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.