend the night was a recreated attached kitchen. It was built to specifications established by conducting an archaeological dig on the site. Findings from the dig allowed the structure to be built on the footprint where it was originally located. It was an impressive reconstruction but the one thing that they did not get right in recreating the building was the hearth and that was what we needed the most. It was made too narrow, too short and without enough depth. This would prove to be a challenge for the cooking that needed to done.
Jerome Bias has been interacting with the Slave Dwelling Project more and more lately. Formerly employed by Old Salem in North Carolina, Jerome is now taking his furniture making and cooking skills on the road. A major grant from the South Carolina Humanities Council has allowed the Slave Dwelling Program to initiate Inalienable Rights: Living History Through the Eyes of the Enslaved. This is a program that has allowed the Slave Dwelling Project to assemble living historians from throughout the southeast to conduct living history programs at historic sites that once engaged in slavery. The project pivots around Jerome’s cooking and interpretive skills. Recommending Jerome to Jodi Barnes to participate in this event was a no brainer.
I was tasked with assisting Jerome with the cooking so he provided me with a period outfit complete with apron. Jerome cooked an okra gumbo and a sweet potato dish that would feed 50 people. As our Ancestors have been doing since being enslaved in this nation, Jerome “made do” with the downsized hearth. I found joy in starting the fire and keeping it going as Jerome needed. I was also assigned the duty of peeling the sweet potatoes. Jodi was assigned the duty of grating them. I also kept Jerome supplied with clean water as needed. My main duty was washing dishes which was ongoing throughout the process.
From 1:00 pm to 6:00 pm, Jerome was cooking. The group that would indulge in his creation started to gather at 5:00 pm so Jerome’s calculation of when the food would be finished was spot on. This calculation put me in deep thought of how the enslaved Ancestors would have to perform those same duties. Knowing that it took Jerome, Jodi and me 5 hours to prepare a single meal made me do some simple math. Even if we prepared three meals a day for less people, the enslaved cooks for the big house got very little rest. I know now that when I’m asked the question, “Did the house slaves have it easier than the field slaves?”, my answer from this point forward will be an emphatic no, at least not the cooks. The duties of the cooks would be compounded when the enslavers would have company, the kind of company that stayed for weeks and sometime months. Additionally, I have come across many cases where cooks had been tried and found guilty of killing their masters.
The turnout for the event was impressive. After attending an event in Brentsville, Virginia two weeks prior which yielded zero African Americans, I was pleasantly surprised at the percentage of African Americans who attended this event. All of the participants had the opportunity to interact with Jerome and me and to indulge in the food that Jerome prepared.
When Jodi first proposed the sleepover to park staff, I was going to be the only one sleeping in the dwelling. It was an easy decision for the park staff to make when it was just me who would be sleeping there. That number now reluctantly included Jerome and Jodi. Understandably, bureaucracy had reared its ugly head and matters of liability were expressed. In my mind, I would be much more concerned with cooking in the dwelling much more than sleeping in it. Fortunately for all, the sleepover proceeded without incident.
The final day, the program would proceed with a series of presentations. For me, it was business as usual because I spoke about the Slave Dwelling Project. The crowd again was impressive because of its diversity.
Now that Arkansas has been added to the portfolio, there are now the southern states of Florida, Kentucky and West Virginia that are blatantly missing from the portfolio of places where I have spent nights in extant slave dwellings. This fact would be less significant if I had not already spent nights in slave dwellings in the northern states of Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island.
Behind the Big House: Interpreting African American Places in Arkansas
Jodi A. Barnes
I arrived at the Sanders kitchen at Historic Washington State Park, mid-afternoon. Joe McGill and Jerome Bias, dressed in 18th century garb, were busy in the kitchen. McGill was peeling sweet potatoes and Bias was preparing beef for the lowcountry gumbo. There was a fire in the hearth and Sheila Ballard and Cynthia Wallace, the Historic Washington interpreters, buzzed around offering guidance as Bias negotiates the unfamiliar kitchen.
Joseph McGill, with the South Carolina based Slave Dwelling Project, and Jerome Bias, from Stagville State Historic Site in North Carolina, were in Arkansas on May 13-14 for the Behind the Big House program put on by Preserve Arkansas, a statewide nonprofit organization focused on building stronger communities by reconnecting Arkansans to our heritage and empowering people to save and rehabilitate historic places. The program, supported in part by the Arkansas Humanities Council and the National Endowment for the Humanities, was designed to highlight the important contributions African Americans made to Arkansas’s history, offer guidance for historic preservationists who seek to preserve slave dwellings, recommendations for museums and historic sites that interpret them, and ideas for educators who teach American history. The program was modeled after the Behind the Big House Program in Holly Springs, Mississippi, which was selected as one of the National Humanities Alliance’s “Engaged Humanities: Model Programs for Cultivating Vibrant Local Humanities Communities.” Their program organized by Preserve Marshall County and Holly Springs, Inc. combines archeology, historic preservation, Joseph McGill’s Slave Dwelling Project, and a cooking demonstration by Michael Twitty to preserve the histories and architecture of slavery. Although McGill has slept in slave dwellings in 16 states, this was his and Bias’s first visit to Arkansas.
