Publication Date

March 1, 1998


Public History

Editor's Note: We reprint below the text of a speech delivered at the conclusion of a two-day conference on interpretations of slavery, held at the Somerset Place State Historic Site (October 31–November 1, 1997), because it touches on important issues of public history and pedagogic practice.

This conference comes at a propitious moment in the history of the nation and in the development of the historical profession. It follows more than a generation after the struggles of the civil rights movement. It also has at its disposal the collective wisdom of pathbreaking studies in African American history that began at the turn of the century with pioneering works by George Washington Williams, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Carter G. Woodson, continued with John Hope Franklin, and reached a crescendo during the past quarter century. Many of the legal and cultural barriers that once divided the races have broken down. Except at academic conferences and in ivory-cloistered seminar rooms, frank exchanges about race, slavery, segregation, and interracial sexuality would have been unheard of or at least unusual until as recently as a decade ago. Provocative books such as Alex Haley's Roots and Dot Redford’s Somerset Homecoming helped spark a dialogue about slavery in the African American community where once silence and indifference seemed to prevail.

Meanwhile, sometimes unknowingly, the white community became more sensitized to issues of race and the legacy of slavery. Perhaps some of you experienced reactions similar to those that I received when I wrote and published Black Experience in Revolutionary North America during the 1970s. Some people wondered why I had a “thing” about black history. Presentations to civic groups or patriotic societies literally met with disbelief. “I’ve never heard of that before” and “Where did you find that?” were among the more polite responses to my remarks. Other skeptics, embarrassed or uneasy, suddenly found their place settings and uneaten food fascinating objects of contemplation.

By the early 1990s much of that covert antagonism to African American history had disappeared or at least had been redirected, sometimes with salutary results. The dramatic growth of heritage tourism, the popularity of Civil War reenactment groups, and even the spurt in membership of the Sons of Confederate Veterans reinforced what I believe is a principle fundamental to this conference. History must be inclusive. The entire story must be told. When John Bell and I began planning and writing an eighth-grade North Carolina history textbook in 1992, the integration of African American history was never an issue. I devoted an entire chapter to antebellum slavery, but even earlier in the textbook, African Americans figured prominently in my discussions of colonial society, immigration, and the American Revolution. Likewise, when Paul Escott, Flora Hatley, and I coauthored A History of African Americans in North Carolina in 1992, the public responded warmly and enthusiastically. No one questioned the book’s usefulness and appropriateness.

So this conference provides a suitable forum to discuss how far we have come as academic but especially public historians, what we still need to overcome, and where we might go. Toward that end I wish to propound four basic principles to guide and inform the interpretation of slavery in particular and African American history in general. Most of my discussion is directed toward historic sites, but the same principles apply to textbooks, written materials, and other media as well. None of those educational materials is designed exclusively for historians. All aim to instruct, edify, and enlighten a broader audience.

I have already mentioned the first principle: inclusiveness. The so-called culture wars that have raged during the past decade have led to numerous misconceptions about the intent of professional historians. Each generation of historians asks different questions about the past. For too long, as we all know, history principally was about Great White Men, wars, and politics. Since the 1960s, influenced by the civil rights movement, opposition to the war in Vietnam, feminism, and a host of other social, cultural, and political changes, historians have attempted to expand the definitions of the discipline with astonishing energy, grace, and resourcefulness.

No longer is history just about the "Big House" and the white family that lived there. The slave quarters, African American culture, poor whites, and interracial tension, negotiation, and accommodation preoccupy historians and historic site interpreters alike. Consider Fort Fisher, North Carolina's most visited state historic site, near the mouth of the Cape Fear River. Most visitors doubtless come to see the fortifications that protected the Confederacy's lifeline until January 1865. That story alone is dramatic. But if one were to learn that enslaved African Americans and conscripted Lumbee Indians worked on building the fort and that African American Union soldiers helped capture it, the story expands in complexity and poignancy.

