Over the past few years, the National Council on Public History (NCPH)’s annual meeting has given attention to the forthcoming 250th anniversary of the American Revolution. NCPH has worked with the National Park Service (NPS) to present a scholar’s roundtable with different annual themes. The roundtable at the 2023 meeting examined “The Rhetoric of Freedom.” This essay opens with an exploration of the theme. What follows is an introduction to the scholars who participated in the roundtable; a description of their suite of programming; and a summary of their findings. I close with a “best practices” case study of the Aiken-Rhett House, an urban plantation mansion in Charleston, South Carolina. The case study answers a reoccurring question that emerged from roundtable discussions: How do historians engage public(s) in narratives of freedom, bondage, and nation building?

In the Revolutionary War the American Negro was a participant and a symbol…The Negro’s role in the Revolution can best be understood by realizing that his major loyalty was not to a place nor to a people, but to a principle.

Benjamin Quarles, The Negro in the American Revolution (1961)1

Featured in the exhibition are Blacks who fought—often heroically—for the patriot cause, as well as American slaves who offered their services to the British in return for promises of freedom. We learn of Blacks who served as soldiers, sailors, scouts, and spies; of black minutemen who fought at Concord, Lexington and Bunker Hill. The stories of four black regiments are told: a silk flag presented to a Massachusetts regiment by John Hancock is among the striking items on display.

National Portrait Gallery (1973)2

The American Revolution readily conjures images of freedom; however, this critical path to independence existed amid a milieu of slavery.3 Juxtaposing the American Revolution and slavery highlights a cognitive dissonance. It also demonstrates the value of contextualizing commemorations. For example, in 1973 the National Portrait Gallery’s groundbreaking exhibition, The Black Presence in the Era of the American Revolution, included “250 portraits, prints, broadsides, letters and related objects” from all over the US.4 It was among the first mainstream exhibitions to center Black life, including slavery.5

The Black Presence in the Era of the American Revolution opened while the nation was at war in Vietnam.6 Perhaps the climate of war explains the dichotomous framing of the exhibition listed in the opening quote: Black patriots vs. British slaves. Historians who studied the American Revolution at the time understood that some African American men and women who served—whether for the British or for the patriots—did so as enslaved people.7 They hoped the war would end with their freedom. After the war, countless enslaved African Americans gained their freedom because of military service.8 Others were manumitted through gradual emancipation laws that northern states passed in the wake of an international abolitionist movement.9 Those who remained in bondage (as well as their allies) were hopeful their day of freedom would come—in part because of the words in the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”10

This essay focuses on the rhetoric of freedom during the age of the American Revolution. It examines the question of how to commemorate war and independence while simultaneously remembering the pervasiveness of chattel slavery. To aid in this work a panel of four people were invited, two who currently work at historic sites and two based on university campuses.11 The panel included Yveline Alexis, associate professor of Africana Studies and Comparative American Studies at Oberlin College and Conservatory; Ista Clarke, cultural history interpretation specialist with the Charleston County Park and Recreation Commission; Maya Davis, director of the Riversdale House Museum; Marcus Nevius, associate professor of history at the University of Missouri; and me (Sylvea Hollis, Associate Professor of African and African American History at Montgomery College) as host scholar. What follows is an overview of the planning process for the scholar’s roundtable, including the intellectual work behind the invitations.

Slavery has existed in many forms throughout human civilization. The late Toni Morrison fashioned a new language to give greater traction to the distinctions between slavery before the invention of race and after. She explained: “When I use the term ‘slavebody’ to distinguish from ‘blackbody,’ I mean to underscore the fact that slavery and racism are two separate phenomena.”12 Over the course of her life, her work demonstrated a deep belief that societies must face traumatic histories—especially those of the slavebody and the blackbody. For example, in 1988, on the eve of the opening of America’s Black Holocaust Museum (ABHM) in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, founded by James Cameron—a lynching survivor and public historian—Morrison asserted that the ABHM’s museum project had three “enormous powers.” The first of these powers, she believed, was the power of “memorializing”; secondly, the power of bringing awareness to “persistently slippery forms of modern racism”; and, finally, the power of “the gaze it has cast on the ameliorating, triumphant aspects of the history of the republic—in black and white.”13 While her words were specifically about the ABHM, they also ring true for other museums whose work explores traumatic racial histories.

