Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The Slavery Problem Or the Problem with Slavery: A Walking Tour

RIHS docent leading a walking tour of College Hill

A couple of months ago I took the Rhode Island Historical Society’s Women’s History walking tour of historic Benefit Street in Providence. I ended up being the only person to show up for the tour. Instead of canceling it, a very friendly and knowledgeable docent and I set off up the hill. As we walked she pointed out various points of interest and enthusiastically explained their importance. In between sites she asked a few get-to-know-you questions and found out that I had just finished grad school at Brown, was from out of state, and was interested in African American history, slavery and cemeteries. What began as a tour of sites connected to some of the many notable women of College Hill eventually evolved into a much larger tour that led us off College Hill, through St. John's Episcopal Church cemetery, through the Athenaeum and past the local preservation society's office.

It was an incredibly serendipitous walk. There is nothing better than having an enthusiastic teacher and my guide was full of facts and interesting stories. She was so knowledgeable of local history that she eventually customized our walk to some of my particular interests. That included leading me to the picturesque St. John's Church Cemetery. Even though it was way off the usual tour it gave us a chance to briefly discuss and examine an aspect of Providence’s history of slavery. There among the graves of 19th century Providence Episcopalian elites lies a selection of their favored enslaved servants. She rattled off a few facts she remembered and pointed out graves of interest. This was a history that she was not particularly versed in but she believed it would be a site that I would appreciate. She was correct! Our conversation turned from the usual, well rehearsed and researched details of popular Providence tourist sites to a history she, as an older Rhode Island raised white woman, was not too comfortable discussing. I appreciated that too. Slavery is a difficult topic for many people to handle. She made the effort to push past her natural discomfort and in the end we both gained a lot from the experience.

As we walked back to the John Brown House she confided that she sometimes gave tours where she had to talk about slavery. Sometimes she wanted to avoid or rush through that part of the tour. Her hesitation seemed to stem from both guilt and fear. She was not the only docent who had been having a difficult time talking about slavery. She wanted to do better but, she was not sure how. Also, the history of slavery in and of itself was not always the problem. She and several others had experienced negative reactions coming from visitors when they did discuss slavery and felt attacked by other visitors when they did not. The history of the John Brown House and other historic sites important to Rhode Island’s tourist industry, like pretty much every historic site in America, is tied to a fraught, and often intentionally invisible history. Slavery is not always the issue, but there are often stories that house managers, docents and boards continue to keep under wraps. Perhaps that is for a reason. Who wants to host their fantasy wedding in a mansion where an enslaved 7 year old was kept like a pet of her enslaver and forced to sleep in a stifling windowless attic until her death? And even then she was buried at her enslaver’s feet. Who wants to bring their grandchild to visit the home of a man who was at least partially responsible for the imprisonment of 196 innocent young men, young women and small children? Will the tour be easier or harder if you reveal that of the 196 incarcerated people 109 died of starvation, suicide, illness or murder before they could be auctioned off to the highest bidder thousands of miles from anyone or anyplace they had ever known? How should a docent explain that story?

These are difficult histories to tell. But they are necessary.
Over the coming weeks I will explore the many issues faced by historic house staff and docents as they attempt to deal with their site’s history of slavery. Each post will start off with a question I received from a local docent.

From Fred Wilson's Mining the Museum Exhibition for the Maryland Historical Society