Diversity and Anti-Racism in the Society for Historical Archaeology

The epilogue of Leland Ferguson’s Uncommon Ground: Archaeology and Early African America, 1650-1800 is a disarming and profoundly thoughtful account of his experience of life across the color line and how it informed his scholarly career.  Ferguson’s book is justifiably heralded as one of historical archaeology’s most important contributions to the scholarship of African cultural persistence in the face of captivity, yet we risk overlooking the provocative epilogue that situates such scholarship in Ferguson’s own experience and in broader historical archaeology.  Uncommon Ground’s succinct epilogue provides an important statement about the politics of historical archaeologies conducted across and along lines of difference, and a discussion about those politics can contribute to an increasingly rich and reflective scholarship and diverse archaeological community.

Ferguson’s epilogue relates a story of him and a boyhood friend watching an African-American railroad “gang” laying rails in a sweltering 1949 summer.  An elder member of the group lorded over the workers, singing in a “rich, melodious voice” in time with hammers driving the rail, an experience that left the two boys “spellbound and envious.”  That fascination and envy with African America has often been felt by many White people who have been equally spellbound if mystified by a rich culture that has persisted with strength, creativity, and dignity in the face of profound injustice.  Many White historical archaeologists—myself included–have devoted much of our scholarship to illuminating African America’s centrality in American life because we share Ferguson’s humility in the face of the African-American experience, respect for this rich heritage, and conscious complicity in a half-millennium of anti-Black racism.

Ferguson acknowledges that he and his friend “heard and felt that workday performance in ignorance,” largely because they “had few black acquaintances and no black friends.”  When his friend addressed the singer with a racist epithet, the boys were soundly rebuked and felt “rejected and confused.”  Ferguson admits that through his “teenage years the alienation continued, and I alternately and somewhat arbitrarily enjoyed, scorned, and admired `colored people’ without ever knowing a single African American.”

That concession of fascination and admiration in conflict with apprehension and confusion is an exceptionally rare scholarly acknowledgement of the complications of life lived along and across color lines (compare Whitney Battle-Baptiste’s June 2012 SHA Blog for a similar example from an African diasporan perspective).  Ferguson found himself in the midst of the South during the Civil Rights movement, and he recognized his White neighbors “struggled to rationalize away the guilt of imposing or accepting an inequality so familiar that most had never perceived it as unjust.”  He acknowledges that he “came to see that the movement was reinforcing justice and compassion as basic American values,” and he began to comprehend that a deep-seated cultural heritage “beyond the eye and mind of the white majority” fueled the Civil Rights movement and rested at the heart of American heritage.

That recognition that racism was silently situated at the heart of American life and aspired to efface diasporan heritage provides an articulate coda underscoring the political significance of Ferguson’s study.  Historical archaeologists have produced an enormous volume of illuminating, reflective, and even activist scholarship on the African diasporan experience and life along the color line for which we can feel justifiably proud.  Nevertheless, Ferguson’s revelatory honesty is the sort of politics that we rarely see in print, and while many of us can honestly claim good works in our own local projects they often do not become public knowledge or accepted disciplinary practice, and they are not especially clearly stated as our common philosophical and sociopolitical interests.

Our pride in a rich African diasporan archaeology or our disciplinary attention to historical social complexity should not blind us to the need to ask difficult questions about diversity in contemporary historical archaeology, and SHA has the opportunity to lead a challenging and transformative discussion about the ways in which equity, privilege, and race shape every dimension of our lives, scholarship, and practice.  We have collectively done an astounding amount of good research and community outreach, but we need to articulate that work in ways that acknowledge disciplinary inequalities; we should situate SHA in conscious opposition to structural inequalities in broader society; and we must continue to develop concrete mechanisms to make SHA a welcoming professional home for a broad range of members whose voices can shape archaeology and impact the communities in which we live.  A historical archaeology practiced by a rich range of scholars that assertively examine global diversity is simply good scholarship that is true to a breadth of experiences and systemic inequalities throughout the world over 500 years.