Morrison held similar beliefs about historic sites as she did for museums. Look no further than her Bench by the Road Project, which started in 2008.14 She and a group of supporters placed benches as monuments at historically significant sites. They hoped to give people a place to sit and remember histories of Black resilience and trauma. The bench project was inspired by Morrison’s novel Beloved (1987), which focused on the memory of slavery and its afterlife. When asked why she wrote the book, Morrison responded:

There is no place where you or I can go, to think or not think about, to summon the presences of, or recollect the absences of slaves; nothing that reminds us of the ones who made the journey and of those who did not make it. There is no suitable memorial or plaque or wreath or wall or park or skyscraper lobby. There is no three-hundred-foot tower. There’s no small bench by the road. There is not even a tree scored with an initial that I can visit or you can visit in Charleston or Savannah or New York or Providence, better still, on the banks of the Mississippi.15

Morrison launched the program near NPS’s Fort Moultrie, on Sullivan’s Island, a port where over 40 percent of the enslaved people brought to the mainland colonies of the British from 1700 to 1775 disembarked.16

With Morrison’s idea about the memory of slavery and its afterlife in mind, I gathered a team of four public historians with experience in African American history. They were invited to examine our theme, “Rhetoric of Freedom” “with a care for what it means to leverage recent scholarship, while also doing this work within public history spaces.”17 This project needed Toni Morrison. I invited the roundtable scholars to focus on legacies of the blackbody because that was the type of slavery that expanded after the American Revolution.18 Over the course of our suite of programming they added textures to the discussion that made a remarkable roux.19

Each scholar’s everyday work means that they regularly engage the public in nuanced explorations of the past—especially our racialist past.20 For example, Clarke works in interpretation at McLeod Plantation Historic Site, a former Sea Island cotton plantation in Charleston, South Carolina, that encompasses fourteen structures and an African American cemetery on thirty-seven acres.21 The interpretation for the site “is focused on the African American struggle to achieve freedom, justice, and equality, from 1851 through 1990.”22 Nonetheless the place also has great relevance for people who are interested in exploring the rhetoric of freedom and much earlier histories of slavery. On the eve of the American Revolution enslaved people were hired out to work on James Island—where McLeod sits—to assist colonists with building fortifications to protect the area from the British.23 The British later occupied the island for two years during the war.

Davis, as Executive Director of Riversdale House Museum Historic Site, manages a place that is currently revisiting its own story.24 Riversdale is a former tobacco plantation, located in Prince Georges, Maryland.25 It once covered 2000 acres, but due to urbanization the footprint now is four acres (not including the home).26 Prince Georges County, Maryland, was the largest slaveholding county in the state from 1820 until emancipation.27 Similar to McLeod, Riversdale was built after the American Revolution. Nonetheless, the land holds histories relevant to the theme rhetoric of freedom.28 Maryland was the only southern state that allowed enslaved people to enlist. Historian Benjamin Quarles explains why: “Hard pressed after 1777 to supply troops for the state and Continental service, Maryland decided to abandon its time honored opposition to arming the Negro.”29 After the war, in 1785, Maryland’s legislature almost voted to abolish slavery.30 Although abolitionist legislators were not successful with mass emancipation, individual manumissions increased. Maryland remained a slave state, but its free black population grew considerably in subsequent decades.31 Historian Jessica Millward’s book, Finding Charity’s Folk: Enslaved and Free Black Women in Maryland, also analyzes Riversdale. In historicizing gendered narratives of manumission and the sexual politics of plantations, Millward explores the “potential” that motherhood had to be a “revolutionary” act and a route for manumission.32 For example, in 1801 an enslaved woman named Eleanor Beckett gained her freedom at Riversdale alongside her five children—because the father of the children was George Calvert, the plantation owner.33

