Smithsonian Relocates Slave Cabin To Be Centerpiece Of Upcoming Exhibition

Smithsonian
Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture

The Smithsonian Institution has received a unique donation – an intact slave cabin from a plantation in South Carolina. The cabin, which was on the grounds of the Point of Pines Plantation on Edisto Island, was donated by the current landowners.

For the past month a Smithsonian team has been meticulously dismantling it and removing it to the National Museum of African American History and Culture. The reconstructed cabin will be the centerpiece of the “Slavery and Freedom” exhibition when the museum opens on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., in 2015.

While it will certainly make an interesting display and attract lots of attention, it’s a shame that it wasn’t left where it was. Historic homes and artifacts have a more immediate impact on the visitor when they’re left in the original location. The move has taken away the cabin’s context. It’s no longer in the area where the slaves worked, lived and died. Instead of experiencing the landscape – the heat, the insects, the thick undergrowth the slaves would have known – we’ll now see it in a modern museum thronging with tourists.

Perhaps it was impossible for the cabin to remain where it was. Perhaps the Smithsonian had to move it to save it, but we’ve still lost something.

Martin Luther King Memorial Inscription To Be Modified

Martin Luther King Memorial
The Martin Luther King Memorial in Washington, D.C., was unveiled on August 28, 2011. It has since proved hugely popular, with an estimated 1.5 to 2 million visitors in its first year. It has also proved controversial.

As Art Daily reports, several public figures complained about an inscription on the memorial that reads, “I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness.” The inscription is not in quotes because it’s actually a paraphrase of what King said. His actual words were, “If you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter.”

Leading poet Maya Angelou told the Washington Post that the paraphrase makes King look like “an arrogant twit.” She went on to say that the civil rights leader was anything but arrogant and the paraphrase “minimizes the man.”

Now the full quote will be included. In September or October, after the summer tourist rush is over, two sculptors will change the quote.

The statue’s other inscription hasn’t caused any controversy. It reads, “Out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope.”

[Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons]

Slave Quarters Discovered at Monticello

Monticello
Archaeologists digging at Thomas Jefferson’s home at Monticello, Virginia, have discovered slave quarters used at the time he was living there.

The remains were found at Tufton, one of Jefferson’s farms a mile from the actual house. Jefferson owned several farms around Monticello that were worked by his many slaves. The artifacts dating to Jefferson’s time include everyday items such as a button and fragments of ceramic, as well as a slate pencil, which raises the question of whether one of the slaves was literate. A more sobering find was a padlock. The slaves appear to have lived in small, single-family homes.

Jefferson’s views on slavery were complex. He correctly predicted that it would divide the nation, but that didn’t stop him from owning slaves himself, and while Jefferson wrote against race mixing, DNA evidence indicates that Jefferson fathered several children with one of his slaves, Sally Hemings.

A second slave quarter site was also found, dating to the middle and end of the nineteenth century. Jefferson had died in 1826 and his family sold his 130 slaves to pay off his many debts. Monticello itself was sold in 1831. The family that bought the Tufton farm also worked it with slaves until the end of the Civil War.

Photo courtesy Stefan Volk.

The Green Book: A Guidebook For The Age Of Segregation

Green Book, segregationIt’s hard to imagine nowadays when the only limitations to travel are money, time and health, but for much of America’s history a large segment of the population had trouble traveling just because of the color of their skin.

During the days of segregation, most hotels were off-limits to African-Americans, as were other facilities like restaurants, movie theaters and campgrounds. Those that did allow blacks to enter had strict rules of segregation. Stopping at the wrong restaurant could lead a black family to being insulted or worse.

Yet a rising black middle class had just as much hunger for travel as anyone else. The problem was: how does one travel safely? One answer was “The Negro Motorist Green Book,” a guidebook that listed hotels and restaurants open to black people. While it wasn’t the only such guidebook, it was one of the most popular and long lasting. It was started by Victor H. Green in 1936 as a guide just for New York City, but soon expanded to include the whole country and eventually Bermuda, Mexico and Canada.

