5 Historic Sites With Fresh Perspectives on Interpreting Slavery and Freedom
When I visit a historic plantation or a city’s museum, I often see spaces—such as slave cabins, outbuildings, or smaller exhibits—that take on the task of interpreting slavery or free African American communities. When I see this, I take a moment to appreciate the plantation or museum’s effort, and how far our nation has come in interpreting a narrative that, not too long ago, was invisible to the American public.
Though I appreciate these efforts, what intrigues and excites me is what the following five historic sites have done. They have flipped the traditional script and interpret their sites from the perspective of the enslaved or free African American community. Moreover, they educate visitors about the struggles of African Americans in both slavery and freedom and how this struggle influenced their culture.
Using different approaches, all five sites work to spark a dialogue that will lead to understanding and reconciliation.
The Whitney Plantation—Wallace, Louisiana
In 1999, John Cummings took on what would become a 15-year renovation of the Whitney Plantation. When the renovations were completed and the plantation opened to the public in December 2014, it was obvious that this historic plantation was unlike any other in the United States. Its interpretive narrative doesn’t focus on Ambroise Heidel who founded the plantation in 1752. Nor does it highlight the New Yorker, Brandish Johnson, who bought the plantation after the Civil War. The Whitney is unique in that it interprets the former indigo and sugar plantation from the viewpoint of the more than 350 enslaved people who lived and worked there.
It functions as a powerful site of memory and consciousness and honors not only the enslaved people who toiled at the Whitney Plantation, but also those who lived, labored, and died elsewhere in the United States.
John Cummings chose art as a tool to convey the perspectives of slaves on the plantation. Memorials—such as The Field of Angels, The Wall of Honor, and the Allées Gwendolyn Midlo Hall—and sculptures dot the landscape, serving as reflective spaces to contemplate the tragedies that enslaved people endured.
Freedom House Museum—Alexandria, Virginia
This house along Alexandria’s Duke Street was originally built as the residence for Brigade General Robert Young in 1812. 16 years later, it was leased to the slave dealing firm Franklin & Armfield and converted into a slave pen to hold enslaved men, women, and children en route to the sugar and cotton plantations of the Deep South.
Today, despite its sinister legacy, the former slave pen has been transformed into the Freedom House Museum founded and operated by the Northern Virginia Urban League. Through original artifacts, exhibits, and digital first-person slave narrative interpretations, the Freedom House Museum takes the very space where enslaved people experienced terror, separation, and despair and uses it as a platform to tell their harrowing story, consequently preventing this narrative from fading into the urban landscape.
The Old Slave Mart Museum—Charleston, South Carolina
The Old Slave Mart Museum recognizes the major role Charleston played in the interstate slave trade. Between the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Charleston was one of the largest slave trading centers in the United States. Before 1856, the public sale of enslaved people took place at the Exchange Building.
After an ordinance made the public sale of slaves illegal, much of the slave dealing in Charleston moved to private marts along Chalmers, Queen, and State streets. One of these was Ryan’s Mart, today known as the Old Slave Mart. Ryan’s Mart—named after Thomas Ryan, the alderman who built the mart—had a “barracoon” or slave jail and an open air shed where enslaved people were displayed on auction tables for potential buyers to view and purchase. The importation, exportation, and selling of slaves in the Old Slave Mart continued until the end of the Civil War.
In 1878, it was converted into a tenement for African Americans. Later, the Mart was used as an auto repair shop and functioned as such until 1937. A year later, Miriam B. Wilson bought the Old Slave Mart and established a museum that displayed African and African American arts and crafts—planting the first seeds of African American interpretation on the property.
After the museum closed in 1987, the City of Charleston acquired it. Now, the Old Slave Mart Museum staff—many of whom can trace their ancestry back to Charleston slaves—direct visitors through the informative panels that discuss the slave trade, slave auctions, and slavery in Charleston.
The Cathedral of St. John—Providence, Rhode Island
The Cathedral of St. John—established as King’s Church in 1722—became part of the Episcopal Diocese of Rhode Island in 1790 and served the community of Providence until April 2012 when the Cathedral closed. Now, the Episcopal Dioceses of Rhode Island is seeking a way to allow the church to serve its community once again.
Currently, there are preliminary plans to have the Cathedral house a Center for Reconciliation where visitors can experience and be engaged in the work of reconciliation through lectures, performances, and other educational experiences. Plans for the center also include a museum in the parish hall that would focus on the intersection of slavery and faith, delving into the Episcopal Church’s role in slavery and abolition.
“The shipbuilding and shipping industry in Rhode Island were major players in the slave trade, and much of Rhode Island’s economy was built with the profits of that trade,” says Ben Sibielski, Director of Communications at the Episcopal Diocese of Rhode Island. “Many—perhaps most—of those businesses were owned and operated by Episcopalians. So we feel we have both an obligation and an opportunity to speak the truth about the church's role in the slave trade. We anticipate that this museum would be an attraction to visitors as well as a valuable contribution to the city and state's history and self-awareness.”
As early plans for the Center for Reconciliation move forward, the Diocese has partnered with Brown University Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice, The Tracing Center, the Providence Preservation Society, the National Park Service, the Jonathan Daniels House, and the Rhode Island Foundation to make the center a reality.
[Editor's Note: The Center for Reconciliation is now open to the public. Rhode Island for Community and Justice also shares an office in the space. However, the church is still in need of restoration work.]
African Meeting House and the Abiel Smith School—Boston, Massachusetts
The African Meeting House and the Abiel Smith School are two priceless interpretive sites for the Museum of African American History in Boston (as well as two National Trust Historic Sites). Both tell the story of the free African American community’s triumph over adversity.
In the early 19th century, free African American Bostonians were allowed to attend church with their white counterparts. However, once inside the church, they were segregated from the white congregation members and were denied voting privileges.
Outraged at the injustice, African Americans began to follow Thomas Paul, an African American preacher from New Hampshire, and attend his services in Faneuil Hall. In 1805, Paul’s congregation purchased land on which they would build their sanctuary.
The African Meeting House, as it would later be called, was constructed almost entirely with African American labor, while Cato Gardner, a free African, raised a large sum of money to fund the building’s construction. After its dedication on December 6, 1806, the African Meeting House became a nucleus for the free African American community.
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The Abiel Smith School was constructed in 1834 with funds from the estate of Abiel Smith, a white business man. The building was the first public school for African American children, and while it aided free African American Bostonians, they continued to fight for educational equality and integration throughout the 1830s, '40s, and '50s. Finally, in 1855 a bill was passed by the legislature and signed by the governor which outlawed segregation of public schools in Massachusetts.
Currently, the Museum of African American History in Boston uses tours, lectures, exhibits, and artistic performances to inform the public about the adversity that the free African American community of Boston faced, and the rich culture that was born out of their triumph.