Yveline Alexis’s book, Haiti Fights Back: The Life and Legacy of Charlemagne Péralte, examines the US occupation of Haiti from 1915 to 1934.34 Her contributions to the panel and programming helped us cast a wider chronology and transnational gaze on the legacies of the American Revolution.35 Like the US, Haiti was founded from a democratic revolution around the turn of the nineteenth century.36 Unlike the US, Haiti “forever abolished” slavery in its founding constitution.37 It was the second independent nation founded in the western hemisphere and the first known nation in the world to constitutionally ban slavery. Alexis’s book focuses on an era that is far more contemporary, but she also reminded the program audience of an important truth about Haiti and the US during the American Revolution: Haiti came to the aid of the patriots and even sent soldiers to help them fight the British in Savannah (Figure 1).38

Figure 1.

This monument in Savannah, Georgia is a memorial to the Haitians who helped patriots fight in the American Revolution. (Photograph by Carol M. Highsmith; Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division)

Figure 1.

This monument in Savannah, Georgia is a memorial to the Haitians who helped patriots fight in the American Revolution. (Photograph by Carol M. Highsmith; Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division)

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Marcus Nevius’s book, City of Refuge: Slavery and Petit Maroonage in the Great Dismal Swamp, 1763–1856, examines the existence of maroon colonies and communities in the Great Dismal Swamp, a region that spans parts of wetlands of both Virginia and North Carolina. For well over one hundred years—between the 1700s and the mid-1800s—a brave number of enslaved people escaped bondage by fleeing to the Chesapeake’s nearby swamps. The model of Black resistance he examines is a type of Black life more commonly associated with parts of the Caribbean and Latin America—an area about which scholars have written countless tomes on maroonage as a form of resistance to slavery.39 Nevius’s project is an intervention and reframing of what Black resistance was and could mean during and after the age of the Revolution.

Each of the above bios explains a bit about who said yes to being a part of the scholars’ roundtable and why this project is relevant to their work. The next section answers the following question: What preliminary thoughts about the rhetoric of freedom propelled program planning?

The scholar’s roundtable met in March and April of 2023. The programming format included three separate events.40 We began with a virtual program that defined the theme, “Rhetoric of Freedom.” Next, we held an in-person plenary at the annual meeting of NCPH in Atlanta, Georgia. Scholars further contextualized the theme and took questions from the audience. Lastly, we organized an in-person workshop (also at the NCPH conference in Atlanta) that allowed scholars and audience members to share best practices as well as problem solving strategies. The group included frontline staff, cultural resource managers, descendant communities, archivists, academics, and historic site administrators.

The scholar’s roundtable demonstrated three lessons that are instructive for public history practitioners preparing for commemorations. First, engaging public(s) in interpretive and public programming is a great responsibility, and is more effective and meaningful if visitors are introduced not only to what we know about the past, but also historiography—that is, how the field of history has changed over time.41 Such observations mean foregrounding “uncoverage,” or the act of making visible the work of history.42 In his seminal essay “Uncoverage: Toward a Signature Pedagogy for the History Survey,” Lendol Calder critiques traditional undergraduate history surveys because of their inclination to “cover up” the actual work of historians. His article is about college students, but countless public historians have commented on the fact that limited understandings of history in US classrooms trickles over to their work with publics at historic sites and museums.43 That is, publics often arrive at sites with rote lessons about the past and lacking critical tools for analysis. But it is also true that some historic sites mirror traditional classrooms. Some are places where visitors engage with history as facts without context.44 Calder calls for historians to expose people to the messy process of research, inquiry, and ambiguity that defines historians’ work. Historians, whether in the classroom or engaging the public writ large, have a unique opportunity to teach people how we study the past as much as what we know of the past.45

Secondly, the roundtable provided a salient focus for our discussions—the labors and opportunities of exploring the “Rhetoric of Freedom” theme with the public.46 Frontline staff are an invaluable resource for understanding how the public engages with institutions.47 The feedback they receive helps us see the value of historic sites and museums as tools for civic engagement.48 Other experiences with visitors also demonstrate risks that come with facing public(s)—especially when visitors are uncomfortable (or even hostile) to histories.49 Some visitors make their feelings known. Others do not. An example that cannot be forgotten is Dylan Roof. He visited several historic sites in and near Charleston before his mass shooting in 2015 at historic Emanuel AME Church.50 That tragic event demonstrates how difficult it can be for those teaching history—whether in the classroom or at historic sites—to know the full motivations of their audience. But it also speaks to why we as a field must continue to try, and in so doing learn about our audiences, advocate for personal safety, and build community while we teach our texts.

