AFR 329: Women & Slavery in the Black Atlantic – Course Collaboration, Kaitlin Barkley

After multiple class sessions introducing our archival and manuscript collections and oral history best practices, students in Dr. Nneka Dennie’s Spring 2019 AFR 329: Women & Slavery in the Black Atlantic course produced a documentary using oral histories created throughout the semester. These materials will be donated to the Archives.

In addition to this main project, students were tasked with identifying primary sources from local archives, historic sites, and/or repositories that shed light on the lived experiences of enslaved women or women enslavers. The following series of blog posts are authored by these students upon the completion of this archival research process and serve as reflective pieces.

Thank you for your submissions-and a wonderful semester of fruitful collaborations!

“Primary Source Analysis”

written by Kaitlin Barkley

Archives tell a story through its pictures, diary entries, posters, and assortment of documents. Each curated source, like a puzzle piece, placed together to create a portrait of the past… but often the picture is incomplete. Like a puzzle with missing pieces, the archives often miss important narratives from voices that were marginalized or oppressed at the time. Therefore, although the archives tell a story, the story comes full of biases and half-truths. As an audience knowing this, what do you do with these stories? How do you look at them without falling into its inevitable trap?

 

Saidiya Hartman in her article “Venus in Two Acts” suggests that the archives, especially those that curate materials on slavery, are inherently violent because of the ways they continue systems of power and oppression. The biggest example of this is the lack, and quite frankly erasure, of enslaved and free women’s voices in the archives. More times than not, there are endless piles of diaries, documents, and pictures of men of varying statuses, occupations and ages. And is compared to the few token materials archives have about women. This stark difference shows the importance placed of the lives and voices of men. Regardless, Hartman suggest that one solution to this inevitable trap is narratives found outside of the archives because they often help supplement the gaps within its archival stories especially about women. Additionally, simply understanding the gaps and limitation of the archives.

 

Hartman’s words stuck with me as I searched through the archives on slavery in North Carolina, curated by different institutions around the country. To be frank, I wasn’t surprised by how difficult it was even to find materials about the home lives of women. Even when using words that stereotypically denoted occupations and social position for women, I only found materials written or about men. Nevertheless, I found two sources that I thought paired well together because of their contrasting content.

 

The first source was a poster advertising the start of the Mecklenburg Female College. The poster was created by the college in 1867 illustrating the college’s main building, the cost per semester for amenities, and a short paragraph about the purpose and benefits of the college. In the paragraph, the college boasted about being a qualified and “devoted to female education”. This advertisement is contrasted by a correspondence I found between Mary Gibson and her brother Robert Gibson, a Davidson College Board of Trustee. In the letter, she writes to her brother asking him to make a confederate bond so that she can have access to her money in order to purchase two enslaved women.

 

Scanned page of handwritten text by Mary Gibson to her brother, Robert, on November 2, 1863. In the document, Mary complains about how the Civil War has made it difficult to find slave labor.

First of two pages written by Mary Gibson to her brother, Robert, on November 2, 1863.

 

Both documents are connected to the lives of white women in North Carolina during slavery. The first, about Mecklenburg Female College, is implicitly connected to slavery. It causes us, as an audience, to consider how these young women’s education is being paid for. The latter source, is explicitly connected to enslavement. Yet, both sources help establishes a fuller narrative about the impact of slavery on womanhood in North Carolina.

 

These two materials are only three years apart…I am left wondering in those three years how many other stories, tied to archival sources, remain undiscovered.



AFR 329: Women & Slavery in the Black Atlantic – Course Collaboration, Bry Reed

After multiple class sessions introducing our archival and manuscript collections and oral history best practices, students in Dr. Nneka Dennie’s Spring 2019 AFR 329: Women & Slavery in the Black Atlantic course produced a documentary using oral histories created throughout the semester. These materials will be donated to the Archives.

In addition to this main project, students were tasked with identifying primary sources from local archives, historic sites, and/or repositories that shed light on the lived experiences of enslaved women or women enslavers. The following series of blog posts are authored by these students upon the completion of this archival research process and serve as reflective pieces.

Thank you for your submissions-and a wonderful semester of fruitful collaborations!

