Presenting Race and Slavery at Historic Sites
by Michèle Gates Moresi
The public presentation of slavery and race relations in the United States is a delicate topic that conjures conflicting emotions and ideas. While new scholarship continues to reveal the complexity of how Americans experienced slavery, most Americans regard slavery as an antebellum southern phenomenon, significant but not central to the development of the United States. However, slavery was a significant economic and social institution throughout the colonies in the 18th century, and continued to be the backbone of national and international trade for the United States through the first half of the 19th century. The cultural legacy of slavery continues to shape race relations in this country, defining the social, political, and economic meanings of race.(1)
Slavery is a topic that is addressed in dozens of parks in the National Park System. Some parks are well known and deal with colonial history, such as Colonial National Historical Park in Jamestown, Virginia, and Independence National Historical Park, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Others deal with plantation slavery, such as Natchez National Historical Park in Natchez, Mississippi, or slavery on a small farm at Booker T. Washington National Monument in Hardy, Virginia. Still others involve the violent struggles to end slavery, like John Brown's Fort at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park in West Virginia, and the numerous Civil War battlefields that are national parks.
The research project, "Presenting Race and Slavery at Historic Sites," will survey visitors and staff interpreters at three national parks that represent different aspects of slavery in America—Frederick Douglass National Historic Site in Washington, DC; Arlington House, the Robert E. Lee Memorial in Arlington, Virginia; and Manassas National Battlefield Park in Manassas, Virginia. Information collected will be used to better understand visitor experiences and expectations about the interpretation of slavery.
The Douglass home commemorates the life and work of a former slave who freed and educated himself and dedicated his energies to protest slavery and discrimination against African Americans. Arlington House preserves the home of a family that had direct ties to the Washington-Custis families, was the former home of the commander-general of the Confederate Army, and is surrounded by the land that became a burial ground for Union soldiers and eventually Arlington National Cemetery. Manassas is a Civil War battlefield, the site of the first battle between Union and Confederate forces in 1861.
This research project is a cooperative effort of the National Park Service, the Center for the Study of Public Culture and Public History of the George Washington University, and the National Conference of State Historic Preservation Officers. The project builds on previous independent surveys conducted by Professor James O. Horton and a team of graduate students at Monticello (the home of Thomas Jefferson), Colonial Williamsburg, and Gettysburg National Military Park. The team conducted surveys of visitors and interpreters about the content of self-guided and guided tours.
The surveys were prepared in consultation with a sociologist in order to elicit basic information about what a visitor saw, heard, or read at the site; what visitors thought about the things they saw, heard, or read; how the information presented compared to what they already knew about slavery; and their opinions about the experience. The new surveys will be similar. The purpose is to obtain substantive responses from visitors so that they are encouraged to express their ideas. Also, we hope to learn about visitors' expectations of how slavery is presented at a particular site.
Some general findings about the presentation of slavery at Gettysburg, Williamsburg, and Monticello are possible. First, visitors are more receptive and interested in the topic than one might expect. Second, staff interpreters love their jobs and are excited to use new material in ways that engage visitors. Finally, discussing slavery and race relations can be difficult: talking about it in the past is hard because dealing with it in the present is challenging. Each of the surveys at the Douglass home, Arlington House, and Manassas will have their own findings. What will be most interesting are the similarities and differences in visitor perceptions at the three historic sites.
In addition, every historic site has unique characteristics that shape the methods and results of the endeavor. At Gettysburg, the presence of a large cemetery and numerous monuments to individual infantries render it a memorial to the sacrifice of thousands of young lives. Approaching visitors to talk about slavery was a delicate situation for the interviewers since the atmosphere evoked the notion of "hallowed ground," and interviewers were careful not to intrude upon the visitors' experience.
Thus far, preliminary research has involved initial contact with site staff, learning about the site, and documenting and reviewing current interpretive practices. Later this year, a research fellow will lead a survey team to conduct interviews at Arlington House. Information gathered from this research will be used to brief onsite interviewers and incorporated into the project's final report, which will include historical context of the site and descriptions of how slavery is interpreted. The final report will be available through the Social Science Program and the National Center for Cultural Resources, both of the National Park Service.
The current project will help park staff understand the expectations and perceptions of park visitors. Earlier surveys showed that a visitor's grasp of slavery and its significance to a particular site depended upon the interpreters and the time that they spent with visitors. Handbooks and exhibit labels are essential, but it is up to the interpreter to make a personal connection with the visitor. Gathering information from the public—whether from a park visitor or by reaching out to a nearby community—is useful in measuring a park's performance.
The results of the surveys will provide valuable information for historians and historical interpreters who are studying this complex history. The project also presents an opportunity for dialogue among National Park Service historians, other cultural resources personnel, and Professor Horton and the research team on ways to enhance historical interpretation.
About the Author
Michèle Gates Moresi is a historian with the National Conference of State Historic Preservation Officers and works with the National Center for Cultural Resources of the National Park Service. She can be reached at email email@example.com.
1. James Oliver Horton's article, "Presenting Slavery: The Perils of Telling America's Racial Story" in Public Historian 21, no. 4 (Fall 1999): 19-38, provides a discussion of the significance of presenting slavery at historic sites and how the legacy of slavery is relevant to contemporary society.