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These places matter: Remembering African American heritage sites

July 1, 2015

With the death of Senator Clementa Pinckney, Cynthia Hurd, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Tywanza Sanders, Myra Thompson, Ethel Lee Lance, Susie Jackson, Rev. Daniel L. Simmons, and Depayne Middleton Doctor, the burning of African American churches, and the planned protest by the KKK on the South Carolina statehouse grounds, it is evident that the long struggle for racial equality has not been won. I was hopeful that the  election of President Obama would provide the basis for new conversations about race relations and new strategies to remember the legacies of America’s color line—strategies that would bring the struggles for equality in the recent past to the present and provide a basis for social change in the future and I wrote about this in the introduction to the edited volume, The Materiality of Freedom: Archaeologies of Post-Emancipation Life, I published in 2011. But I did not imagine that it would take six years and the loss of nine lives for those conversations to begin.

As we start to talk about whether confederate memorials should be removed or the flag taken down (#takeitdown!), it is vital that we remember the places of African American heritage on our landscapes. The volume  is a collection of essays about archaeology projects that focus on Reconstruction, Jim Crow, urban renewal, and the Civil7034 Rights movement. These essays by archaeologists from across the United States are particularly relevant today if we are to use history as a manual to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past. In the introduction of the volume, I quote President Barack Obama’s inaugural address. He said,

Now, there are some who question the scale of our ambitions—who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans. Their memories are short. For they have forgotten what this country has already done; what free men and women can achieve when imagination is joined to common purpose, and necessity to courage.

His words resonated with me because for many who experienced and remember segregation and the civil rights movement, his election was momentous. It demonstrated that the actions of men and women with courage and common purpose can create change. The lunch counter strikes, marches, and sit-ins of the 1960s are reminders of what ordinary women and men accomplished through imagination and necessity. Yet the building of African American churches, schools, communities, and neighborhoods—which were also constructed by ordinary men and women and physically mark our landscapes—are often taken for granted in the historical narratives of U.S. history, stand in neglect, and face gentrification. In a 2008 speech on race in Philadelphia, Obama stated,

As William Faulkner once wrote, ‘The past isn’t dead and buried. In fact, it isn’t even past.’ We do not need to recite here the history of injustice in this country. But we do need to remind ourselves that so many of the disparities that exist in the African American community today can be directly traced to inequalities passed on from an earlier generation that suffered under the brutal legacy of slavery and Jim Crow.

Archaeologists are increasingly recognizing that changes in the recent past are connected to contemporary conditions and that remembering and forgetting are political acts. The study of the recent past is necessary in order to move away from historical narratives that privilege the period of enslavement while enforcing silences about Reconstruction, Jim Crow, the building of African American communities, the Great Migration, urban renewal, and the fight for Civil Rights.  For many African Americans the memories of struggle and opportunity that are connected to the Jim Crow and Civil Rights eras are prolific, yet as Robert Paynter points out “the lack of historical places on our contemporary landscape that remind all persons of the omnipresence of African Americans throughout U.S. history . . . helps create a cultural amnesia and contributes to the recreation of racism.” Historical archaeology, with an emphasis on the recent past, is in a good position to make these historical places more visible and to reduce the cultural amnesia by addressing the painful histories of Reconstruction and Jim Crow or the more hopeful histories of the building of black communities and neighborhoods. These hopeful historical narratives, such as the building of New Philadelphia in Illinois or the material life of Harriett Tubman have been silenced within the constraints of everyday retelling of American history.

The disenfranchisement that resulted from the enactment of Jim Crow laws was an attack not only on Black political influence—of which there was little by the turn of the 20th century—but also on Black manhood, since 19th century Americans tied manhood and citizenship closely together. Both hinged on independence. Cast as naturally docile, unable to control their sexual passions, and economically dependent, Black men were labeled unfit for citizenship. For example, Megan Teague and James Davidson use mortuary data from the Freedman’s Cemetery to examine the connections between economic opportunity, race, and gender in Dallas, Texas. Since African American women worked in much greater numbers than Black men during Reconstruction and the immediate post-Reconstruction era, the dynamics between men and women’s relationships were altered, as masculinity is often represented as everything that women are not. Denying African American men the ballot further reinforced their exclusion from civic community.

Anna Agbe-Davies conducted archaeological research at Phyllis Wheatley Home for Girls in Chicago. The home was  funded by Black club women. The women’s club movement grew from the Woman’s Convention of the National Baptist Convention in 1900 and grew quickly. Membership in clubs like the National Association of Colored Women came mainly from the urban elite—generally teachers and wives of professionals, ministers, and businessmen. These women shared with their white peers a concern with upholding standards of morality and respectability amid the turmoil of the movement of people from country to city and changes in employment from farm to factory. The Black club women recognized that their destiny was inextricably intertwined with less-privileged African Americans. If they could elevate other Black women to their standards of morality and manners, then the overall population would be lifted up from the gutter of poverty and degradation. Archaeology at the Phyllis Wheatley Home showed that the women were reaching for freedom, while seizing responsibility.

For example, Chris Fennell uses community-based archaeology to provide insight into the ways African American communities combated various forms of structural and aversive racism that diverted economic opportunities. He worked with descendants and local community members to conduct research in three communities in Illinois—New Philadelphia, Brooklyn, and the Equal Rights settlement. Fennell’s research shows how our understanding of how racial ideologies, social networks, and developing economic structures influenced the ways in which individuals made choices in shaping their social and built environments and in developing economic strategies and cultural practices. Through community archaeology, he shows how archaeology can significantly aid the members of current-day communities to enhance the visibility of their African American heritage and accomplishments and to combat facets of structural racism they experience today.

Matthew Palus documents the structural inequalities created between Black and White households during the installation of sanitation infrastructure in Eastport, a neighborhood of Annapolis, Maryland. His research shows that access to municipal water in 1927 and sanitary sewers after 1934 broke down upon racial lines. Access to sanitary services in Eastport could be termed a privilege for White people and placed among those other privileges that convinced working class White people that they were different from their economic peers who were Black people.

The work of Paul Mullins Lewis Jones in Indianapolis, Illinois highlights the impact of urban renewal on African American places. In the 1940s and 1950s, federal funding made rapid expansion possible for many ambitious institutions, particularly universities. Some municipalities seeking federal funds partnered quite aggressively with universities, and in some cases those institutions rapidly leveled broad swaths of neighboring communities and targeted other spaces for eventual growth. Mullins and Jones conducted archaeological research on the Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis campus excavating households and corners stores on Agnes Street. They noted that urban renewal was a way to revitalize aging and decaying inner cities. Yet the practice also uprooted neighborhoods, and displaced African Americans who received little benefit from the programs.

This is only a small example of the research archaeologists have been doing. And there is more to be done. With current events, it is evident that the long struggle for racial equality in the United States and elsewhere has not been won or forgotten. The building of communities and institutions and the racial and social strife that people of African descent experienced while seeking civil rights are important aspects of American history that need to be remembered and commemorated. Historical archaeology has the potential to uncover the corpus of a largely forgotten past, to involve descendants and interested communities in the research process, and to provide the basis for new conversations about race relations and new strategies to remember the recent African diasporic past. These are stories that need to be told. The sites and places of African American history – the schools, churches, juke joints, communities, neighborhoods, towns along with the darker locations of lynchings and violence — need to be remembered. These places matter. They show “what free men and women can achieve when imagination is joined to common purpose, and necessity to courage.” And if we are not going “to slip into a comfortable silence again” we need to work to make these places and stories visible.

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Jamie Chad Brandon's Home on the Web... an anthropologist living, researching and teaching in Arkansas

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