Introducing Slavery at Historic St. Mary’s City

I think there are some folks who chuckle when I tell them I am a consultant, as if that’s not possible. But I am. A large part of what I do and what I want to continue doing is getting historic sites and museums comfortable in telling the story of slavery as it pertains to their history. Part of my travels this week involve me giving a public lecture on my experiences in the field and also having an open discussion with the staff at Historic St. Mary’s City which will be introducing slavery to its interpretation in the coming months. St. Mary’s is Maryland’s first capital and the site focuses on life in the 17th century. However, life did not end in the 17th century and then pick up to today. The inn that I am staying it is an 1840s home, the Brome Howard. Along with this 1840s house comes an 1840s slave cabin. For me, an unfortunate aspect is that the house and cabin have been moved from their original sites and have been moved to a location nearby. However, I do understand that this 1840s home does clash with the 17th century narrative. But wonders of wonders, that does not mean that the site has abandoned the home. In fact, the site is now using the Brome Howard as a wonderful bed and breakfast that I have been calling home all week. Quaint in its existence, while still undergoing some improvements, I have to say that this place has been a quiet refuge for me to return to every night. But besides the absolute peace and quiet I have gotten at the house, the slave cabin here is a real treat.

It’s a duplex, and the site is working on archaeology that will help tell the story of this place. With all of this work, the site is now faced with telling the story of slavery although it falls outside of the realm of the 17th century. For some longtime supporters, it’s not a surprise that there is a bit of hesitance. I have heard quite a few times that slavery wasn’t a problem here because it did not exist. But there is this cabin which says….I was here…you have to talk about me!!! The staff has accepted the challenge and Executive Director Regina Faden asked me to come in as a consultant and start a dialogue with the staff and talk about what it’s like to have slavery interpreted at your site and answer questions that they had in regards to perception, difficult audiences, possible issues stemming from school group visits, or any large group visits for that matter, and just how to handle this new aspect of their history.

What a great conversation we had this afternoon. What I saw was a group of white men and women looking for ways to talk about  topic that some will say they have no right speaking on. I saw an openness to make some adjustments to interpretation even before the slave cabin comes online. I saw a great group of interpreters and educators looking to change their narrative to go beyond the 17th century. While they are still in the beginning stages, I cannot wait to see how Historic St. Mary’s City introduces this subject with an amazing artifact like the cabin and introduce a new chapter in the history of this amazing site. I’ll continue to work with them on this project and be available to add perspective and answer questions that come out and be as much of a resource as I possibly can for them. The one thing that I did not hear from the staff was that because they were white, they could not talk about slavery. It was already a non issue and I really loved that. There is no thought of putting everything on hold until an African American interpreter is brought on board, there is no, “we just can’t because”…the attitude is, how do we move to the next level and what do we have to do to get there? Of course it’s ideal to have more diversity on staff, but to acknowledge that they cannot use that as a crutch to not move forward is motivating for me. I think the public will be pleased with the outcome simply because I see the dedication to tell the story of slavery. I am interested to see what this story holds and can’t wait for the next chapter.

You may also like...

5 Responses

  1. Catherine says:

    Are there any links to the slave cabin…or pictures? Kudos to them for tackling the issue directly.

    • Nicole says:

      The site is still working on funding to get this project in full swing. Graduate student Terry Brock has done massive archaeological work on the site of the cabin and has a wealth of knowledge that I believe will be translated partly into a website hopefully by the end of the summer (if funding does come through). I am working on a post that recaps my lecture there and I did take some pictures of the cabin that I will be posting in that entry. It really is a site to see, although it has been moved from its original site.

  2. Pat Young says:

    I really enjoyed my visit to St. Mary’s. Nice site. Glad to they are interpreting this key part of our history. Thanks for helping them.

  3. Terry Brock says:

    Nicole, I’m glad you had this talk with my colleagues at HSMC. I wish I could have been in attendance (I’m the graduate student doing the analysis on the quarter…I live in Virginia, and didn’t know about your talk until the day it was happening). Hopefully, they told you that this quarter is more than just a way to examine slavery in the 19th century. In fact, the majority of its existence it was home to a number of black tenant farmers, and was occupied until the 1950s. So, there is an entire narrative to discuss about the transition from slavery to freedom, the realities of Jim Crow, segregation, tenant farming, and the reconstruction of black life post-slavery in Maryland. This is really what will be the most powerful part of this presentation. It’s one thing to present about the horrors of slavery, but adding the narrative of freedom, and how these laborers, both enslaved and free, worked to establish their own spaces of freedom, will make this, hopefully, a unique portrayal of the past.

    • Nicole says:

      I am looking forward to working with you in the future on the interpretation of this cabin. I love the fact that you are looking past slavery and into how these cabins became homes post emancipation and later. Often people may get the idea that once emancipation rolled through, these homes were abandoned and never lived in again, and yet, there is a generation still living today that may have been born and/or raised in such cabins. Their story as well as those who were enslaved deserve to be told as part of the history of the cabin. This is going to be so exciting and I look forward to its development.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *