Sunday, April 19, 2009

Sites of Conscience

For class this past week, we read an article on the Lower East Side Tenement Museum and its work with differing factions in the New York City textile industry. I think that sometimes this kind of work - solving current problems through historical perpectives - can straddle a fine line between objectivity and bias. However, when it's done thoughtfully, it can also bring added value to a museum's community mission.

I also believe that black history is an area of local history with which Portsmouth (and many other New England cities and towns) struggles. Valerie Cunningham's work does not get enough attention, in my opinion. The Black Heritage Trail does not see as much foot traffic as it should. Sites like Rock Rest, the Pearl, and the house of the "black Whipples" do not get to tell their stories to most Seacoast visitors, even those seeking history. But important changes could be made. I wrote a paper last year about a potential change to one of the taverns at Strawbery Banke. Here's an excerpt:

Currently, Pitt Tavern is set up like a traditional colonial tavern. It has a small exhibit in one of its hallways and an interpreter during the self-guided season, but much more could be done to flesh out its history. An important and currently neglected element of Pitt’s history was the tavern owner John Stavers’ interactions with African-American slaves. Prior to his tavern keeping career, Stavers was taken to court in 1752 for beating the captain’s African servant on the Princess Dowager, a vessel on which he was Mate.

In his pre-Court St. days, he ran another tavern on State St, at which he and his wife hosted a slave auction in 1760 or 1761. In December of 1760, they advertised the upcoming sale: "To be sold...a few Negroes, lately imported in the snow Gen. Townshend...from the West Stavers Tavern.” Later incidents included Staver’s slave Fortune running away, his slave James stealing from him, and his display of an “albino slave” at the State St. tavern in 1764. This last, I think, is the most poignant item.

To the museum’s credit, this is the only colonial tavern on display and they have therefore focused on that aspect of its interpretation. Stavers is certainly included in the exhibit, but not in a Thomas Carlyle, “Great Men” way. However, a more truthful exhibit would incorporate the identities and domestic tasks of James and Fortune, as well as confront the reality of Stavers’ relationship both with them and with other slaves with whom he came into contact. Perhaps an exhibit panel could be included detailing James and Fortune’s biographies (what we know of them) and what tasks they would have completed at the tavern.

In a more provocative, but still necessary vein, another panel could address the slave auction and display of the albino slave child. Valerie Cunningham, Director of the African American Resource Center and important historian of black Portsmouth, found the original advertisement (reproduced below).
The line, “his Wool quite White, his Eyes and Noses most wonderful to see,” captures the exploitative element of the scenario well. Perhaps this line, paired with a photograph of either an albino slave or a Portsmouth slave, would suitably express the particulars of the situation to museum visitors.
To be seen at Mr. John Stavers's, A White Negro Boy About Nine Years old, born in Virginia, his Father and Mother both black, his Wool quite White, his Eyes and Noses most wonderful to see; price Six Shillings Old Tenor – may be seen any Hour from Six in the Morning, until Ten at Night. Any gentlemen or ladies, that have a desire to have him brought to their Houses, by applying to the Owner at the Sign of the Earl of Halifax, shall be duly attended on.

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