I got the opportunity to use a slave dwelling sleepover as a teaching tool when I was called on by my former employer the National Trust for Historic Preservation to present at a Preservation Leadership Training that they were conducting. The event was cosponsored by Preservation Maryland and the Historic Annapolis. The training was titled Invitation to Evolve and was held in Annapolis, Maryland, September 7 – 9, 2016. From the title of the training you can conclude that the goal was to discuss creative ways of reinterpreting house museums. The participants were asked to be prepared to deal with the following issues:
• What is the biggest challenge you currently are grappling with?
• What are unmet opportunities you face?
• What was the best new idea implemented at your place of employment in the past year?
The invitation to present was somewhat short notice because I had already committed to an engagement in New Paltz, New York that conflicted with the training dates. Because I had not yet bought my plane ticket for the trip, driving became an option and it allowed me to invite Terry James along for the extended trip.
The plan was that all of the training attendees would be given the opportunity to spend the night in the James Brice House in Annapolis on Wednesday, September 7th. According to its website:
“The James Brice House is one of the largest and most elegant of Annapolis’s historic mansions. Construction on the five-part Georgian home started in 1767 after the death of James’ father, Judge Brice. Using enslaved and indentured labor as well as local craftsmen, the house took nearly 7 years to complete.
Today, this National Historic Landmark is the headquarters of Historic Annapolis. Highlights of the central block include a magnificent mahogany staircase and the lavishly decorated drawing room, which features a plaster cornice and paneling, a carved mantel and overmantel, and interior window shutters. The spacious modern conference room can be rented for meetings, presentations, and other events.”
That sleepover experience would be incorporated into my presentation which was titled Interpreting the Whole Story Creative and would be given the next morning. This would be an easy task for me because I along with Terry James had already spent a night in the James Brice House.
This opportunity would also allow me to reconnect with some of my former coworkers from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Rhonda Sincavage, Director of Publications and Programs and David Young, Director of Cliveden in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. David and I go way back because when the Slave Dwelling Project was in its infancy, he invited me to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to spend a night at Cliveden. Cliveden was my first sleepover in a slave dwelling in a northern state and I was immediately and highly impressed by their willingness and success in incorporating the stories of the enslaved in their interpretation.
As planned, all but one of the participants committed to sleeping in the space arrived around the appointed time of 6:00 pm with the exception being David Young who would be coming in later. Also joining us would be Lynda Davis from Baltimore, Maryland who is a member of the group Coming to the Table and has joined me in sleepovers at four sites. One of the sites that Lynda had already stayed was the James Brice House. She accepted the invitation to sleep at the James Brice House but she would not be participating in the training session.
The evening started with dinner at Galway Bay Irish Pub in Annapolis for the nine of us who had gathered at the James Brice House. Seven of the nine diners would be spending the night in the James Brice House. Dinner was a great opportunity to get acquainted with Katherine Malone-France, President for Historic Sites at the National Trust for Historic Preservation. To date, I have spent nights at two National Trust properties, Montpelier in Orange County, Virginia and Cliveden in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. A sleepover will occur at Belle Grove Plantation in Middletown, Virginia in October 2016 and discussions are currently underway to schedule a sleepover at Drayton Hall in Charleston, SC. Katherine mentioned the possibility of spending a night in the Decatur House in Washington, DC but my ultimate goal is the White House.
Back at the Brice House, we all decided that we all would sleep in the carriage house which is now the conference room. Historically, the coachman and other enslaved would have slept there. Finding a spot for everyone was not a problem for the eight of us who shared the space. The conversations that started at dinner continued in the carriage house. What stood out the most to me was that one participant from Huntsville, Alabama expected to be spending the night in a slave cabin. This was an indication to me that urban slavery is not well understood.
The day of the workshop united me with Teresa Martinez. Three weeks prior, Terry James, Lynda Davis and I were spending a night at the Octagon House in Washington, DC of which she is the executive director.
In addition to Teresa, a great diversity of sites were represented to include the National Park Service. I now have my sights set on a sleepover at Fort Monroe, Virginia. The stories that can be told there about self-emancipation and contrabands.
My presentation was a quick run through of the Slave Dwelling Project’s powerpoint. I yielded some time to Terry James and for the sleepover participants to give some testimonials about the previous night’s sleepover.
It was certainly my pleasure to be a part of this workshop. It is an indication that the student has now become the teacher. The simple concept of sleeping in extant slave dwellings has shown the public that the lives of the enslaved Ancestors mattered. It is because, African Americans do not own any of the spaces that I find to spend the nights, it is necessary that I apply this concept among the coalition of the willing participants. The willing participants know that we come in peace and we mean them no harm. Some of these willing participants even allow us to come back a second, third, fourth and fifth time to apply the mission of the slave dwelling project. It is our desire that we can convince others that the spaces of which they are stewards can and should be used to tell not only the stories of the enslavers but also the stories of those who were enslaved. If historic house museums really want to accept an invitation to evolve, if they are not already, they should begin to interpret the social histories associated with their buildings.
It was my desire to stick around for the entire workshop, but Terry James and I had to hit the road to fulfill our obligation to Historic Huguenot Street in New Paltz, New York.
As I have stated in my other blogs about overnight stays with Joe McGill and the Slave Dwelling Project, I participate because it helps me practice the four approaches of Coming to the Table (see: www.comingtothetable.org): facing and uncovering history, making connections with others across racial lines, working toward healing, and taking action. In this visit to the James Brice House, by listening to the other participants, I uncovered the following history: Dred Scott was in Fort Snelling, Minnesota.
I had never heard this about Dred Scott despite having visited Fort Snelling many times. Dred Scott is probably most well-known for the 1857 Supreme Court decision which decided that Scott could not be free even though he had lived in areas where slavery was prohibited. The majority opinion in this case was written by Roger B. Taney whose statue currently stands in front of the Maryland State House in Annapolis, MD, just a few blocks from the James Brice House.
After my visit to the James Brice House, I googled “Fort Snelling and Dred Scott,” and found this on the Minnesota Historical Society website: “Dred and [and his wife] Harriet Scott are arguably the most historically influential people to have ever lived at Fort Snelling. They were slaves belonging to the post surgeon, Dr. John Emerson” and they lived at Ft. Snelling from 1836 or 1837 to 1840 (see: http://www.historicfortsnelling.org/plan-visit/what-do/dred-scotts-quarters).
The question I ask myself is: what actions can I take once I uncover and face this kind of history? Maya Angelou said: “History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived. But if faced with courage need not be lived again.” George Santayana said “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” By facing history with courage and remembering the past, I am no longer doomed to re-live the past and I am no longer condemned to repeat the past. I can use my knowledge to take action along with other people to keep history from repeating itself.
The actions that I and others can take to keep history from repeating itself are:
1. Learning about racism and white privilege through courses like “Healing from Toxic Whiteness” (see: https://compassionateactivism.leadpages.co/healing-whiteness-program/);
2. Talking about racism and white privilege with people especially the younger generations;
3. Participating in interracial dialogue groups which help humanize others and keep one from ignoring the suffering of others (see: Coming to the Table: http://comingtothetable.org/resources/local-regional-cttt-groups/; An End to Ignorance: http://www.anendtoignorance.com/; and The Conversation Starters: https://www.facebook.com/The-Conversation-Starters-211663392514509/.)
4. Being a member of Showing Up for Racial Justice (see: http://www.showingupforracialjustice.org/about); and
5. Supporting the Movement for Black Lives (see: http://action.movementforblacklives.org/).