Certainly many of the first archaeologists who gathered in 1967 to form the SHA were focused on British colonial heritage and the spread of European cultures and materiality in the New World.  Questions about globalization and social diversity gradually trickled into the research questions and discussion: Charles Fairbanks, for instance, soon led archaeologists into African diasporan archaeologies, and James Deetz profoundly shaped the discipline by advocating archaeological attention to the many peoples ideologically forgotten in historical narratives.  Many of us continue to justifiably focus on colonial European subjects, but that work is inevitably enriched by a rigorous and reflective focus on diversity, just as archaeologists examining race need to push beyond archaeologies of African America.  For instance, there is the potential to do an exceptionally interesting historical archaeology of race among White consumers who often embrace—and routinely evade—the privileges of White subjectivity.  This attention to social diversity certainly does not discard all the illuminating historical archaeologies of colonial European contexts, but scholarship revolving around race, patriarchy, classism, sexuality, or ethnicity can be embedded into many archaeological studies that sometimes are conceived by us as being somehow “outside” diversity.  The “questions that count” in contemporary historical archaeology simply must address diversity to be rigorous and challenging scholarship.  The weight of such scholarship can have profound effects on how many of our neighbors view our collective heritage and in turn how they view contemporary lines of difference, so confronting disciplinary and SHA inequalities and embracing diversity among membership and in our scholarship are important missions for SHA.

SHA has underscored its commitment to equity and diversity in the last year, with the ambition of being an increasingly diverse membership that provides a welcoming professional home for a wide range of scholars.  One step in this process was my participation in a People’s Institute Undoing Racism workshop in Washington, D.C. in July.  Gender and Minority Affairs Committee Chair Florie Bugarin attended the workshop with me and about 40 people who worked for a variety of non-profits and community organizations as well as neighborhood folks from Washington.  This is quite a different group than virtually any scholarly conference, classroom, or excavation site, but in many ways it would be a familiar and illuminating discussion for the many historical archaeologists who conduct community archaeologies and are committed to engaged scholarship—often across color lines and power divisions.

Many historical archaeologists have given thought to the complications of scholarly/community partnerships, but we have not often considered how racism shapes such relationships or how White scholars exercise privilege without even recognizing it as such.  A 2011 SHA Newsletter piece by Michael Nassaney and Cheryl LaRoche, for instance, discussed the persistent impression of racism on American life and the ways it and White privilege inevitably have an impression on historic archaeology practice and the very organization of SHA itself.  Anna Agbe-Davies joined this conversation in the Spring 2012 Newsletter, arguing that Nassaney and LaRoche’s column underscores the need to encourage both organizational change in SHA and individual good works—for instance, as we transform structural inequalities vested in organizations like SHA, we can individually take small but consequential steps like those often-invisible trips to local elementary schools, the energy devoted to championing equity in our local institutions, and all of our voices advocating for an archaeology that reveals the historic roots of inequality.  The People’s Institute experience framed a larger discussion about how power is vested in organizations like SHA, how a broad range of members with different degrees of access and power are served by SHA, and how all of our members can secure genuine agency and grow professionally within SHA.

These discussions have led to a series of initiatives that are intended to make our mostly unspoken disciplinary and SHA commitment to diversity concrete and increasingly part of our structural practice.

  1. One of the first steps was a diversity training course at the June, 2012 SHA Board Meeting.  That training session provided an all-day experience for the Board and the GMAC Chair to begin discussing the specifics of what diversity actually means in the context of historical archaeology and SHA; what are our expectations for what a diverse membership does for the discipline; and how can we make diversity a structural dimension of all historical archaeology and SHA practice, and not simply a research niche.  I and Florie Bugarin then attended the People’s Institute Workshop a month later.  These discussions are simply beginning to move all of our disparate thoughts into collective space, but they seem an essential prelude to developing any genuine initiatives.
  2. At the June Board meeting two Minority Travel Scholarship Awards also were approved by the Board, and they will defray travel costs for two students attending the Leicester conference in January 2013.
  3. The Board agreed in June that President-Elect and Ethics Committee Chair Charlie Ewen will direct a revision of the Ethics Statement that will include an SHA Statement on Sexual Harassment, Gender Equity, Antiracism and LGTB Inclusivity.
  4. Directed by Membership Committee Chair Barbara Heath, a member’s survey will be conducted in 2013 to secure demographic data more recent and somewhat more focused on dimensions of diversity than the 2008 Member’s Needs Report.

