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  • Writer's pictureHeather HK

[Series] Do Better, Be Better: Museums and the interpretation of enslaved Blacks

Story time:

I was probably in 9th grade or so. My mom had to go to Winston Salem, NC, on a business trip, and she brought me along. I spent my days randomly wandering around the conference hotel, swimming in the pool, generally being a bored teenager. I'm sure I read a bunch of books. I probably did some cross-stitch because I was that kind of kid. Anyway...

Mom had the idea to go to a local museum. I loved museums, even then, though I was more of an art museum person at the time and hadn't stumbled into the awesomeness that is historic house museums. The museum my mom picked, it turns out, was a local Southern plantation museum.

Nottoway Plantation & Resort, White Castle, LA - not the museum I went to, and worthy of a whole other discussion because wut, a resort? Reeeeally.

I actually don't remember what the museum was. For this story, it doesn't matter. It could have been any number of museums. In a way, with notable exceptions, it's all of them. Pick a plantation historic site and what I'm about to say happened could probably have happened there, especially in the early 90s when this happened to me.

I'm on this tour. I'm the only Black face. I mean, really, I'm the only Brown face. I am standing in for my people as the sole representative present, a feeling many of us have had in many places throughout our lives. The tour, I'm sure, goes through all the beautiful living spaces and opulent bedrooms - I honestly don't remember. There was probably some discussion about the impressive economic achievements of the family patriarch, the brilliant parties of the matriarch, yadda yadda something something - again, I don't remember. It has left zero impression on me. What I do remember is taking the servant stairs down the back of the house into the kitchen and there, I see them, my focus entirely shifts to them - two cotton sleeping rolls on the floor under the stairs. The tour guide says "and this is where..." and she looks at me. We lock eyes. I see her soul leave here body momentarily. She pauses, she breathes, she thinks, and she says "... this is where the servants slept."

I mean, you saw that coming, right? I saw it coming as I lived it, and I wasn't a "museum professional" or much of anything besides a nerdy teen who probably had 3 books in her backpack. I remember mumbling something like "How much did those servants get paid?" and getting that look from my mom. OK, not worth it. (To be clear, it would very much be worth it to me today, but I'm not judging little teenage me for restricting herself to a snarky mumble.)

Story time over. Let's talk about my little museum day:

Last week I "took the day off" (whatever that means when you work remotely and asynchronously, basically I crammed my work into 4 days and didn't check my email for most of my day off) and hit up 2 local historic house museums. And I'm going to specifically call them out here, because they deserve it:

  • Pottsgrove Manor, Pottstown, PA. Really wonderful guided tour through the main building and remaining grounds. Very cute museum shop with the usual (books on local history, etc.). I believe you can tour the 4 acres on your own, but I had a timed ticket at my next location and had to go.

  • Peter Wentz Farmstead, Lansdale, PA. Another really great guided tour, includes parts of the surrounding grounds and the rest is available for touring on your own. Has a nature trail. Has sheep and cows! Love.

BOTH LOCATIONS include the stories of their enslaved Blacks into the interpretation. Neither really shy away from it, and both discuss the enslavers in relation to the enslaved. Both tour guides, without prompting, stated explicitly that there is no such thing as a "good" enslaver, that there was no "good" way to treat the people you kept in bondage against their will.

Pottsgrove Manor did a better job of incorporating the stories of their enslaved Blacks into the entire story - the subject came up multiple times in multiple locations in the house. But they also have less specific information on the individuals, due in large part to the large number of enslaved Blacks that were at the home - I believe there were 13 recorded in John Potts' probate inventory and that is suspected to be a low number compared to the normal counts. But the story of enslavement was fully incorporated into the entire tour, making the relationship between the enslaved Blacks and the Potts family apparent in all aspects of daily life. The language used was also well chosen to carefully distinguish between the household's paid staff, the indentured servants, and the enslaved Blacks.

Peter Wentz Farmstead took a different approach, limiting discussion of slavery at their site to one dedicated space. I think this decision was based on two factors: one, the Wentz family hosted George Washington during the planning stage and after the Battle at Germantown, so a bulk of the first-floor tour is dedicated to that history and the family traditions that lingered in relation to it through to the 1960s. And two, the walls had this very interesting polka dot patterning on them, and that decorative element was discussed in the first and second floors as they relate to a specific area of Germany, giving insight into where the Wentz family made have immigrated from. So while I normally would advocate for including the story of slavery throughout the tour, I think the Farmstead had these limitations on the tour content that resulted in the story of Jack being limited and given separate focus. And here I want you to note that I used a name: Jack. The Farmstead has a detailed story of Jack's self-emancipation from the Wentz family, including reproductions of the clothes he wore during his second (most likely but not confirmed) successful attempt and the advertisements Wentz placed seeking Jack's recapture. This is a brutally honest telling of Jack's enslavement, attempted self-emancipation and recapture, and his final flight from the Wentz farmstead, with the advertisements on display to combat any pushback or questioning that may come from visitors - which should in turn assist tour guides with tackling such pushback.

I was happy. And then I was annoyed and angry:

Both sites presented historical facts and included the history of slavery, often dubbed "difficult" or "challenging" history. And that inclusion had me thrilled. I went to Pottsgrove Manor knowing that the history of enslavement at the site was included, but I had no idea about Peter Wentz Farmstead and the story of Jack, so it completely took me off guard. But here were two different sites that weren't trying to tell me that the servants slept under the stairs. There were discussions of, and clear distinctions between, paid staff, indentured servants, and the enslaved. No co-mingling of terms. No sloppy history or confused storytelling. Just facts. Presented with dignity and respect and honesty.

I was so happy. SO HAPPY. I sent off an excited text to my group chat, and I rambled about it to my husband that night.

But in that happiness was annoyance, and that quickly morphed into anger.

Museums need to do better. I should not be pleasantly surprised that this history is part of a tour in 2021. I just shouldn't. What are we even doing? 402 years after the White Lion landed at Point Comfort in 1619, 471 years after the first ships landed in Brazil in 1550 setting off this nightmare, 395 years since the first ship landed at St. Kitts in 1626 and where my paternal grandfather's family lived and labored and loved until the 1890s. All these years later, American museums are still having the discussion about if/when/how/why to include the history of enslavement in the stories we tell at historic sites. This is what I mean when I say that we exert power in choosing which stores we will tell, and how, and to (and with) whom.

  • If? Yes, damn, you're historians, tell the history.

  • When? Now, yesterday, last week, last year, last decade.

  • How? Respectfully, honorably, truthfully, accurately, integrated with the whole story because it's part of the whole story at your site.

  • Why? Because it's important, it's vital, it's been ignored or sanitized and we need to do better. Damn.

C'mon, let's move past this. It's the right thing to do. There are resources out there. There are locations doing it well. There are interpreters doing it well. The groundwork is laid. Can it be hard to do the research, to do the interpretation, to rethink the story of a site? Yes, absolutely. But when is any of this easy? When is research easy? When is locating primary documents easy? When is the work easy? So this isn't easy? So what? Do it because it's the right thing to do.

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