Perhaps no historic attraction has incorporated African American history so successfully into its overall program as Colonial Williamsburg. In 1775 almost half of Williamsburg's nearly 2,000 inhabitants were African or African American. But before the 1970s most visitors would not have seen any evidence of a black presence. The creation of the Department of African American Interpretation and Presentations in the early 1980s changed that painful omission. Living history presentations, exhibits, and special tours now tell the story of slaves, free blacks, and indentured servants within the context of a thriving colonial society and economy.1 I have interrogated the African American woman portraying a household slave at the Brush-Everard House and toured the reconstructed slave quarter at Carter’s Grove Plantation. I can attest to both sites’ preparation, accuracy, and unflinching honesty, which bring me to my second principle: truthfulness.

Slaves were not servants. Although there is much to celebrate in African American folk beliefs, culture, tradition, and resilience, slavery was a cruel and bloody business. Even a general audience will not be fooled by attempts to depict slavery or its conditions as benign. Language is another important consideration. Not every slaveholding farmer was a planter, and not every farm was a plantation. Similarly, not every African American was a slave. Distinctions should be made and carefully explained. In the preface to Roll, Jordan, Roll, Eugene D. Genovese commented that “Some of the language in this book may disturb readers; it disturbs me.” While we do not want to offend readers or visitors, neither do we want to anesthetize them to the daily toil, indignity, discipline, and even terror of slavery. When contrasted with the harsh realities of slavery, the efforts of the African American community to build a domestic life, protect families, and shield young and old alike from the worst atrocities of slavery appear all the more remarkable.

Interpreting slavery at sites not necessarily associated with African American history requires the same rigid adherence to truthfulness. Even a cursory examination of the racial attitudes of some of the most prominent leaders of the Union war effort reveals ambiguity and tepid support for emancipation. Abraham Lincoln's evolving attitudes are well documented. William Tecumseh Sherman's racism was as breathtaking as it was raw. The case of Ulysses S. Grant, however, offers intriguing possibilities. White Haven, the U. S. Grant National Historic Site near St. Louis, was the home of Grant's wife, Julia Dent. The daughter of a Missouri slaveholder, Julia Dent herself was also a slave owner. Grant farmed the land for his father-in-law from 1854 to 1859. He worked alongside the bondsmen to cultivate the land and to cut wood for his house and for sale in St. Louis, 12 miles distant. When Grant and his wife moved to Illinois in 1859, he bought one William Jones from his father-in-law but then emancipated him. Julia Dent Grant, on the other hand, hired out the four slaves that she owned.

Writing in 1863 in the midst of the Civil War, General Grant stated, "I never was an Abolitionist, [n]ot even what could be called anti slavery, but I try to judge farely & honestly and it became patent to my mind early in the rebellion that the North & South could never live at peace with each other except as one nation, and that without Slavery. As anxious as I am to see peace reestablished, I would not therefore be willing to see any settlement until this question is forever settled."

Through skillful interpretation, White Haven has shed important light on the African American presence at the site and on Grant's experience with slavery before the Civil War. A total of 18 slave cabins once stood on the Dent farm. Grant ordered them destroyed in 1867. Now only archaeological artifacts remain from the kitchens to document African American life at White Haven, but no visitor to White Haven can leave without understanding the connections between Grant, slavery, the Civil War, and the site.3

The way in which White Haven approached slavery points directly to my third principle: research. Research is the sine qua non of any historical enterprise. One cannot speak authoritatively about slavery at any site without conducting the requisite research. At Monticello, where the Thomas Jefferson–Sally Hemings legend has now penetrated the public consciousness as never before, historical interpreters are prepared to answer questions. Again, I speak from firsthand experience. More important, ongoing research has revealed much more about slave life at Monticello than was known even 10 years ago.

Not every historic site has a staff that can perform in-depth research. The National Park Service has turned to academic institutions and to the Organization of American Historians to assist at various sites. Another successful method for accomplishing research is through graduate students and internships. To be sure, a historic site needs to identify what "big themes" should be explored. But sometimes very basic research can provide the crucial evidence for interpreting a site.