Lastly, the roundtable discussions demonstrated the value of practitioners teaching a kind of praxis historiography—or the study of how previous historic sites and museum professionals have (or have not) engaged public(s) in historical analyses.51 Doing so means seeing how new ideas about interpretation relate to the previous practices in the field.52

Some of the richest discussions about programming occurred at the third and final workshop. Audience members were mutual partners in the discussion. We focused on what the theme, Rhetoric of Freedom, would or could mean for the institutions in attendance. People shared resources, best practices, lingering questions, and most importantly, they exchanged contacts and made tangible connections. One of the most substantive things the suite of programming demonstrated is the importance of learning from existing and previous projects in the field. What places do well at engaging people—through the craft of history—with stories of the enslaved? In our closing session, I talked about my respect for the audio tour at the Aiken-Rhett House in Charleston.

What follows is a “best practice” case study. It includes a historic site tour of the Aiken-Rhett House, an urban plantation mansion in Charleston, South Carolina.53 There is a whole body of literature that demonstrates that visitors benefit just as much from how sites interpret history as they do from what is interpreted. This applies to staff as well.54 It is helpful to place the scholar’s roundtable findings alongside the everyday landscapes of public historians. That is, what do these ideas look like when implemented at a historic site or museum?55 The case study also answers a reoccurring question that emerged from the “Rhetoric of Freedom” roundtable discussions: How do public historians engage diverse audiences in narratives of freedom, bondage, and nation building?56 It answers this question by highlighting major interventions from the field.

I visited the Aiken-Rhett House while attending the Association for the Study of African American Life and History annual meeting in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2019.57 After a dynamic tour of the Old Slave Mart Museum, I asked the guide, Ista Clarke (yes—this is how I first met Ista), to recommend other sites. I wanted to see a place that interpreted urban slavery in Charleston, but not a “Gone with the Wind”-style tour.58 Ista Clarke recommended the Aiken-Rhett House. To date, that site remains one of the most substantive and thoughtful tours I have experienced.

The Aiken-Rhett House is an urban plantation home in downtown Charleston. The property sits over a Revolutionary war-era trench.59 It is literally built on a foundation—physical and symbolic—of the American Revolution. Charleston was occupied during the American Revolution for two years by the British. After the war, in 1820, the property was built for John Robinson, a cotton merchant.60 In 1827, William Aiken Sr.—president of South Carolina Canal and Railroad Company and a member of Congress—purchased the property. William Aiken Jr. inherited the property after his father died.61 The Aiken-Rhett House is also a reminder that the new nation was built on an economic system that not only preserved slavery, but legally protected the rights of slave owners.62

Several things make Aiken-Rhett fascinating. First, it is a preservation project. That is, visitors do not walk through a place that reimagines the past with fresh paint, crisp wallpaper, ornate gardens, or plush upholstered furniture. The altering or sanitizing of some historic sites can establish a climate that makes it harder to learn about traumatic aspects of early nation building, especially slavery.63 Restored plantation architecture can reproduce a kind of visual discord—visitors see opulence but are asked to think about bondage and violence, and to experience a kind of time travel to a genteel era. At Aiken-Rhett visitors see the wear and tear of time. The site’s website describes the distinction perfectly: “Politics, Power and the Place They Called Home: Two Worlds Preserved as Found” (Figure 2).64

Figure 2.

Screenshot of Aiken-Rhett House and Nathaniel Russell House (taken on August 28, 2023). (Historic Charleston Foundation)

Figure 2.