Historical archaeologists have long embraced an archaeology of peoples who have been structurally silenced and ignored as their experiences are effaced from dominant narratives.  SHA is committed to supporting such work because it is simply good scholarship that is true to our collective heritage, and working to mirror the same diversity in our membership is simply true to contemporary social life.  As Leland Ferguson’s Uncommon Ground epilogue stresses, lived inequalities inevitably shape our scholarship, but we have not often examined how our collective experiences become part of the structural fabric of academic departments, cultural resource management firms, or the SHA itself.  Many of us have had these conversations with colleagues for years on excavation sites, in department meetings, and even in the hallways of SHA conferences, asking ourselves how we can foster reflective transformations in institutions and everyday practice.  We need to keep moving that discussion into our shared disciplinary discourse and make it part of good practice, pressing to ensure that historical archaeology and SHA practice genuine equity in our scholarship and advocacy and welcome a breadth of voices.

Critical Heritage, African Diaspora Archaeology and the Moment When My Eyes Were Opened.

I am a blogger. Blogging has become an extension of how I process complex thoughts and ideas. Composing a blog entry is like creating a work of art, allowing me to release myself from the constraints of academic boundaries and just write my inner thoughts and feelings in ways that are liberating and therapeutic.

So, this entry is about a recent shift in the way I think about the archaeology that I do, the methods I employ to engage with multiple stakeholders, and the ability to compare my experiences across time and space. This all started when I began to notice that many of the archaeologists around me were starting to talk about this thing called heritage.  I presented a paper at an annual conference sponsored by the UMass Amherst Center for Heritage and Society (CHS) about the recent trends in African Diaspora archaeology. I had incredible exchanges with heritage professionals, archaeologists from around the globe who were using unfamiliar language like tangible and intangible heritage, polylogues (as opposed to monologues), and concepts like sites as extensions of public value. I was shocked to learn how different this new heritage differed from my archaic understanding of what heritage was. It was no longer simply the idea of preservation, the built environment, or a tool for nation building, it was about all people, even those who were often marginalized, neglected and underrepresented.

My formal relationship with CHS began when I became a part of a larger project on Eleuthera, an outer island in the Bahamas. Initiated by a local organization, One Eleuthera Foundation (http://oneeleuthera.org/), CHS became a partner in an effort to identify projects and opportunities to “strengthen Eleuthera’s communities and further the economic, environmental and social development of the island” (http://oneeleuthera.org/). This partnership, already going on for a year, involved community engagement, focus groups with a variety of stakeholders, and historical research. There were several viable components to the project, one of which was the possibility for some archaeology of an abandoned 500 acre plantation on the southern tip of the island. I was drawn by the lure of plantation archaeology outside of the Southern United States. However, I quickly discovered that this trip was not about me initiating excavations at Millars plantation, this thing I now know as critical heritage opened my eyes to see realities of lived experience that had to be addressed before a single shovel or trowel ever touched the dirt.

What I found was an island that did not benefit from constantly docking cruise ships or “all inclusive” resorts scattered across the landscape. I found an island impacted by severe un/underemployment, the invisibility of a Haitian labor class, the negative imprint of failed tourism, steady outward migration, and the political and social involvement of second-home owners. I arrived thinking I was there to help the “community,” without knowing what that really meant. Eleutherans were easy to talk to, I learned a great deal about history, family, connection, in many ways I felt like I was returning to a home I had longed for, but never knew existed. The people looked like me, I could relate to the frustrations of the empty promise of tourism and how it fostered apathy in the minds of young people. I was not the archaeological expert, standing in the center of town as an empty vessel to be used to recuperate the buried past. My role was seeing myself as a facilitator between the elder and the youth, the Eleutheran and the Haitian laborer, the community organizer and the second-home owner. The fading history of the island was held close by those who stayed, those who looked to heritage as the means for a sustainable collective memory. Archaeology could tell a story that chronicles the history of an abandoned plantation, the experiences of post-emancipation life, and possibly provide a narrative that can be powerful enough to reclaim a fading Eleutheran identity, but this project was more about dialogue, about reaching a larger audience on and off of the island. As one informant said plainly, “we need you to help remind us all that we have, because we are sitting on it and take it for granted” (Roderick Pindar, personal communication, 2012). And then I went back home, to Western Massachusetts.