“Examining The Politics of The Archive”

written by Bry Reed

There are a few things you prepare for when going on a Spring Break trip: the lines at the airport, the long flight, the sunshine. When going on a Spring Trip to Barbados, however, to study the legacies of women and slavery on the island, you prepare yourself for a few additional things. Beyond the sunshine, I prepared myself to delve deeply into the brilliance of Bajan archival history. Before leaving Barbados, I would start to question the politics of archives themselves as institutions for their role in accessing information.

Several students gather around a plaque in a large field marking the cemetery of enslaved persons in Barbados.
Students in the AFR 329 course visit the largest known cemetery of enslaved persons in Barbados. The enslaved woman at Newton Plantation who practiced “obeah” is buried, here.


In visiting The Barbados Museum and Historical Society, I quickly realized that archival work is not a small feat. It is an expansive task of displaying the depth, wealth, and expansiveness of history. All the while connecting materials to an abundance of lived experiences, lineages, and legacies. While detailing the religious history of enslaved Black communities alongside white enslavers, the museum featured a red and orange gemstone recovered from Newton Plantation. The museum’s description of this stone explains that it allegedly belonged to a powerful enslaved woman at Newton who practiced “obeah” (a word synonymous with hoodoo).

The large stone intrigued me for its archival value and religious significance. I admired the choice by the Barbados Museum and Historical Society to acquire and display the object in the core exhibit. It is important that we as scholars recognize that the choices on acquiring materials and displaying them happen intentionally. It takes money, work, and dedication to shape history.

The presence of the stone in the Bajan national archive adds a mark of institutional legitimacy often not afforded to African and Caribbean religious practices. These modes of religious expressions suffer severe demonization across the African Diaspora that renders them “illegitimate”. The choice to display the obeah stone publicly combats silencing in the archive that stems from anti-Blackness and ongoing colonization of academic spaces. More broadly, making space to explore the role of obeah via the archives creates avenues for Black feminist scholars, like myself, to draw broader connections across disciplines and borders.

It is my hope that scholars interrogate the politics of the archives they explore. Who is represented within them? Who is silenced? Who is put on display? In answering these questions, we reconcile with the larger questions about access, silence, and colonization within the institution of archives themselves.

AFR 329: Women & Slavery in the Black Atlantic – Course Collaboration, Uyen Nguyen

After multiple class sessions introducing our archival and manuscript collections and oral history best practices, students in Dr. Nneka Dennie’s Spring 2019 AFR 329: Women & Slavery in the Black Atlantic course produced a documentary using oral histories created throughout the semester. These materials will be donated to the Archives.

In addition to this main project, students were tasked with identifying primary sources from local archives, historic sites, and/or repositories that shed light on the lived experiences of enslaved women or women enslavers. The following series of blog posts are authored by these students upon the completion of this archival research process and serve as reflective pieces.

Thank you for your submissions-and a wonderful semester of fruitful collaborations!

“Enslaved Female Representation in Slave Advertisement During the Antebellum period (1784-1860)”

written by Uyen Nguyen

Slavery was the main economic and political force that shaped the culture and social life of North Carolina. The treatment of enslaved 1 people worsened due to the whites’ fear of abolition. Under increasing brutality and violence of Black Codes, many enslaved individuals in the South attempted to run away to the North with the hope to gain manumission. Enslavers suffered a massive economic loss when their slaves 2 ran away. In order to have their “property” returned, they hired slave catchers and disseminated advertisements rewarding individuals who could find their runaway slaves.

Screenshot of the homepage for the Introduction to the North Carolina Slave Runaway Advertisements database, "A brief history of slavery in North Carolina."
Introduction to the North Carolina Runaway Slave Advertisements database, “A brief history of slavery in North Carolina.” The organization of this database is led by UNCG and NC A&T University.

While enslaved women were less likely to run away than men due to familial commitments and geographic limitations, they were more likely to get caught because there were more advertisements reporting them as running away. Besides serving as a common tool to find their runaway slaves, 3 slave runaway advertisements were disseminated by white people as propaganda to further criminalize the resistance of enslaved people in means of legal and moral justifications. Furthermore, the representation of women in these ads perpetuated the inferiorization of enslaved women and their bodies.

