Black Craftspeople Digital Archive Q&A: Part II

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Editors’ Note: This is the second of two Q&A posts about the Black Craftspeople Digital Archive.  The first post was published on November 9, 2021.

History@Work: What role can all public historians play in elevating stories of Black craft?

Torren Gatson: Public historians serve as the new vanguards of treasured and overshadowed histories. A key component of this work gets accomplished due to our extensive training that centers on locating and researching histories, then delicately folding those narratives into interpretations of the past in the spirit of “truth-telling” which builds inclusive American histories.

Tiffany Momon: Public historians can elevate stories of Black craft by simply sharing these stories in our everyday roles. When we teach with objects, give guided tours of historic sites, write object labels, plan exhibitions, write nominations for the National Register of Historic Places, and engage with the public in general, we can share these stories in meaningful and impactful ways. I would encourage all public historians to make sure that they are always telling inclusive stories. When objects connected to Black history come up at auction, I would encourage museum employees to purchase those objects for museum collections. Additionally, I’d encourage museum employees to seek out objects for donations or gifts that enable them to tell inclusive stories.

Photograph of Lewis C. Buckner historic marker in front of historic house. Also includes a digital label that reads "A BLACK CRAFTSPERSON WORKED HERE."

Photograph of historic marker for Lewis C. Buckner, a Black craftsperson who worked in Sevier County, Tennessee, including an additional BCDA marker with the related house in background. Learn more from May 7, 2021, BCDA Instagram post. Image credit: BCDA.

History@Work: Do you have a favorite artifact or other primary source shared on BCDA you’d like to share? Or, do you have a favorite artifact or other primary source you think presents a good representation of the interpretive opportunities objects offer in public history settings?

Victoria Hensley: The story of Richmond Pugsley, the birdcage maker in Nashville, immediately comes to mind. Birdcage maker seemed like such a unique trade, and while he is currently the only one in that collection, we may find more as we continue this research. Simply finding Pugsley in the 1870 U.S. Federal Census for Nashville led us down the rabbit hole of primary sources. From a newspaper article we found out he had been arrested for caging birds, but he paid his fine and continued running his shop. We were even able to pinpoint the block he worked on in downtown Nashville!

Torren Gatson: Perhaps my favorite story that unravels the complex nature of enslavement while also showing the ingenuity and tradition of African American craft is that of the account of George Inglis, a wealthy enslaver and plantation owner in South Carolina. Inglis, who owned over a hundred enslaved persons spanning three plantations, undoubtedly benefited from their laborious oppression. Yet, amidst that oppression, a story appears of craftspeople who fostered a tradition of skilled craftsmanship in carpentry and other skills such as blacksmithing and brickmaking. Records show examples of fathers training their sons in their skilled craft. Probate inventories and wills and testaments also painted a vivid picture of enslaved individuals who were hired out, or who perhaps hired out their own labor for compensation. This fascinating yet common account of events on the southern landscape reinforces the understanding that the histories of white enslavers and enslaved craftspeople reflect a complex and often intertwined narrative. However, studying those narratives creates a greater appreciation for the building of America.

Tiffany Momon: My favorite sources on the BCDA website are always the sources that lead me down a rabbit hole. One of my favorite sources is that of an August 24, 1767, newspaper advertisement in the South Carolina Gazette seeking the return of a self-emancipated brickmaker named Dublin. Dublin’s story is so unique because the advertisement listed each of his enslavers from the time he was born up until he self-emancipated. Dublin was born enslaved in Philadelphia and held in bondage by an enslaver named James White. Next, he was enslaved by Josiah Parvezole of Cross Creek, North Carolina, who sold him to John Bohannon of Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, who then sold him to John Roy of the same county. Next, James M’Clenachan of Charleston, South Carolina, purchased Dublin and next, William Hopton purchased Dublin at an auction. Dublin self-emancipated from Hopton’s brickyard that was located in present-day Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, which led us to more research on Hopton’s brickyard and the other craftspeople he enslaved. This one advertisement touches on so many aspects of the horrors of enslavement and forced migration and I cannot help but to hope that Dublin found his way back to wherever he considered to be his home.

History@Work: What are your plans for the future of BCDA?

Torren Gatson: I envision the BCDA reaching the milestone of one million names in its database and after we reach that goal, we will deliver to the public a dynamic and interactive digital experience. With the continual enhancements of the digital humanities, I foresee the BCDA continuing to lead the charge as the flagship database for preserving and recognizing enslaved craftspeople on the southern landscape.

Tiffany Momon: Our future plans for the BCDA are to continue to watch it grow. We have upcoming collections focused on Jamaica, Virginia, Georgia, and Maryland in the works. Additionally, later this year we are launching our People and Places page on our website, which will provide brief biographies of craftspeople and stories of places connected to craftspeople. When conditions allow, we hope to do more boots-on-the-ground work of going to places where craftspeople lived and labored and going to museums that hold objects made by Black craftspeople. We hope to engage more museums and historic sites and we also hope to engage more with contemporary Black craftspeople. We are just getting started and I am excited about what the future holds for us.

~Tiffany Momon is a public historian and assistant professor at Sewanee: The University of the South and founder and co-director of the Black Craftspeople Digital Archive. Momon’s research focuses on  African American placemaking throughout the southeast, documenting cemeteries, churches, schools, and lodges.

~Torren Gatson is an assistant professor in the department of history at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and co-director of the Black Craftspeople Digital Archive. Gatson is a scholar of nineteenth and twentieth-century U.S. southern history, with an emphasis on the African American built environment.

~Victoria Hensley is a Ph.D. candidate in Middle Tennessee State University’s Public History Program and a graduate assistant at the MTSU Center for Historic Preservation. Hensley serves as Research Director and Social Media Manager for the Black Craftspeople Digital Archive.

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