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Posts Tagged ‘slavery’

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Photo: Hunter McRae for the New York Times
The slave quarters at the Aiken-Rhett House in Charleston, S.C. House tours in the South have stopped glossing over slavery.

Having just finished reading the painful Pulitzer-Prize-winning book by Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad, I found this article about southern house tours encouraging. At least people have stopped glossing over slavery and pretending people “owned” by other people had jolly lives.

Tariro Mzezewa writes at the New York Times, “A few years ago, people touring the Owens-Thomas House and Slave Quarters in Savannah, Ga., would have heard a lot about George Owens, the lawyer, farmer and Congressional representative who lived in the massive neoclassical home in 1833. And about banker and slave trader Richard Richardson, for whom the house was built in 1816. They might have heard Emma Katin’s name, but not about how the enslaved black woman spent most of her nights sleeping on the wooden floors of the house, so that she could be available at all hours to the infants in the Owens family.

“They wouldn’t have heard about the 14 other enslaved people who lived there. And there’s a good chance that guests would not have heard about the 400 other slaves the Owenses had on their other nearby properties.

“ ‘Those pieces of the story would have been missing because she would have been treated as an accessory to the Owens’ lives,’ said Shannon Browning-Mullis, a curator of history and decorative arts for Telfair Museums, which owns the house and has been in charge of rethinking the way its history is told.

“In cities including Savannah and Charleston, S.C., where Confederate statues, elegant mansions and plantation weddings are common, tourism has often taken the form of nostalgia for the antebellum South, Southern charm and Southern hospitality. For years, tours of historic homes would focus on their architecture and fine furniture, but not on how the wealth so clearly displayed depended on enslaved labor.

“There is a growing consensus among the interpreters who guide people through historic properties that by excluding stories of the enslaved, institutions like historical societies, museums and tour companies have sent the message that power and wealth were not directly connected to slavery, and racism, and erased the stories of the black people who built these cities.

“Now that’s changing.

“ ‘When we come to see historic houses, often we are coming to see what it looked like to live in the past and a lot of us are sometimes just coming to see a pretty house,’ said Lacey Wilson, a historic interpreter for Telfair Museums, to a group of tourists on a recent tour. ‘What we’re looking at is the political power of the people who lived here. All the beautiful decorative objects throughout the house — the money coming for all these things came primarily from the enslaving of other human beings.’ …

“When Lauren Northup, director of museums for the Historic Charleston Foundation, leads a tour or when visitors listen to the self-guided audio tour of the house, they hear how the enslaved people in the house and the white family would have interacted in almost every room. The differences between the spaces where the white family lived and socialized compared to where the enslaved toiled are stark. Tourists also hear, again and again, about how every aspect of the house, which was built by a wealthy merchant, was designed to let the owners see and control the enslaved.

“Most guests at the Nathaniel Russel House remark on the beauty of the mansion and its décor, Ms. Northup said, adding that she reminds them that the house was built with the purpose of ‘keeping people in, keeping people from seeing each other, from socializing, from talking,’ she said. ‘It was a prison. That is what I’m trying to make people understand — you are in a beautiful prison.’

“Ms. Northup said that her organization has been actively working to change its storytelling since the mid-1990s. But in 2017, when she, with the help of art conservator Susan Buck, discovered that much of the original fabric of the slave quarters were intact, with artifacts, there was an urgency to study, preserve and open the space to the public.

“They were also galvanized by the 2015 killing of eight black parishioners and their pastor at Emanuel AME church, by Dylann Roof, a man who professed white supremacy. …

“After the Emanuel shooting, ‘things changed in Charleston,’ Ms. Northup said. ‘That was such a watershed time for Charleston because of Emanuel. The community fundamentally and irrevocably changed.’

“Increasingly, the people going on house tours are looking for more history and are trying to satisfy ‘a hunger’ for history and truth, Ms. Browning-Mullis in Savannah and Ms. Northup in Charleston said.”

More here.