Screenshot of Aiken-Rhett House and Nathaniel Russell House (taken on August 28, 2023). (Historic Charleston Foundation)

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Secondly, at the Aiken-Rhett House visitors receive a cohesive interpretive experience via an audiovisual tour (Figure 3).65 The audiovisual tour is the way visitors experience the site.66 The site started the audio tour program in 1999 and updated the content in 2018.67 There are countless benefits to a tour experience that leverages the power of new scholarship via technology and is not dependent upon docents. The messaging is consistent; the tour script provides hours of information (histories, historiographies, archaeological findings, and oral histories all via media); and the self-guided nature of the tour allows visitors more space for processing new information. To be clear, volunteer docents and other public history practitioners are very visible throughout the property. The Aiken-Rhett House does not replace people with robots. Rather, the site enhances the quality of the learning experience by curating moments that encourage more thoughtfulness. This format also gives staff and docents more space to help visitors who have questions. The conversations I overheard were richer than is typical at similar sites, and I suspect it is because the technologically presented material helped prepare visitors for what they encountered.68

Figure 3

Audio Tour of Aiken-Rhett House. (Photo by author)

Figure 3

Audio Tour of Aiken-Rhett House. (Photo by author)

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The tour does not make the story of slavery optional. In so doing the visitors see how central the institution of slavery was in creating, defining, and shaping everyday life not just on that property, but in Charleston writ large. It casts a wide interpretive shadow. For at least a full half of the tour a motley set of visitors and myself learned what life was like for most of the people who lived at the house—the enslaved. The tour began in the basement storeroom. It is there that visitors learn about Gov. Aiken Jr. The audio tour states:

Aiken was said to be one of the largest slave owners in US history, and one of the wealthiest men in the US. He owned over 800 slaves, most of whom worked on the Jehossee rice plantation, on an island south of Charleston. Those that weren’t on that plantation, worked for his other properties, either his railroad property or here at the Aiken-Rhett House.69

From the onset, visitors are prepared to tour a place of exemplary and exceptional wealth, built from enslavement.70

The interpretation does not shy away from narratives of violence and inhumanity. For example, in the back of the house, visitors also learned about the day-to-day work required to maintain the Aiken-Rhett Mansion. Being enslaved there meant little rest, physical or psychic. In an optional narration link, historian Bernard Powers speaks briefly about the “high walls around the backyard,” literally a part of the architecture of bondage.71 The Aikens had them built about a decade after Denmark Vesey was killed for planning a slave insurrection. Next, visitors are invited to think about the ornateness of the carriage building versus the starkness of the slave quarters. Powers posits: “Those kinds of comparisons [and] juxtaposition tell you something about power, arrangements, and status in this place, which is emblematic of the power and status differentiations between people of African descent in Charleston and white Charleston.”72

The tour also interprets stories of emancipation and Black freedom. For example, while walking through the quarters of the enslaved, visitors learn about the intimate lives of several people on the site as well as some multi-generational stories of people well past emancipation (Figure 4).73 Many of the stories in the quarters highlight the resilience of the former inhabitants.74 The audio tour prompts visitors to find electrical wiring, which was added well after emancipation in the late nineteenth century. Domestics lived and worked on the property at least until 1961.75 Visitors learn that some descendants of the people who lived at Aiken-Rhett still live in Charleston today.76

Figure 4

These quarters housed enslaved African Americans before emancipation and free African Americans afterwards. (Photo by author)

Figure 4

These quarters housed enslaved African Americans before emancipation and free African Americans afterwards. (Photo by author)

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I noticed furrowed brows and quicker walking through the earlier section by some visitors.77 Facing history can be difficult, especially when we consider how little time the average American has had in school to learn about slavery’s violence and inhumanity, let alone the varied forms of resistance African Americans practiced; it is no surprise why some looked uncomfortable. Inevitably, no matter how fast folks walked through the earlier section, they eventually slowed down. I caught up with most at one point or another while walking through the big house. In those spaces, shoulders lowered. Breathing slowed. Eyes widened. But what I find most intriguing about the Aiken-Rhett tour is not the pace of the visitors, but the information they received. All received the same opportunity to learn and the visitors’ pace through space honestly does not tell us much. Their feedback tells us far more. I periodically read online reviews of Aiken-Rhett and generally have been heartened by how receptive visitors are to the tour.78

