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Confronting slavery head-on, new museums shift how U.S. history is told

Americans are questioning “who we are as individuals, a region, a country”

Owens-Thomas House, completed in 1819 in Savannah, Georgia, is undergoing a renovation that will highlight the stories of enslaved residents.
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A grand, Regency-style manse on Savannah, Georgia’s Oglethorpe Square, the Owens-Thomas House, prides itself on being a time capsule.

In a city known for Spanish moss and tree-lined streets, the historic home museum offers a window into the world of the Antebellum south, and the life of famous 19th-century Georgians. Named after George Welshman Owens, a former Savannah mayor, the home, built in 1819, once hosted the Marquis de Lafayette.

On November 17, when the museum reopens after a multiyear redesign and reorganization, the focus will turn to less-famous names, like “Emma.” A former enslaved woman who lived in the home, Emma will have her life highlighted in an expansive new exhibit, a key element of tours at the newly renamed Owens-Thomas House & Slave Quarters.

According to Shannon Browning-Mullis, a curator at the Telfair Museums, the institution that operates the Owens-Thomas House, the new exhibits—including the restoration of former living quarters for the enslaved—offer a more expansive picture of the home’s history. The new displays provide a deeper understanding of the pervasiveness of slavery, especially in urban areas, and goes beyond the traditional focus of historic homes: decorative art, architecture, and the lives of wealthy Americans.

It’s indicative of how historians and museum visitors have been digging more deeply into the history of everyday people for decades, she says, a marked shift away from elitism and toward authenticity and an embrace of what’s called social history.

“This is one of the first times we really put these stories up front,” Browning-Mullis says. “There’s a questioning about identity right now—who we are as individuals, a region, a country—how we perceive who we are as a people. I think it’s important to get to the root.”

Courtesy EJI/National Memorial to Peace and Justice

“We have to understand each other”

The transformation of the Owens-Thomas House comes at a time when curators and scholars across the nation are re-evaluating how institutions, and the American public, confront the history of slavery.

A multi-decade effort has helped the country better understand historic injustice, what it meant to be enslaved, and how that legacy shapes the country today. The National Museum of African American History and Culture opened in 2016 with extensive exhibitions chronicling the impact of slavery. Historic homes, like Monticello, have dealt head-on with the issue; a new exhibit that opened at the institution this summer explores President Thomas Jefferson’s relationship with an enslaved woman, Sally Hemings.

And in Montgomery, Alabama, the National Memorial to Peace and Justice, a stirring monument and museum dedicated to victims of lynching and racial injustice, opened its doors this spring, aiming to create what the founders call “a sober, meaningful site where people can gather and reflect on America’s history of racial inequality.”

A statue of Colorado pioneer and former slave Clara Brown is on display next to a preserved slave cabin at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture during the press preview on the National Mall September 14, 2016, in Washington, D.C.
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Bryan Stevenson, the black public-interest lawyer who founded the Equal Justice Initiative, the organization which funded the monument and museum, says that the monument’s unflinching look at lynching and slavery is meant to be confrontational. As such, the centerpiece of the monument is a series of hanging, weathered steel markers that offer an unmistakable reminder of the atrocities committed. Mass violence and abuse must be recognized and remembered before a society can recover, Stevenson argues.

“Our nation’s history of racial injustice casts a shadow across the American landscape,” he explained in a statement at the monument’s opening. “This shadow cannot be lifted until we shine the light of truth on the destructive violence that shaped our nation, traumatized people of color, and compromised our commitment to the rule of law and to equal justice.”

Browning-Mullis says that it’s no coincidence that the opening of the National Memorial to Peace and Justice and the recent Owens-Thomas redesign are taking place now. These sites are indicative of larger cultural shifts. A contentious moment in our country is sparking much larger conversations around our shared history, she says. Millennials are especially interested in learning about history and social justice.

“With [Confederate] monuments going down in cities [like] New Orleans, and more museums going up around the country, we’re in the midst of a shift in how history is being explained, portrayed, and dramatized,” she says.

According to David Adjaye, one of the architects of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, the role of museums is changing.

“Every generation thinks we know the story, we’ve grown past it, we’re integrated, we’re done, and then a decade later there is memory loss,” he told Curbed critic Alexandra Lange. “We go back to stigmatizing and dividing. In the 18th and 19th centur[ies], museums were about understanding the world. Now [that] we understand the world, we have to understand each other.”

Monument men and a changing U.S.