On my return I was invigorated and confused. I had to process the trip, knowing that Eleuthera was forever in my system. I had just scratched the surface on my first trip and I continued to delve, very slowly, into this thing called heritage. It was some months later as we were conceptualizing the 2012 UMass Amherst Heritage Archaeology Field School (http://umassheritagearchaeology.com/), that it struck me. I was starting to see my current site, the W. E. B. Du Bois Homesite, differently. I began to think critically about how I had been defining “community” in Great Barrington. Who were we trying to reach through our interpretation and archaeology? I wanted to employ the idea of local and associated stakeholders, mark the contrast and follow where it took us. I was reminded of how Anna Agbe-Davies articulated the reality that many historical archaeologists enter into engagement with very weak theoretical understandings of community (Agbe-Davies, 2010). And then I had one conversation that would again shift the very foundation of my thinking.

That “local” community I was searching for was not as distant as I had imagined. They were witnesses to a transformed landscape that no longer reflected their generational memories. There was a sense of disconnect from what Great Barrington had become and there was a sense of loss and apathy. Although, it does not involve an African descendant community, in the traditional sense, the Du Bois Homesite is surrounded by a rural, descendant group of people that are not invested in the site that occupies a space in their neighborhood. This local community has experienced a steady outward migration of young people, a politically and socially active second-home owner community, the effects of New England seasonal tourism, and massive un/underemployment. The needs of this local community are different than I initially expected or even considered. This community did not look like me, we didn’t share a collective past, but there is a need for their voices to be a part of the dialogue of how we understand the Du Bois Homesite. Therefore, I am beginning to see the possibility of facilitating a conversation, developing a longer relationship to the site and its surroundings and expanding the story/narrative of life in Great Barrington, in the past, present and future.

From critical heritage I have learned that I am no longer just the expert. I have learned that I can serve as a facilitator for the needs of local and associated communities, use an archaeology that includes dialogues that exposes students to the complications of human interaction and conflict. And how these messy situations can become teaching moments, the means to create sustainable relationships between communities and sites, and how, for the first time in my career, my ability to put those lofty theoretical ideas I have about engagement into practice. Whether it is on an outer island in the Bahamas or a small, plot of land on the South Egremont Plain in rural Western Massachusetts, critical heritage has opened my eyes wide enough to see a lasting value in the work that I to do.

  • Agbe-Davies, Anna
    • 2010 “Concepts of community in the pursuit of an inclusive archaeology,” In International Journal of Heritage Studies 16(6):373-389.
  • Pindar, Roderick
    • 2012 Personal Communication, Governor’s Harbor, Eleuthera, Bahamas.

A Mixed Methods Approach to Digital Heritage in Rosewood, Florida

The use of digital technologies for cultural heritage work is a rapidly expanding field of research and engagement (Kalay et al 2007). The array of digital techniques presents a bewildering array of possibilities for the heritage professional. The Virtual Rosewood Research Project (VRRP) presents one approach employing multiple technologies for public outreach allowing researchers to present, manage, and disseminate both tangible and intangible heritage. In this post, I discuss the use of archaeological visualization and digital storytelling for collaborative purposes in Rosewood, Florida.

The use of virtual world environments to represent archaeological contexts encompasses hundreds of projects around the world and plans for a peer-reviewed multimedia journal are in the works (Bawaya 2010). Early work in the 1990s focused on creating images and video representing prehistoric and monumental sites. In the last decade research has moved towards visualization, or inferring complete contexts from the incomplete data recovered during archaeological research (Barcelo 2002).