What I experienced in the late summer of 2019 at the Aiken-Rhett House was a decades-long product in the making.79 Charleston’s tourism industry was not rooted in telling inclusive stories, let alone foregrounding the inhumanity of slavery.80 Yet, the region has become a dynamic place for interdisciplinary scholarship (archaeology, anthropology, geography, history, etc.) on the topic.81 A rare, but impressive rotation of people have worked for decades to improve its tourism landscape (including historical content and contexts).82 Their work remains visible through the content offered at many sites.

Despite great examples of what makes the Aiken-Rhett tour exceptional, the site itself also offers an opportunity to reflect on areas for improvement. The Aiken-Rhett shares something in common with most museums and historic sites—a lack of diversity at the management and leadership level. Dr. Nicole Ivy, a scholar of American Studies with experience researching diversity and inclusion in museums, writes: “The work doesn’t begin ‘out there,’ in some space external to museum staffs, directors, and boards. Nor does it hinge solely on outreach to underserved populations. Effective inclusion work begins inside the structures of our museums and within each of us.”83 To that end, the audio tour at the Aiken Rhett enhances the visitor experience by teaching the history of the site as well as a kind of history of the field of preservation. But it is hard not to wonder more widely to what degree is technology becoming a stand-in for more sustained social and institutional change.

The Aiken-Rhett House case study demonstrates the value of thinking widely in preparation for the 250th Anniversary of the American Revolution. It was built after the American Revolution and has some important things to say about the legacies of the war: freedom, bondage, and nation building. It also teaches us that there is always room for improvement. Lastly, this case study demonstrates the value of building professional networks and harnessing lessons learned from the past.84

Grappling with the past is important because it means bringing people into conversations about building better futures. The late Maya Angelou said, “History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, and if faced with courage, need not be lived again.”85 Commemorating the 250th anniversary of the American Revolution means remembering that not all who served in the war had a choice. Regardless of their varied conditions and statuses, African Americans hoped the war would end with the abolition of slavery. When the federal government did not abolish slavery, abolitionists continued to strategize at state levels and to pursue other means. The ideals set forth by the Declaration of Independence propelled future efforts. Abolitionists believed that the nation would either one day live up to its creed or perish.

Reflecting on the significance of public history as civic engagement, Clarke noted, “I think that we have to do our best to tell a more truthful history and make sure that we own up to who we’ve been, who we in some ways still are, and who we want to become in the next generation.”86 He concluded, “What freedom means to different people may be something as simple as not continuing the cycle, not carrying forth that generational trauma, not carrying forth the frustrations of poverty and attempt[ing] to have pathways to become [whatever they do desire].”87

Much appreciation to NCPH and NPS for the opportunity—especially Stephanie Rowe and Turkiya Lowe. Thank you Sarah Case and Malgorzata J. Rymsza-Pawlowska for editorial and publication assistance. Lastly, special thanks to the following people for their contributions to the project via literature and/or time: the late Benjamin Quarles, the late John Hope Franklin, the late Lulu Merle Johnson, Yveline Alexis, Ista Clarke, Maya Davis, Marcus Nevius, Fath Davis Ruffins, Rex Ellis, Christy S. Coleman, Gretchen Sorin, Allison Dorsey, Tara White, Erica Armstrong Dunbar, Annette Gordon-Reed, Martha S. Jones, Anne C. Bailey, Nicole Ivy, Joanne Blancoe, Brittany Webb, Chris Taylor, Holly Pineiro, Noaquia Callahan, D. Carter, Sylvester Hollis, Mary Ann Hollis, and Mavis Burks Hollis.


Benjamin Quarles, The Negro in the American Revolution (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, [1961] 1996), xxvii.