In a runaway slave advertisement created by John McCord on the 23rd of August, 1838, an enslaved women named Lucy disappeared during her shift at another plantation. The ad 4 describes Lucy as “about 25 years of age, very black, and about five feet high and slender.” Like 5 features of other runaway slave advertisements, the color of this enslaved women, as well as her “immoral act,” were mentioned.

In the ad, her owner accuses her of stealing a cotton frock and taking the clothes with her during the escape. With the use of language such as “very black” and the inclusion of the enslaved women’s stealing, this ad further perpetuates the inferiority of enslaved women based on their skin color and how their enslavers have the legal and moral rights to have her returned. In another runaway ad, enslaver Samuel Sugg reported an enslaved woman named Sylvia on December 10, 1824, who escaped his plantation in Wake Forest, North Carolina.

She was 35 years old, and the ad describes her as “very black, low set and chunkey 6 made.” Sugg suspected that she was passing as a free woman and would reward any person that “will take her up and lodge her in jail.” Indeed, by giving any person a right to confine Sylvia, 7 her owner conveys that her runway act and passing as a free woman are against the law and should be punished with imprisonment. In addition, she was described as sneaky and “rather a 8 down look when spoken to, and a very palavering tongue.” In this ad, we can see Sylvia’s whole existence is constructed through her owner’s description, and her character and moral compass were assassinated with dehumanizing languages. Her skin color and attributes were the only things that seemed significant about her, as they conveyed her criminality and mischievous behaviors. In the big picture, this type of representation reinforces the inferiorization of Black women’s bodies and how their body “was regarded by much of American society as no more than biddable property.” 9

In these ads, white owners give the rights to anyone to use violence against their slaves because of their immoral act of running away. It was no longer an individual effort to find the enslaved, but it became a societal effort to reclaim the runway enslaved who were the “property” that belonged to white people. Through the language used to describe runaway slaves, we can see the hyper-criminalization in which enslaved resistance was propagandized as immoral and illegal. The enslaved female representation in these ads was racist and dehumanizing and reinforced the notion that enslaved women’s worth is solely based on their body. By describing runaway enslaved as inferiors and criminals, white owners concealed their violence and brutal acts, which were the reasons for the enslaved to run away, and framed themselves as the losing parties.

Bibliography

Boyd, B. P. “$20 Reward.” Charlotte Journal. March 5, 1840.

Camp, Stephanie M. H. Closer to Freedom : Enslaved Women and Everyday Resistance in the Plantation South. Gender and American Culture. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004. 2004. Accessed April 19, 2019.

Sugg, Samuel. “Ran Away.” Raleigh Register and North Carolina Weekly Advertiser. May 27, 1825

Winer, Samantha. “A brief history of slave in North Carolina.” N.C. Runaway Slave Advertisement. Accessed April 19, 2019. http://libcdm1.uncg.edu/cdm/history/collection/RAS.

Footnotes

1 Samantha Winer, “A brief history of slave in North Carolina,” N.C. Runaway Slave Advertisement, accessed April 19,2019. http://libcdm1.uncg.edu/cdm/history/collection/RAS 2 Ibid. 3 Stephanie M. H. Camp, Closer to Freedom : Enslaved Women and Everyday Resistance in the Plantation South, Gender and American Culture, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004. 2004, Accessed April 19, 2019. 4 B. P. Boyd, “$20 Reward,” Charlotte Journal, March 5, 1840. 5 Ibid. 6 Samuel Sugg, “Ran Away,” Raleigh Register and North Carolina Weekly Advertiser, May 27, 1825 7 Ibid. 8 Ibid.

9 Stephanie M. H. Camp, Closer to Freedom : Enslaved Women and Everyday Resistance in the Plantation South, Gender and American Culture, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004. 2004, Accessed April 19, 2019.

Justice, Equality, Community (JEC) Student and Alumni Advisory Council

The Justice, Equality, Community (JEC) grant is a three year, campus-wide initiative funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to support increased interdisciplinary engagement with issues of race, gender, religion, and social justice within the humanities at Davidson College.