Digital storytelling has its roots in a series of workshops in Los Angeles during the early 1990s (Lambert 2009). These workshops proved so successful that a Center for Digital Storytelling (CDS) was created shortly thereafter and remains the national center for working with digital media to tell personal stories (Lambert 2009:1-10). The impulse to share personal lives continues to characterize digital storytelling.

The Development and Destruction of Rosewood

Rosewood was settled in the mid-nineteenth century by a diverse group of people, and experienced rapid economic growth following the Civil War. Rosewood’s population was majority African American by the early twentieth century. By 1910, Rosewood’s population was eclipsed by the neighboring community of Sumner following the construction of a large sawmill complex approximately one mile west of Rosewood.

On New Year’s Day 1923, a white woman in Sumner fabricated a black assailant to hide her extramarital affair with a white man. A white mob formed and headed for Rosewood, encountering the home of Sam Carter. They interrogated Carter by hanging him from a tree by the neck, and when it seemed the mob might release him, a man leveled his gun at Carter’s face and ended the day with Carter’s lynching.

Two days later, whites in Sumner heard (or fabricated) rumors that the black assailant was with Sylvester Carrier. Carrier’s distrust of whites was well-known and before the night was out, two whites lay dead on his doorstep after attempting to set fire to his family’s home. By the sixth of January three other blacks had been brutally murdered and the white mob, now numbering in the hundreds, began the systematic burning of every black-owned home and building in Rosewood. A train was brought through town during this time to pick up women and children, who were hiding in the nearby swamps following the gun battle at the Carrier home. The train took dozens of families to towns like Otter Creek, Archer, and Gainesville where descendants live to this day.

Image of Rosewood’s Destruction (Literary Digest – January 4, 1923)

My decision to investigate digital heritage was motivated by specific questions posed to me by descendants of Rosewood’s community. These began with deceptively simple questions such as “can you show me where my grandfather’s house was located?” These early engagements ranged towards more complex conversations centering on the exploration of new methods for “getting our story” to wider and younger audiences.

Workflow for Creating Virtual Rosewood

The first step in visualizing Rosewood involved reconstructing property boundaries by reviewing thousands of historic deeds in the local courthouse. There are no maps, directories, or other information about Rosewood’s spatial layout. Therefore, geographic information systems (GIS) were used to reconstruct the metes and bounds on hundreds of historic deeds dating between 1870 and 1930. Historic census, aerial photographs, oral histories, and preliminary archaeological investigations were added to the GIS. The resulting dataset  provides the spatial template for the virtual world environment.

Virtual Reconstruction of Carter Home & Blacksmith Shop

High cost and lack of training has, until recently, limited the use of 3D programs for archaeological visualization. Companies are creating educational licensing programs. For instance, Autodesk, the parent company for 3DS Max and AutoCAD, began offering free educational licenses in 2010 at their educational site. The structures were created using 3DS Max and are available as a virtual world environment via a web-based format developed with a game engine. Game engines are used to create video games, and are increasingly used by archaeologists to create interactive virtual world environments of archaeological contexts (Rua and Alvito 2011). Unity 3D was used to export the 3DS Max models to the web. The result is two-plus square miles of virtual land, which re-creates the spatial layout of Rosewood as it existed in 1922. Interpretive signs throughout the virtual world environment tell the story of Rosewood’s development and destruction.

Virtual Rosewood Museum in Second Life

In addition to the web-based virtual world environment, a Virtual Rosewood museum is available in the popular online world of Second Life. The basic design is that of a repurposed, historic building converted to a local history museum. Visitors explore the history of Rosewood through museum-like displays. The Virtual Rosewood Museum continues to attract students, educators, and the general public. In December 2011 I led a two-hour tour to the Virtual Pioneers, a group of educators who regularly meet in Second Life to explore the intersection of online worlds and social justice education.

Virtual Rosewood Museum in Second Life

Visitors to the Virtual Rosewood Museum in Second Life can also watch a 25 minute video exploring Rosewood’s history, which is also available at the VRRP website.