Historic Washington State Park, a historic town located in southwest Arkansas, was the ideal location for the two-day workshop that included live interpretations, tours, and lectures. Established in 1824, it operates as a state park interpreting and restoring the town’s rich history. As a town there were a series of “Big Houses” organized on house lots and residential blocks, which differs from the single “Big House” on plantations. Unlike plantations where one family might own 20-50 or more slaves, in towns one family more often owned a few servants or a craftsperson, who slept in the big house, the kitchen, or in separate quarters. At Historic Washington, the Sanders urban farmstead covered a town block and would have had plenty of space for vegetable and flower gardens, a smokehouse, a woodshed, animal pens, and the kitchen buildings, where part of the workshop was held. The kitchen building served as the principal workplace for the enslaved cooks and washerwomen and as their residence. The 1850s slave census indicates that Simon Sanders owned two adult females and one infant. The number of slaves rose to four and eventually six by 1860.
The Sanders kitchen is a one-story, two room, rectangular structure, with a central chimney. The kitchen was dismantled in the 1920s. In the 1980s, Dr. Stewart-Abernathy conducted archaeological excavations in the yard to locate the foundation and learn more about the people who lived and worked in it. The archaeological research demonstrated how the kitchen isolated the work and lives of the enslaved women and their families from the people in the Big House, but also the ways the intimate and necessary work that occurs in kitchens tied these buildings and the women who worked in them tightly back to the owners.
I offered to help and was handed a grater to shred the sweet potatoes. I grated and grated and the kitchen got hotter and the flies start to buzz. It was a cool early summer evening, but it was easy to imagine the hot summer days when the heat of the kitchen never cooled down. Bias prepared rice in one large caste iron pot and the meat for the lowcountry beef and okra gumbo in another. He also cooked up a sweet potato pone, from one of his grandmother’s recipes. As people started to arrive for Preservation Libations, Bias talked about reading 18th century cookbooks to prepare for his role as an enslaved cook. He also accounted the story of making sweet potato pone, a sweet potato pudding prepared with grated sweet potatoes, sugar, milk, egg, and nutmeg, for a program in North Carolina. A woman from Kenya was in attendance. She told Bias how she made a similar dish in Kenya with cassava instead of sweet potatoes. Stories like this were an important part of the program because they made connections between Africa and the New World and showed how people continue cultural traditions.
That night McGill, Bias, and I slept in the Sanders kitchen. McGill, an interpreter at Magnolia Plantation in South Carolina and a Civil War history reenactor, travels the country sleeping in the places where the enslaved once lived. The Slave Dwelling Project’s mission is to identify and assist property owners, government agencies, and organizations to preserve extant slave dwellings. But as he tells the attendees the next day, it also helps African Americans to identify with these places. When McGill sleeps in a slave dwelling, it sends a powerful message to its owner that people care about the place and hopefully it will inspire private owners who have these buildings on their property to pay attention to the buildings’ condition. But the impact of the Slave Dwelling Project expands beyond the preservation of buildings. In other locations, the descendants of enslavers and the descendants of the enslaved have slept in the dwellings creating dialogue and starting a healing process. In Arkansas, sleeping in the Sanders kitchen and learning about McGill’s project was a reminder of the importance of interpreting African American places, seeing how the enslaved may have dressed, how they prepared food, and where they slept.
During the Saturday program, Bias talks about his role as a furniture maker who interprets the experience of Thomas Day, a free black cabinetmaker from North Carolina and his involvement with the African American Cultural Celebration in Raleigh. He provided some important pointers for developing living history programs that interpret the enslaved experience. He noted that in event photography, it is important not to stereotype African Americans. Photographs that portray the African American cook as a smiling mammy figure may not draw African Americans to the programs. Instead, it’s important to show African Americans as the crafts people, the cooks, the builders, and the farmers that they were. In comparison, this may seem like a small thing, but one of the problems the African American Cultural Celebration faced was getting people to the program at the time it was designated to start. Music was key. They invite a high school band to kick off the event. People don’t want to miss the music, and it draws the parents and grandparents who want to see the band members perform at this important cultural event. Attendees at Behind the Big House took these important messages home with them and were reminded of the need for African American interpreters and storytellers in state parks and historic sites.
Dr. Skipper, an assistant professor in the Center for Southern Studies at the University of Mississippi, was another presenter. She researches and teaches about heritage tourism and is also actively involved with the Behind the Big House in Holly Springs, MS. This free program, which consists of docent led tours of the slave dwellings (often led by her students), mirrors the pilgrimage of plantation homes where people buy tickets to visit the Big Houses. She talks openly about the efforts to combine the pilgrimage and the Behind the Big House programs and the difficulties that have arose. Similar to Blues and foodways heritage tourism, which are rooted in African American lives and slavery, there is a reluctance to discuss this important part of history. But she demonstrated how the work of a small group of people has powerful impacts by concluding with images of the descendants of the enslaved celebrating part of their family reunion at one of the houses.
The Behind the Big House program brought about important conversations about a difficult time in Arkansas and U.S. history. I gave a presentation on the archaeology of slavery and how educators and museums might teach this topic. Dr. Jamie Brandon presented on the archaeology of Historic Washington. Billy Nations and Josh Williams toured participants around Historic Washington highlighting the powerful presence and role of African Americans. This two-day program underscored the importance of African Americans visiting these sites and seeing African Americans as interpreters at them. This important collaborative project that incorporated the Arkansas Archeological Survey, Arkansas State Parks, the Black History Commission of Arkansas, and Preserve Arkansas helped put a face and an experience on the men, women, and children who lived and toiled at Historic Washington.
Dr. Jodi A. Barnes is an archaeologist with the Arkansas Archeological Survey and President-Elect of Preserve Arkansas. Her research interests range from the archaeology of World War II to the African diaspora. She is the editor of the volume, The Materiality of Freedom: Archaeologies of Postemancipation Life.