The grant documents state: “A more publicly available and promoted archives will inspire transdisciplinary coursework in the humanities through the use of archival materials, promote avenues for increased original student research in the humanities, and enable Davidson to develop reciprocal relationships with community partners—all in support of increased dialogue around issues of justice, equality, and community in the curriculum and in the community.”

To accomplish these goals, the archival component of this initiative has four main tasks:

· Identify and digitize JEC collections.

· Integrate JEC materials into at least 5 new courses.

· Expand archival collections related to JEC, particularly the oral history collections.

· Lead public programming about JEC materials, both on campus and in the larger community.

Jethro Rumple reminiscing about the college circa 1840

This handwritten reminiscence of life at Davidson College was written in the 1840s by an alumnus, Reverend Jethro Rumple. The document contains a description of the College President’s “body servant,” Esom. This item was digitized with JEC grant funds and can be found on DigitalNC.org.

In order to more effectively engage our audiences and build a stronger collection, we selected a thematic focus for each year. For the academic year 2017 – 2018, we focused on 19th century Davidson. Working with partners like DigitalNC and H.F. Group, we identified and digitized thousands of items related to this theme. These materials are available through Davidson College’s research guides – a centralized platform familiar to our students and faculty, while also being accessible to the general public.

We have built on these efforts throughout the 2018 – 2019 academic year by highlighting and expanding our records related to alumni and student activism through support for course-based oral history projects, the on-going digitization of our existing oral history collections, and more targeted student outreach. 

Some of these materials have already been incorporated into a variety of classes, including Introduction to Africana Studies (AFR 101), Environmental History (ENV 256), Slavery and Africa (HIS 366), Native Women (HIS 243), WRI 101, the Humanities Program (HUM 103, 104), US Latinx History (HIS 259), Women and Slavery in the Black Atlantic (AFR 329), and Origins of the American South (HIS 242).

Green Books, Contempo magazine, For 2 Cents Plain, and MLK publications arranged on a table for a Humanities course.

Special collections material pulled for the Fall 2018 Humanities course.

In many of these classes, as well as others, students often express concern that “Davidson is always talking about where we’re going, but rarely talks about where we’ve been.” Students wonder about how their legacy will be represented—and if it will be represented.

Understanding we were uniquely positioned to address this concern, we formed the JEC Student and Alumni Advisory Council—if we were targeting students, we wanted to empower students as full archival partners to recognize their labor for us, as well as in the community.

The JEC Advisory Council, composed of Davidson College students and recent alumni and led by the JEC Project Archivist, was established in the Fall 2018 semester to document and publicize the ways in which students have engaged with and responded to historical and contemporary manifestations of injustice and inequality in Davidson and the surrounding area.

Image of students, townsfolk, and professors interacting with archival materials in the fishbowl as part of the Davidson Disorientation Tour in 2018.
Attendees interacting with archival materials during the debriefing session for the Davidson Disorientation Tour co-led by one of our council members, H.D. (April 2018).

STATEMENT OF PURPOSE

Supported by the archival portion of the JEC Andrew W. Mellon Foundation grant, we are working to synthesize information from academic, administrative, and social spheres for a better understanding of campus culture and greater acknowledgment of student work. The ultimate goal of this project is to address gaps between student needs and institutional responses, empower students to better leverage archival resources, and to promote dialogue around increased accountability for supporting student-led projects. 

To accomplish this, we will identify, collect, and digitize the data, records, and oral histories of student organizations and their community partners, both through the acquisition of existing documentation and the recording of information that does not exist in a formal or textual source; following this, we will organize programming according to our findings in order to facilitate meaningful conversations and tangible impacts. 

We are confident that, in addition to meeting our primary goals, this project will also promote a better understanding of the archives as a resource and increase transparency around the processes and accessibility of college documentation, thus creating a foundation for future projects and coalitions.

MEMBERSHIP

Kaitlin Barkley, ’21

Yashita Kandhari, ’20

H.D. Mellin, ’20

Carlos Miranda Pereya, ’18

Arianna Montero-Colbert, ’19

Jonathan Shepard-Smith, ’18

The statement of purpose was written and approved by the inaugural members of the JEC Student and Alumni Advisory Council in March 2019. The group has met on a monthly basis since January 2019. If you have any questions or would like more information, please contact Jessica Cottle at jecottle@davidson.edu.