February 15, 2024

Coming Together with the Descendant Communities Social Innovation Lab

For three days in March 2023, descendant communities from across the nation convened at the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) for the Descendant Communities Social Innovation Lab in partnership with the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund (AACHAF). The purpose was to address complex challenges through critical discussions, brainstorming new ideas, networking, organizing, and developing strategies to address the challenges.

The event welcomed over 160 descendants from across the United States and Puerto Rico representing presidential mansions, townhouses, country estates, plantations, and houses of worship, all of which were sites of historical enslavement. The convening also included descendants working to preserve and interpret burial grounds and battlefields where enslaved ancestors were buried or fought for collective freedom.

The two and a half days of panel discussions, presentations, food, and tours were organized by a small committee from the Action Fund and National Trust Historic Sites department, NMAAHC’s Family History and Education teams, senior scholar, Dr. Michael Blakey and independent scholar and living historian Jerome Bias.

Dr. Michael Blakey stands at a podium at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. There is a slide up on the screen next to him that reads "Descendants Rising."

photo by: Leah L. Jones/NMMAHC

Dr. Michael Blakey delivers the keynote address calling for the creation of a national descendants organization.

Defining Descendants

A very important question needed to be answered to even hold such a convening: Who is a “descendant?” Traditionally, when historic house museum staff refer to “descendants,” they mean the descendants of the property’s previous owners. For the purposes of the convening, that common trope was flipped to focus on the descendants of those who were held as property.

The organizing team was inspired by the expansive definition of descendants that was developed as part of the “Engaging Descendant Communities in the Interpretation of Slavery at Museums and Historic Sites” rubric of best practices. Invitations for the event went out to descendants of individuals who were members of the enslaved Black community that lived or worked near what is now a historic site.

To qualify for the event the Descendants had to descend from Africans who were enslaved in the United States and organizers worked diligently to connect with descendants related to historic sites with histories of enslavement from Maine to Florida, west to Texas and across the water to Puerto Rico. All of the members of the organizing committee are descendants of slavery in what is now the United States or Puerto Rico. They deliberated extensively over whether to include descendants of indigenous people who had been enslaved or other peoples who had been forced into labor on account of their race or other identity markers like Indigenous people and Japanese and Japanese Americans in the United States.

A descendent in a black shirt and blue sweater reading an exhibit case at the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

photo by: Leah L. Jones/NMMAHC

A descendant reads materials at NMAAHC’s Robert Frederick Smith Explore Your Family History Center.

A group of people sitting in a circle, facing the camera is Jerome Bias. Over his shoulder is another circle of individuals conversing.

photo by: Leah L. Jones/NMMAHC

Jerome Bias leads a discussion circle about living history and interpreting Black history.

For this convening, it was necessary to concentrate our efforts on what was already a geographically, culturally, ethnically, culinarily, and linguistically diverse group—Africans in antebellum America.

Descendants attending the convening needed to be descended from enslaved individuals who lived or labored at a specific historic space or a place in the surrounding community. This definition allowed us to incorporate both genetic kin, people who are connected by blood ties, and “land kin”—persons who are connected to the land or region around a historic site. These qualifiers were necessary in recognition of the fact that deep relationships existed among enslaved people despite physical property lines and the bounds of ownership imposed by enslavers. We also recognized the difficulty that descendants face when researching their enslaved ancestors and that in many cases primary sources have not been found or may no longer exist that state specifically who was enslaved where and at what time.

Descendants who fell under the above qualifications must also care deeply about how their ancestor’s histories, spaces and material culture are treated by historic sites. Black staff who work for institutions that steward historic spaces and places with histories of slavery were also invited with the special consideration that their work sits at the intersection of “the institution” and “the people” in their efforts to tell the stories of those who were once enslaved there.

Elon Cook Lee stands with a blue mask holding a piece of paper in front of descendants of National Trust Historic Sites. Behind her is a yellow bulletin board on which is taped a variety of papers.

photo by: Leah L. Jones/NMMAHC

Elon Cook Lee addresses descendants of National Trust historic sites.

On the first day of the convening, informal concurrent consultation sessions were held on genealogy, living history and interpretation, legal advocacy and preserving Black spaces. Attendees had the opportunity to interact and share with experts and each other, coming and going freely from one circle to another exchanging cards, stories and processes.