The truism that “the past is present” has been proven again and again in recent confrontations and debates over Confederate monuments. From New Orleans’s removal of Confederate statues to the white supremacists who marched on Charlottesville, Virginia, last August (in part a reaction to debate of a Robert E. Lee statue), the history of slavery, the Civil War, and segregation continues to make headlines today. Stacey Abrams, running this fall to be the first black female governor of Georgia (and of any U.S. state), has called for the removal of Stone Mountain, the massive Confederate stone carving overlooking Atlanta.

”[The monument issue] struck such a chord because it dovetailed with the Black Lives Matter protests of state-sanctioned violence against black people,” Ethan J. Kytle, a Fresno State professor who studies slavery and Confederate monuments, told Curbed. “Dylann Roof pledging allegiance to the Confederate flag after killing people in Charleston, South Carolina, connected people to the issue in a more immediate way. More people are seeing these monuments now. They’re not fading into the background anymore.”

A New Orleans city worker wearing body armor and a face covering as he measures the Jefferson Davis monument on May 4, 2017 in New Orleans, Louisiana.
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Part of this renewed reckoning about both monuments and history comes from the work of pioneering historians and scholars who have pushed Americans to confront the true meaning and impact of slavery. Many point to Christy Coleman, the first black female curator of the American Civil War Center at Historic Tredegar, in Richmond, Virginia.

“I think it’s important to have a variety of voices, not just African-American [ones],” Coleman told the Richmond Times-Dispatch. “This war impacted everyone. The fact that I’m a black woman helps me see things that others may not because I ask questions of history. I’m looking for a fullness in the narrative. This conflict, even though it was 150 years ago, has very real and modern ramifications that we deal with constantly.”

Coleman, who is currently overseeing the opening of a new exhibit next year focused on telling a more expansive and inclusive story of that pivotal struggle, gained national and international attention when she worked at Colonial Williamsburg as director of African-American interpretations and presentations.

In 1994, she held a mock slave auction at the historic site, an event that made many uncomfortable (the Virginia NAACP sued to force her to stop). As Coleman told NBC, the event was both emotional, cathartic, and catalyzing.

“After it was all said and done, people were weeping and glad that it happened,” she said. “And it was a sea of change for museums. The word was, ‘if Williamsburg can depict that, certainly we can talk about it at our sites and on our tours.’”

Another inspiration many cite for the current wave of exhibitions and institutions is the Whitney Plantation outside of New Orleans, which opened in 2014. A collaboration between John Cummings, a white retired trial lawyer and real estate developer, and Ibrahima Seck, a member of the history faculty at Cheikh Anta Diop University of Dakar, Senegal, the former sugarcane plantation-turned-historical site dispenses with the typical “moonlight-and-magnolias” history tours and delves into the impact of slavery.

Various displays, statues, and monuments recall the names of slaves who perished at the plantation, and detail the brutality of the plantation system. A Smithsonian article on Whitney, “Inside America’s Auschwitz,” celebrated how the site dispensed with the typically sanitized presentation of enslavement.

“Education is the takeaway here, including the education of African Americans, so they can realize how badly the deck was stacked against them,” Cummings told the New Orleans Advocate.

Courtesy Slave Dwelling Project

The opening of new museums, exhibitions, and events more forcefully confronting slavery has been “an expansion of the coalition of the willing,” says preservationist Joseph McGill. He started the Slave Dwelling Project eight years ago, an initiative to visit the true homes of the enslaved across the country, hold public discussions, and “fill a void in preservation.”

When he started, he had to work to gain attention and access to sites. Today, he says, he’s already inundated with requests for 2019.

“There were a few sites doing a great job before I started, who had a head start in telling the entire, inclusive story,” he says. “Now, there are a lot more sites coming on board.”

The meaning of the Monument to Peace and Justice

McGill feels the Monument to Peace and Justice represents a sea change. The way the monument and associated museum created a detailed narrative connecting slavery, segregation, racial terror, and the civil rights struggle is vitally important.

“We need to connect the dots in our history,” he says. “Lynching is only one bump in the road. Back in 1789, when we created the Constitution, it said ‘We, the People.’ It should have said ‘We, the People in this room’, because if you weren’t in that room, it didn’t mean much to you. It had to be amended many times to include me, and we’re still dealing with the residual [effects] of not including us in that original document.”

For McGill, Stephenson, and others, these new historical institutions and museums aim for realization as well as recognition, while connecting to life in America today. The poignant, unsparing history lesson is by design. As EJI’s Stephenson told NPR, “if everything was wonderful, you could ask the question, ‘Why would you talk about the difficult past?’ But everything is not wonderful.”

“There’s a demographic change afoot,” says McGill. “As we continue to become a more diverse nation, the pushback [against events like the election of President Barack Obama] is evident. It’s even more important today that we know our history, not as a means to divide, but as a means to heal.”