What Jack Wore: Incorporating the history of enslaved people at a Pennsylvania farmstead
04 June 2019 – Sarah Biehl and Kimberly D. Boice
Editors’ Note: This post is part of a History@Work series that complements The Public Historian, volume 40, number 3, which is about the history of the field of Black Museums. Shawn Halifax writes in “McLeod Plantation Historic Site: Sowing Truth and Change,” that “many if not most historic plantations acknowledge or interpret African diasporic histories and cultures that existed within these landscapes to varying degrees.” The staff at the Peter Wentz Farmstead in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, decided it was time to tell that story at their site as well.
As historians, we know that research is never done! Sometimes we uncover the answers we seek, but quite often more questions are generated than get answered at the end of a research day. Regardless, it’s our duty to keep research going to better understand the lives of those in the past. But once we acquire this information, then what? Here at the historic Peter Wentz Farmstead in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, we have included a lesser-known individual as part of our general interpretation: Jack, an enslaved man.
We recently researched his story to offer a more accurate and inclusive interpretation of how a 300-acre farm in southeastern Pennsylvania might operate during the eighteenth century. This project included numerous elements: reproducing the clothing Jack wore when he ran away in December 1769; hosting a conference on interpreting slavery in June 2018; and producing a small exhibit about Jack and slavery in the North. We also trained staff to feel comfortable when discussing this sensitive topic and to assist visitors in processing what will likely be new information for them in an engaging and thought-provoking environment.
The first part of this larger interpretation project was finding a visual way to place Jack at the site. It is likely he worked in the sawmill once owned and operated by the Wentz family, but that structure is no longer standing. If he provided general farm labor, it would not be easy to find a good way to show his work in an obvious way. We used what information we had about him to provide a more inclusive story of the people that lived and worked at the farmstead. The runaway advertisements placed shortly after his escape from the Wentz family proved invaluable in providing us with a clear picture of his appearance. Just as is does today, clothing played an important role in visually relaying messages about the wearer’s religious beliefs, culture, social and economic status to those around them.
Using a runaway advertisement that described Jack in detail and making some well-informed guesses about the details not included, we reproduced most of Jack’s clothing for use during hands-on lessons with school children and other visitors to the exhibit. We purchased or had made the following items of clothing: a white linsey jacket with sleeves; a white linsey under-jacket without sleeves; buckskin breeches; light blue yarn stockings; shoes with large brass buckles; and a wool hat. Many of the items worn by Jack were commonplace during the eighteenth century, but those same items today proved rather expensive to acquire. Fortunately, we received funding from four local chapters of Questers (Gaudy Dutch Questers #270, Heritage #1, Hope Lodge Questers #1394, and Militia Hill Questers #5), a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving history, with matching funds provided by the Pennsylvania State Questers. This allowed us to have the most accurate items possible to provide a more complete picture of what he wore and provide a tactile experience about Jack as a person. Because the runaway advertisement noted some specific physical characteristics, including estimated age, approximate height, and that one of his legs was larger than the other, we opted to stay as true to those elements and the clothing described rather than produce clothing to fit a specific male model.
Once the staff agreed to begin interpreting Jack and enslavement at the Wentz Farmstead, we all asked the same question, “Now what?” The second component of the project was for us to consult with experts in the field. As we began discussing our project, it became apparent that a conference would be an ideal format to expand our knowledge, while allowing others to join an informative conversation. In June 2018, the Peter Wentz Farmstead proudly presented “Creating Conversations: Interpreting Slavery.” The event, attended by local museum staff and volunteers, featured three speakers discussing their experiences—the good and the bad—interpreting slavery. The opening speaker was Brenda Parker, a character interpreter at George Washington’s Mount Vernon. Parker portrays multiple women who were once enslaved by the Washingtons. Cheyney McKnight, founder of Not Your Momma’s History, explained the harassment that black interpreters endure and offered suggestions to create policies to combat such behavior. The final speaker was Joe McGill, founder of The Slave Dwelling Project. McGill discussed how to bring awareness to sites where people were enslaved. The program was followed by a conversation over dinner and an overnight program during which McGill spent the night at the Wentz Farmstead as part of his project to raise awareness of the history of enslavement at historic sites. The conference proved to be more impactful than previously imagined and offered insight vital to the further development of the full project, including the exhibit.
In addition to reproducing Jack’s clothing and organizing a conference on interpreting the history of enslaved people, we also produced an exhibit. Denial is an emotion that is often felt by visitors when discussing the topic of northern enslavement. To combat these feelings, we used primary sources as the foundation of the exhibit. Six primary sources are displayed: two runaway advertisements, one “found” advertisement, and three tax assessments, all of which mention enslavement on the Wentz farmstead. The two exhibit panels—the first focusing on primary sources and the second on the larger context of slavery in Pennsylvania—are accompanied by the reproduction clothing detailed in the 1770 runaway advertisement. The clothing allows visitors to feel the textiles, visualize the items listed in the primary source, and brings Jack physically into the space. The staff hopes that the exhibit invokes a sincere and honest conversation, informed by primary sources, that educates visitors about the otherwise unknown history and offers a voice for Jack.
Given our previous experience with visitors’ reluctance to engage with the history of enslaved people at the Wentz farmstead, we felt that it was imperative to offer a training session to prepare everyone for the possible responses to the topic of slavery and the exhibition. Attendees included tour guides, board members, volunteers at the site, and paid staff. We provided some background about why we felt it necessary to more deliberately share this information as part of our interpretation and guidance on anticipating visitor responses and engaging with those responses in a sensitive way so that all would be comfortable when interacting with the visitor. We also shared research that did not fit into the exhibit due to space limitations so that everyone had as much information as possible that they could deploy when engaging with visitors. This will be an ongoing conversation amongst site staff and visitors that we hope will generate a better understanding of slavery in the north in general, and at the Wentz Farmstead, more specifically. As larger museums and historic sites grapple with interpreting the full history of the region or site, smaller sites like the Farmstead are also working to present a fuller story of life in the past and to dispel some of the myths surrounding our shared past, including slavery.
From start to finish, this project provided us with the opportunity to offer a more inclusive interpretation of the many people that helped to make the Wentz farm successful. We wanted to dispel the myth that a family could succeed entirely by their own hands; enslaved persons allowed many farms to function. We hope that by telling more of this story we can help everyone better understand our shared history and its impact on our modern lives.
~ Sarah Biehl was the curator for the Peter Wentz Farmstead (2016–2019) after earning a BA in history from Temple University and a master’s degree in museum studies from Johns Hopkins University. Sarah believes that museums are trusted sources of information and that trust should be honored by interpreting a broader story of our past.
~ Kimberly D. Boice began her professional museum education career at the historic Peter Wentz Farmstead in 2003, shortly after earning her master’s degree in history museum studies from the Cooperstown Graduate Program. She believes that museums offer visitors opportunities to learn more about ourselves by studying those of the past.