A remarkable project that deserves mention is one being conducted by Loren Schweninger of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Schweninger is compiling a documentary history titled Race, Slavery, and Free Blacks: Petitions to Southern Legislatures and County Courts, 1776–1867. For the past six years he has visited the state archives of all 15 slaveholding states as well as about 160 county courthouses in states where the county court records are not centralized.

The project consists of about 17,000 photocopied and microfilmed petitions from 268 counties and about 51,000 related documents (writs, answers, depositions, wills, court orders, decrees, reports, and the like). In all, Schweninger has collected roughly 200,000 pages of documentary evidence. Scattered in state repositories, research libraries, and county courthouses, and sprinkled with session records, chancery court proceedings, and county case files, petitions provide information heretofore difficult to identify, let alone find. The petitioners include blacks and whites, slaves and free blacks, men and women, slaveholders and nonslaveholders. According to Schweninger, the "documents represent the largest body of contemporary evidence of writings in behalf of, or by southern slaves, writings of southern free blacks, and writings of southern slaveholding women." The documents reveal new information "on state and local history, politics, economics, race relations, manumission, inheritance, property rights, class attitudes, cultural values, genealogy, violence, runaways, and slave revolts."

With initial funding from the National Historic Preservation and Records Commission and the National Endowment for the Humanities, Schweninger is creating a database for all the documents in the collection. Once the database is completed, a user will be able to enter in a computer a subject, name, county, state, date, or key word and receive a list of relevant Petition Analysis Records, known as PARs. Each PAR contains an abstract of a single petition and up to 100 pieces of information about the petition or related documents. Ultimately, a microfilm and selected two-volume letterpress edition of the documents will be published. Both the microfilm and the book editions will be connected to the database to permit even greater access to these rich sources. Just to complete the database will take another four years or more. Even so, when it is finished, Schweninger's project will offer an enormous amount of material for the study of free blacks in the South.

Similarly, the Department of the Navy, the National Park Service, and Howard University have formed a partnership to undertake the African American Sailors' Project. Led by Joseph P. Reidy, the project is establishing a basic demographic profile of the black sailors who served in the Union navy during the Civil War. Unlike the Union army, the navy did not segregate black sailors or create a separate administrative bureau. Personnel records list characteristics such as color of hair, eyes, and skin. As many as 25 percent of the Union enlisters, who served on more than 600 vessels, were black. As one might expect, the enlisters were young, usually in their early 20s, and the majority of them were born in the South. Perhaps four-fifths had escaped slavery before enlisting, whereas as many as 10 percent had served in the navy before the war. As the war progressed, the navy became darker in complexion. By the war's end, blacks made up one-fourth of a vessel's crew on average and in some instances more than one-half. Informal segregation accounts for the high percentages on some ships. Blacks served disproportionately on supply ships and in low-paid and low-rated positions. But black sailors also held four petty officer ratings: boatswain's mate, captain of the hold, master at arms, and quartermaster. During the Civil War eight black sailors received medals of honor for their heroism.3

What the Schweninger and Reidy projects suggest, indeed what the experience of Monticello indicates, is that much basic research remains to be done on the African American past. Historic sites should avail themselves of these rich resources. Yet the question remains, how do they use that research and information? My fourth principle—tailored interpretation—addresses that issue.

Each historic site must fit its interpretation to its specific story. You will recall that Procrustes, the legendary ancient Greek robber, forced his victims to fit into a bed by either stretching or cleaving their legs. One size does not fit all at historic sites. What are the basic themes at the historic site? How do they relate to African American history? Architecture and landscape may be appropriate at one site but not at another. A tailored interpretation actually has the advantage of focusing on one or two major themes without trying to interpret them all. Instead of a broad interpretation that may or may not be pertinent to that site, the visitor receives sound information on some discrete aspect of African American history. The impact on the visitor becomes concentrated, sustained, and effective.