Lisa Strick, “The Black Presence in the Era of the American Revolution,” Journal of Museum Education, Roundtable Reports (September 1973).


“After 1670 or so, the number of enslaved Africans brought to North America surged. By 1775, slave ships had carried 160,000 Africans to the Chesapeake colonies, 140,000 to new slave colonies that opened in the Carolinas and Georgia, and 30,000 to the northern colonies. These numbers were small compared to the myriads being carried to [Caribbean and Latin American] sugar colonies, however.…In North America, however, the numbers of enslaved grew, except in the most malarial lowlands of the Carolina rice country. By 1775, 500,000 of the thirteen colonies’ 2.5 million inhabitants were slaves, about the same as the number of slaves then alive in the British Caribbean colonies.” From Edward Baptist, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism (New York: Basic Books, 2014), 3–4.


Baptist, The Half Has Never Been Told, 3–4.


Sidney Kaplan and Emma Nogrady Kaplan, The Black Presence in the Era of the American Revolution (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, [1973], 1989). See also Fath Davis Ruffins, “Revisiting the Old Plantation: Reparations, Reconciliation, and Museumizing American Slavery,” in Museum Frictions: Public Cultures/Global Transformations, ed. Tomas Ybarra-Frausto, Lynn Szwaja, Corinne A. Kratz, and Ivan Karp (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006), 394–434.


My interest in “the internal logics of the producing institutions” is inspired by the work of Brittany Webb, who has written quite thoughtfully on the bicentennial and the climate for civic activism that created Philadelphia’s African American Museum. See Brittany Webb, “Materializing Blackness; The Politics and Production of African Diasporic Heritage” (PhD diss., Temple University, 2018), 3, 86. See also David Ryan, “Re-enacting Independence through Nostalgia—The 1976 US Bicentennial after the Vietnam War,” in Key Tropes in Inter-American Studies: Perspectives from the Forum of Inter-American Research (Tempe, AZ: Bilingual Press and Wissenschaftlicher, 2015), 75–90; James E. Westheider, Fighting on Two Fronts: African Americans and the Vietnam War (New York: New York University, 1997).


During the war approximately 5,000 African Americans served the patriot cause and approximately 100,000 freedom seekers tried their luck with the British (or fled to the interior). Gary Nash, “Introduction,” in Benjamin Quarles, The Negro in the American Revolution (Chapel Hill: University of Chapel Hill Press, [1961], 1996), xix.


According to Benjamin Quarles: “Those who joined the army upon the promise of freedom usually obtained it.” Some enslavers tried to deny freedom to enslaved people who served. There are several examples of state governors and/or state legislators applying a rhetoric of freedom and honoring the promises that came with service. Quarles, The Negro in the American Revolution, 183–84.


It is important to note, however, that piracy continued. The Spanish slave trade remained well into the late nineteenth century. See Joanne Pope Melish, Disowning Slavery: Gradual Emancipation and “Race” in New England, 1780–1860 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1998); Sylvia Frey, Water from the Rock: Black Resistance in a Revolutionary Age (Princeton: Princeton University, 1991); Sylviane Diouf, Dreams of Africa in Alabama: The Slave Ship Clotilda and the Story of the Last Africans Brought to America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007).


Quarles said it best in his groundbreaking study: “The establishment of American independence did not bring all that [African Americans] had hoped for. The idealism of the Declaration of Independence gave way to conservatism of the Constitutional era. But if [African Americans] felt that the cause of liberty had lost momentum, [their] mood was somewhat brightened by the conviction that the Revolutionary era in which [they] lived had marked out an irreversible path toward freedom, that henceforth there could be no turning back even if there was a slowing down.” See Quarles, The Negro in the American Revolution, xxx. See also the Declaration of Independence, available on the National Archives website, https://www.archives.gov/founding-docs/declaration-transcript.


This panel formula was inspired by pedagogical foundations of scholars in Black Studies. The griot Abdul Alkalimat summarizes Black Studies in this way: “An autonomous process, it evolves in dialogue and struggle with mainstream institutions of power. It is the intellectual and cultural manifestation of centuries of Black people’s resistance to the racism and national oppression that began with the transatlantic slave trade.” Abdul Alkalimat, The History of Black Studies (London: Pluto Press, 2021), 5.