I’d never heard of this book until I saw it mentioned on the excellent website I’m Black and I Travel. I downloaded a free PDF of the 1949 edition from the University of Michigan website and found it a fascinating read. The book introduces itself as a resource “to give the Negro traveler information that will keep him from running into difficulties, embarrassments and to make his trips more enjoyable.”

Then come the listings. I took special note of places I used to live. Tucson, Arizona, only had one listing for a restaurant and no lodging mentioned. Columbia, Missouri, had a hotel and a tourist home, which was a private home that rented out spare rooms to travelers. The hotel has since disappeared and the land on which it stood is now taken up by an adult store and theater. The guesthouse is now a private residence. New York City, of course, had plenty of listings. The Harlem Renaissance was in full swing and the Harlem listings are longer than the listings for many states.

%Gallery-153462%Another city that has a sizable listing is Tulsa, Oklahoma. Only 28 years before, the thriving black neighborhood of Greenwood had been burned to the ground and hundreds of black people killed by a white mob in the worst race riot in American history. By 1949, numerous black-owned businesses had literally sprung from the ashes and got into “The Green Book.”

The advertisements open up a different era too. How long has it been since hotels boasted they had hot water and radios in every room? Only two national companies advertised in this edition: Esso, which was a leader in selling franchises to African-Americans, and Ford Motor Company, which placed an ad for its very cool 1949 convertible. Green also advertised his own reservation bureau, noting that a shortage of beds for black travelers made it essential to plan ahead.

There are also a couple of articles, including one on what to see in Chicago, highlighting its large black neighborhood as well as more general interest sights. Another article talked about Robbins, Illinois, which was of interest to the black reader since it was a prosperous town owned almost entirely by black people. The guidebook notes that with “no prejudice and restrictions” the community was able to boom. The article finishes: “It is worth the trouble to go out and take a look at what an experiment of an exhibition of what Negroes working together can do. Indeed, it would not be a bad idea to pitch in and help.”

One thing that struck me most about this book was the absolute lack of rancor. The problem of segregation is noted, and in a couple of places Green hopes for it to end one day, but there are no angry tirades against the injustice that black people were suffering. If I had been black in 1949, I doubt I would have been so charitable.

“The Green Book” is a sobering reminder of a sad time in U.S. history, and also a reminder that things occasionally get better – not 100% better, but time has seen a major improvement. Green stopped publication after 1964 after the passage of the Civil Rights Act. It is now a rare item and it’s not even clear if a copy exists for every edition. If you think you or your grandparents may have a copy tucked away in the attic, go check. It should be preserved.

Do you have memories of travel in the age of segregation? Tell us about them in the comments section!

[Photo courtesy University of Michigan]

Excavating Central Park’s forgotten village

Central ParkCentral Park is sometimes called the “lungs of New York City”. Locals and visitors alike come here to enjoy a bit of fresh air and greenery. The park was approved in 1853 in order to leave a green patch in the rapidly expanding metropolis. The city government took the land between 59th and 106th Streets, between Fifth and Eighth Avenues, by eminent domain. About 1,600 residents were paid for their property and forced to move by the summer of 1856.

While a beautiful park was born, its birth was the death of Seneca Village, a prosperous community of almost 300 people. Two-thirds of the population was black and it may have been the first community of middle-class black landowners is New York. The rest were white, many of them Irish immigrants. Of the village’s three churches, at least one was integrated.

Seneca Village was founded in 1825, two years before New York freed most of its slaves, and expanded quickly in the following few years. Living conditions downtown were unhealthy and property prices high (some things never change) so blacks with enough money were eager to move up to this area. The map, Columbia University, shows Seneca Village. Eighth Avenue is at the top of the picture. Seventh Avenue is at the bottom, with 82nd St. on the left and 86th St. is on the right.

Today archaeologists from the Seneca Village Project have finished the first-ever excavation of this historic community. After painstaking research through city records, they were able to locate the precise spots where many of the houses stood. They decided to excavate the property of two black residents: the yard of Nancy Moore, and the home of William G. Wilson. They found a wealth of nineteenth-century artifacts, including some porcelain imported from China, showing that some residents were quite well off. They even found a shoe that may have belonged to one of Mr. Wilson’s children.

If you’re heading to Central Park, check the project’s interactive map to see the history under your feet.