Also in attendance were descendants from eight of the National Trust’s eleven sites with histories of slavery: Belle Grove, Cliveden, Drayton Hall, James Madison’s Montpelier, Oatlands, Touro Synagogue, Woodlawn and Shadows-on-the-Teche. National Trust site descendants had the opportunity to meet one another and go on a tour of Washington, D.C. that included Cedar Hill, the home of abolitionist Frederick Douglass.

A group of descendants sitting at the National Museum of African American History and Culture Contemplative Court.

photo by: Leah L. Jones/NMMAHC

Descendants gather for a libation ceremony in the NMAAHC Contemplative Court.

A group of descendants from National Trust historic sites sitting around a table in conversation. In the back is a yellow bulletin board with various papers pinned to it.

photo by: Leah L. Jones/NMMAHC

National Trust Site descendants gather as part of the Descendant Communities Social Innovation Lab.

Connection and Community

The second day started with a moving libation ceremony in the museum’s Contemplative Court, the quiet of the room punctuated by the sound of its central waterfall cascading from the glass oculus above. Reverend Lawrence Walker, a Montpelier descendant and chair of the board of the Montpelier Descendant Committee made an offering to our enslaved ancestors while pouring water into the fountain. This is part of the practice of offering a libation, where the water serves as a connection between the people gathered and the ancestral realm.

Attendees then participated in sessions in the Oprah Winfrey Theater with an opening plenary conversation with Action Fund executive director Brent Leggs and descendants Andrew Davenport, Anderson Flen, Jerome Spears, and Michelle Lanier about connecting with your family’s site of enslavement.

Other sessions that day included researching enslaved ancestors, cemetery preservation, and a leadership conversation about descendant communities and federal lands. Living historian and scholar Jerome Bias hosted a pie tasting at the welcome reception, which included classics such as sweet potato pie and new to some pies such as kushaw squash. These sessions were designed to give attendees best practices and examples that they could use within their own communities and sites.

Two individuals on the stage. The woman in the foreground, Margott Williams holds a sepia toned photograph of another woman in a frame. The second woman on stage, the background, is slightly blurred out.

photo by: Leah L. Jones/NMMAHC

Margott Williams of Friends of Greenwood Cemetery in Houston holds up a photo of her grandmother during a session as moderator Lawana Holland-Moore looks on.

Four people sitting on a stage in front of a slide on a large screen that reads "Reclaiming Our House: Part I."  The slide also has two logos at the bottom of the screen.

photo by: Leah L. Jones/NMMAHC

Panelists at the “Reclaiming Our House” panel shared their experiences with attendees.

Going Forward

Day three of the convening started with a session about buying the master’s house and how the Montpelier Descendants Committee was able to achieve parity and co-stewardship of James Madison’s Montpelier. Other sessions included how to form independent descendant community organizations, sharing efforts to get organizations up and running and the challenges they faced along the way. The panel discussion on healing from intergenerational trauma at a site of enslavement explored how historic places can perpetuate harm, but also become spaces where descendants create opportunities for the own and communal healing from historical and ongoing violence.

A descendent, Rachel Keri Williams, standing with her back to the camera with a black sweatshirt that says "Black History is not Lost it's just Buried."

photo by: Leah L. Jones/NMMAHC

Descendant Rachael Keri Williams of Save Our Ancestors’ Legacy reflects her efforts to restore Lincoln Cemetery—Harrisburg, PA’s oldest Black burial ground.

It included Dr. Kim Whyte, licensed therapist and counselor for film and TV shows such as The Underground Railroad, Benji Hart’s experience and the Haus of Glitter and their Heal Esek Hopkins House project in Providence, Rhode Island. The day ended with a keynote from Dr. Michael Blakey, charging the audience with the task of what to do next as they go forward and calling for the creation of a national descendant's organization.

Throughout the entire convening, descendants connected and commiserated, sharing advice, best practices and their experiences. The excitement was palpable, both from being in such a moving space, but also being among other descendants who shared the same passion and dedication to making sure their ancestors are honored and heard.

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Elon Cook Lee is the director of interpretation and education of historic sites for the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Lawana Holland-Moore is the director of fellowships and interpretative strategies for the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund.

By: Elon Cook Lee and Lawana Holland-Moore

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