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Photo: Mark Brodkin Photography/ Getty Images
After archaeologists found steps and postholes on either side of a ramp, they concluded the pyramid builders were able to haul from both directions, shortening the time to complete construction.

What were you taught in school about how the pyramids in Egypt were constructed? The story has always been partly guesswork, like the story of Stonehenge and the giant statues on Easter Island, narratives that change as new bits of data are uncovered.

Kevin Rawlinson writes at the Guardian, “The mystery of how, exactly, the pyramids were built may have come a step closer to being unravelled after a team of archaeologists made a chance discovery in an ancient Egyptian quarry.

“Scientists researching ancient inscriptions happened upon a ramp with stairways and a series of what they believe to be postholes, which suggest that the job of hauling into place the huge blocks of stone used to build the monuments may have been completed more quickly than previously thought.

“While the theory that the ancient Egyptians used ramps to move the stones has already been put forward, the structure found by the Anglo-French team, which dated from about the period that the Great Pyramid of Giza was built, is significantly steeper than was previously supposed possible.

“They believe the inclusion of the steps and the postholes either side of a rampway suggests the builders were able to haul from both directions, rather than simply dragging a block behind them. The team believes those below the block would have used the posts to create a pulley system while those above it pulled simultaneously. …

“Dr Roland Enmarch, a senior lecturer in Egyptology at the University of Liverpool and the co-director of the project that made the discovery, the Hatnub Survey, … told the Guardian that … the alabaster quarry itself, as well as the inscriptions they were there to study, had been known to Egyptologists for a long time, having first been found by Howard Carter – the discoverer of Tutankhamun’s tomb.

“His team’s original focus was not on the ramp leading down into the quarry, but on properly documenting the inscriptions found there. But their attention was soon drawn to the former’s construction – and what it could tell them about how pyramids were built.

“They said the inscriptions allowed them to date the ramp to around the time of the Pharoah Khufu, or Cheops, who built the Great Pyramid.” More here.

It’s amazing how archaeologists keep deepening our knowledge of the past. At the same time, the use of slave labor in building these monuments remains almost too painful to think about. And it reminds me that although slavery is no longer accepted as normal, we still face huge challenges to obliterate it.

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Irish-statue-Frederick-Douglass

I probably wouldn’t have known that Frederick Douglass spent time in Ireland if I hadn’t read the Colum McCann novel TransAtlantic. McCann likes to take historical events of different time periods and imagine the parts we can’t really know. In TransAtlantic, he wove together a historic 1919 flight from Canada to Ireland, the Douglass lecture tour of Ireland and his horrified witness to the famine there, a servant girl’s emigration to the United States and her role in the Civil War, and the rather thrilling negotiations to bring resolution to the Troubles between Protestants in Northern Ireland and Catholics.

According to an initiative called the Douglass/O’Connell Project, “Douglass was greeted in Dublin, Belfast, and Cork by enthusiastic crowds and formed many friendships on his trip, most significantly with Daniel O’Connell, a figure still revered in Ireland today for his role in Catholic emancipation and his fierce opposition to slavery. O’Connell and Douglass shared the stage just once, in September 1845 at a rally in Dublin, but retained a mutual respect and affection until O’Connell’s death less than two years later — and Douglass acknowledged O’Connell’s influence on his philosophy and worldview for the rest of his life.

“The Frederick Douglass/Daniel O’Connell Project is a living legacy to the leadership of these two men and the causes they championed by strengthening the bonds of friendship between Ireland and the United States, encouraging greater understanding between the diasporas of Africa and Ireland in America, and fighting injustice and human rights abuses throughout the world.”

Which brings me to how I happened to be able to take a photo of the Irish statue of Douglass today. The Center for Race Amity in Boston is partnering with the Douglass/O’Connell Project on a celebration this weekend, before the statue goes on tour. Isn’t it magnificent? Andrew Edwards is the sculptor.

There will be a preview of the public television film Douglass and O’Connell Saturday at the Museum of African American History at 7 pm, followed by a lecture by Don Mullen, the author of Bloody Sunday. On Sunday there will be festivities in the Greenway from 1 pm to 5 pm.

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