The Charlotte Hawkins Brown State Historic Site in Sedalia outside Greensboro is the only one in North Carolina devoted exclusively to African American history. Charlotte Hawkins Brown founded a preparatory school, Palmer Memorial Institute, for black youngsters at the turn of the century and guided it to the threshold of the civil rights movement. The site is still under development, but extensive research has been done on the school and its founder.4 That story alone is worth telling, but Charlotte Hawkins Brown was more than a black schoolmarm. At a time when few black men could claim her prominence in North Carolina, she became a national leader in the drive for interracial cooperation and a champion of woman’s suffrage.

Brown forged her racial strategies in an age of segregation and often had to work covertly and circumspectly. She insisted on being called "Miss," "Mrs.," or, after receiving honorary degrees, "Doctor." Brown resisted the Jim Crow system whenever possible. She said that she would willingly "separate" herself from whites but that she would never be "segregated." On her way to the interracial meeting of the Woman's Missionary Convention in Memphis in 1920, she was forcibly removed from a Pullman car and placed in a Jim Crow car. Undaunted, she asked the meeting to oppose lynching and help black women, and she later sued Pullman. Until the 1920s she portrayed the curriculum at Palmer Memorial Institute as vocational even though it was mostly academic from its inception. She wanted whites to believe that she was a disciple of Booker T. Washington's philosophy of industrial education at a time when few whites supported classical education and middle-class values for blacks. In a sense, Brown combined parts of Washington's accommodationism with W.E.B. Du Bois's "talented tenth" in her education of race leaders.

Over the course of her long career, Brown advocated "bringing the two races together under the highest cultural environment that will increase race pride, mutual respect, confidence, sympathetic understanding, and interracial goodwill." Brown emphasized civility in race relations and appealed to whites' better nature. Ultimately, however, she was a pragmatist who sought the support of powerful whites. Because of her, Palmer Memorial Institute had a national reputation, but she clearly was more than an educator. Brown was a reformer, a guardian of her race, and a critic of the racial status quo. Her career demonstrates the complexities of the age of Jim Crow and offers a glimpse beyond the veil that separated the races in those years. Restricting the interpretation of the state historic site to the school alone would miss a valuable opportunity to educate visitors about the context of segregation and race relations before the civil rights movement.

Inclusiveness, truthfulness, research, and tailored interpretation thus are principles that can serve any historic site. In the context of African American history, they can provide a framework for reaching audiences uninformed and unexposed to what many historians believe is a central theme in this nation's past-race. In The Souls of Back Folk, published in 1903, W.E.B. Du Bois declared, “THE PROBLEM of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line-the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men in Asia and Africa, in America and the islands of the sea. It was a phase of this problem that caused the Civil War; and however much they who marched South and North in 1861 may have fixed on the technical points of union and local autonomy as a shibboleth, all nevertheless knew, as we know, that the question of Negro slavery was the real cause of the conflict.” As we approach the beginning of the 21st century, race remains a central issue in contemporary society and in how we interpret the past. Textbooks and historic sites have an opportunity to repair a breach between the races that has produced centuries of disaffection, suspicion, and misunderstanding. What will historians a century from now say about our strivings in the 21st century? If we are truthful, if we are faithful, if we are diligent, perhaps Du Bois’s famous quote will have lost its prophetic power.


1. Christopher O. Geist, “African American History at Colonial Williamsburg,” CMR [Cultural Resource Management] 20: 2 (1997).

2. Pamela F. Sanfilippo, “Slaver at White Haven,” ibid.

3. Joseph P. Reidy, “The African American Sailors’ Project: The Hidden History of the Civil War,” ibid.

4. I am grateful to Richard F. Knapp and Charles Waddington of the Historic Sites Section of the North Carolina Division of Archives and History for their painstaking research on Palmer Memorial Institute and its founder, and to Glenda Gilmore for her astute analysis of Charlotte Hawkins Brown in Gender and Jim Crow: Women and the Politics of White Supremacy in North Carolina, 1896–1920 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996).

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