Digital Storytelling and Rosewood’s Heritage

Digital stories can be created with relatively little investment and freely delivered using the internet, making research immediately accessible to more people. The VRRP includes a 26 minute digital documentary (link) exploring the development and destruction of Rosewood, the lives of those who survived through oral histories, and an exploration of the various methods used to document the town.

A particularly touching moment in the documentary occurs when Robie Mortin describes meeting her father for the first time following the 1923 race riot. Mortin’s father recognized early on how the accusation of rape might turn into large scale violence. He sent Robie, who was seven at the time, to a nearby town with her older sister. After hearing about the destruction of Rosewood days later, and failing to meet their father, the two girls assumed the worst. They eventually made their way to Miami working as migrant laborers. Robie Mortin shares what happened one morning when she went to a newly constructed church.

There was a ditch that separated Riviera Beach from the black neighborhood. There was a bridge across it, and there was a Hearst Chapel AME Church there. They had built that church right on our side of the ditch. So, we, my sister and I, went to church, and would you believe our daddy was there, and we didn’t know where he was, hadn’t seen him in months. We didn’t even know he was still alive, and there he was in the front of that church.” – Robie Mortin (2009)

The author conducting oral history interview with Robie Mortin

The ability of digital storytelling to share touching moments like these with a wide audience is an important aspect of social justice education. Robie Mortin’s words, delivered in her soft, ninety-four year-old voice, touch the viewer in an unmistakable way. The emotional impact of her story demonstrates the trials, and in this one example, happy surprises which make a life scared by trauma bearable.

Discussion and Concluding Thoughts

The creation of a website for my research into Rosewood’s past – including a data warehouse with census records and oral history transcripts -  has led to many unexpected engagements. This includes journalists, interested members of the public, and members of Rosewood’s multifaceted descendant communities. While the newspaper articles bring increased traffic to the VRRP website, it is the other engagements which demonstrate the collaborative potentials of new media for heritage. For instance, one property owner in the area where Rosewood was located contacted me after watching the digital documentary. His property is home to the African American cemetery in operation during Rosewood’s occupation. While allowing descendants to visit their ancestors’ graves, he has kept the property closed to academics after previous researchers  misrepresented his involvement in their projects. At present, myself and Dr. James Davidson of the University of Florida are documenting the property and its value to various descendant communities.

Documenting Rosewood’s African American Cemetery

The creation of new media represents a pedagogical toolkit. The new forms of knowledge produced by the synthesis between historical research and new media accomplish a number of things. It highlights the experiences of descendants and other interested parties, provides tools for critically engaging with history and media, and offers researchers new techniques for crafting the way historical knowledge is accessed and interpreted by others. In many ways, new media offers a new set of tools, ones not found in the master’s house (Lourde 1984:110-113) and potentially very liberating. New media is a constellation of approaches and technologies not regulated by gatekeepers and tradition – although certainly in dialogue with them. Obvious and sizable obstacles to full participation include the manifestation of a digital divide as well as the (re)inscription of negative identity politics (Nakamura 2008) within virtual spaces. Only time will tell if this optimistic viewpoint will produce transformative fruit or if mass standardization will assert itself and crush individual creativity and expression. I have chosen to be optimistic, and hope that the Virtual Rosewood Research Site motivates others to do the same.

References Cited

  • Barcelo, Juan A.
    • 2002    Virtual Archaeology and Artificial Intelligence. In Virtual Archaeology, Franco Nicolucci, editor, pp. 21-28. ArchaeoPress, Oxford.
  • Baway, Michael
    • 2010    Virtual Archaeologists Recreate Parts of Ancient Worlds. Science 327(5962):140-1.
  • Kalay, Yehuda E., Thomas Kvan, and Janice Affleck
    • 2007    New Media and Cultural Heritage. Routledge, New York.
  • Lambert, Joe
    • 2009    Digital Storytelling: Capturing Lives, Creating Community. Digital Diner Press, Berkeley, CA.
  • Lourde, Audre
    • 1984    Sister Outsider: Essay and Speeches. Crossing Press, Freedom, CA.