CRM Journal

Book Review

Engendering African American Archaeology: A Southern Perspective

Edited by Jillian E. Galle and Amy L. Young. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2004; 336 pp., illustrations, index; cloth $35.00.


The archeology of African American life has grown in scope and influence over the past few decades. It has contributed essential data for understanding the regional and local complexities of lives under enslavement and varying degrees of freedom. This volume, which grew out of a 1998 Society for Historical Archaeology symposium, offers important case studies about race and gender in the southern United States. The authors present a mix of viewpoints from cultural and academic institutions.

The book takes a regional approach and ranges in time from the early 18th century to the 1920s. Nine chapters offer case studies in urban areas, plantations, and cemeteries. It is rarely the case in historical archeology, but two authors in particular are able to shed considerable light on the lives of individuals, namely Grace Bradley, a seamstress at the Hermitage in Tennessee, and Lucrecia Perryman, an Alabama midwife. The introductory chapter by Elizabeth Scott and the epilogue by Larry McKee provide vital bookends to contextualize the case studies within the historical archeology of race and gender.

Because "engendering" requires an understanding of gender role relationships, Elizabeth Scott points to the need for a more explicit examination of men's roles as well as the examination of women's roles that the authors largely explore here. She also emphasizes the importance of recognizing both the reality of oppression and the fact that people had some control over their lives and identities, even in the worst of circumstances. Finally, she suggests that continuing work on engendering African American archeology consider the effects of sexual violence. The authors in this volume begin to touch upon these areas of research, but their forays are only the beginning of some very important groundbreaking work within historical archeology.

Two chapters examine cemetery data. Marie Danforth uses records of the city cemetery in Natchez, Mississippi, to analyze the demographics of nearly 2,500 African Americans buried between 1865 and 1890. She argues for more use of such documentary data that provide larger samples than skeletal data and are more widely available. Kristin Wilson and Melanie Cabak collected data on excavated burials from six cemeteries in four southern states (Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, and Texas). In their sample of 336 burials dating from 1850 to 1920, they seek to link grave goods with women's roles in maintaining folk beliefs.

Two chapters concern Andrew Jackson's Hermitage in Tennessee. Jillian Galle tests the idea that seamstress Grace Bradley had unusual access to material goods due to her skills, which were highly valued by both the Jacksons and the African American community. Using an "abundance index," she analyzes material at four slave dwellings and finds evidence that Bradley may have had a central role in distributing or redistributing material goods among the enslaved population. Brian Thomas and Larissa Thomas also use data from the Hermitage along with sociological theory to explore personal identity through the layering of personal appearance, including the body, items worn against the body, clothing, and accessories.

Another chapter that examines personal identity is by Patricia Samford, who explores the complexity of identity with her work on plantations in Virginia and North Carolina. She is interested in certain continuities (as well as changes) between Igbo gender roles in West Africa and those of enslaved Virginian women. One shell-covered shrine beneath the floor of Utopia Quarter near Williamsburg, Virginia, for example, parallels Igbo shrines to the female deity Idemili. Garrett Fesler, who has also worked at Utopia Quarter and focuses specifically on the early 18th century, discusses the spatial analysis of interiors and exteriors, artifact distributions, and architecture. He is interested in identifying who was responsible for gender roles, the enslaved or the owner.

Two more chapters expand on the historical archeology of plantations. Barbara Heath describes, analyzes, and discusses the archeological implications of records from rural stores and account books of Thomas Jefferson's Poplar Forest in Virginia. Based on the visits to stores and individuals' purchases, she suggests that there was a complex and flexible system of gender roles within the African American community.

Amy Young uses documentary data from Oxmoor Plantation and archeological data from Locust Grove plantation to contrast the public and private worlds of enslaved women in Kentucky. She analyzes letters from 1840 to 1851 and archeological remains at three households dating from the 1780s to 1865 for the purpose of identifying women's strategies for dealing with the many risks they faced. Her work suggests the importance of kinship as "Mammy" and "Aunt" within the owner-centered world of the plantation house and the importance of gift giving and sharing within the enslaved community.

In a much later urban context, Laurie Wilkie discusses the roles of African American midwives and their loss of status as midwifery fell victim to medical professionalization. She looks at the life of midwife Lucrecia Perryman in early 20th-century Mobile, Alabama, and explores her role in balancing traditional and modern medicine, the use of magic, ritual, and contemporary science, and in teaching within the community.

In his epilogue, McKee remarks on the complexity of the effort represented by these chapters: "The goal has become to use what we know about gender and race in furthering our interpretations, to see these as defining elements of the social environment in which people lived, and to keep the influence of each in mind as we try to make sense of particular times and places in the past."

Such work would not be possible were it not for the preservation of historic places and their accessibility for research. As questions about race and gender become increasingly sophisticated, and as archeological methods and theory develop in response to those questions, it is crucial to have these places and their curated collections available for continuing research. The case studies in this volume demonstrate not only the value of rethinking what we want to know about the past, but also the value of preserving the places and collections that hold the key to addressing new questions.

Barbara J. Little
Archeology Program
National Park Service