Toni Morrison, “The Slavebody and the Blackbody,” The Source of Self-Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches, and Meditations (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2019), 75.


Morrison, “Slavebody and the Blackbody,” 77.


See Stephanie Yuhl, “Hidden in Plain Sight,” 623; Anthony Dyer Hoefer, “Quarantining Blackness, Writing Whiteness,” South Atlantic Review 82, no. 2 (Summer 2017): 36; Fath Davis Ruffins, “Revisiting the Old Plantation,” 403–4.


Morrison, “Slavebody and the Blackbody,” 75.


The scholar Peter Wood explained that Sullivan’s Island was “where incoming slaves were briefly quarantined,” and “might as well be viewed as the Ellis Island of black America.” It may be interesting to note that Fort Moultrie, the place that Morrison and the network chose to install benches, already had a plaque that recognized the significance of slavery at the site. Their decision to have their first bench be at Sullivan’s Island suggests placement was about more than recognition. Rather, it was about creating a different kind of placemaking. They built a place to rest, think, commune—or just be. Wood, Negroes in Colonial South Carolina; Peter Wood, Negroes in Colonial South Carolina from 1670 through the Stono Rebellion (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1974), xiv; Hoefer, “Quarantining Blackness.”


National Council on Public History (NCPH), “Rhetoric of Freedom: A Conversation About the Conditions of Black Life in the American Revolution,” YouTube, March 8, 2023, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=70tb2jbGbZE.


During the first virtual program one member of the audience asked an important question. It was about language: “I heard, ‘enslaved people,’ and I’m curious about the use of the phrase as opposed to ‘enslaved Black people’ or ‘enslaved Africans.’ Why are you all using the words ‘enslaved people’?” See NCPH, “Rhetoric of Freedom,” 53:08–53:31. Davis reflected: “I think enslaved Africans are a very distinctive group, and that over a period of time, as this country is becoming American, they, too, are stepping away from an enslaved African identity and becoming more Americanized over time. The second reason I use enslaved people because I try to remember, remind myself that especially here in Maryland, Indigenous peoples were also mixing greatly with Black people here in Maryland, for sure, and many other states. So, I don’t want to erase and be the cause of an erasure of the Indigenous experience here in this country because enslavement impacted them as well. I think that.” NCPH, “Rhetoric of Freedom,” 53:31–54:41. Walter Johnson, Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001); Ira Berlin, Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000); Gregory E. O’Malley, Final Passages: The Intercolonial Slave Trade of British America, 16191807 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014); Marcus Rediker, The Slave Ship: A Human History (New York: Viking Press, 2007).


Our pre-planning and programming often made me think of the filmmaker Marlon Rigg’s gumbo metaphor. See Marlon Riggs, Director, Black Is…Black Ain’t: A Personal Journey Through Black Identity, California Newsreel, 1994; E. Patrick Johnson, “The Pot is Brewing: Marlon Riggs’s Black Is…Black Ain’t,” in Appropriating Blackness: Performance and the Politics of Authenticity (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003), 17–47.


Their work embodies Bunch’s quote: “If you are a historian your job better be to help people remember not just what they want to remember, but what they need to remember.” Lonnie Bunch, A Fool’s Errand: Creating the National Museum of African American History and Culture in the Age of Bush, Obama, and Trump (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Books, 2019), 5.


Shawn Halifax, “McLeod Plantation Historic Site: Sowing Truth and Change,” The Public Historian 40, no. 3 (August 2018): 252.


For more on McCleod see Brian Graves, “‘Return and Get It’: Developing McLeod Plantation as a Shared Space of Historical Memory,” Southern Cultures 23, no. 2 (Summer 2017): 75–96; Halifax, “McLeod Plantation Historic Site,” 252; Leah Worthington, Rachel Donaldson, and Kiernan Taylor, “Making Labor Visible in Historic Charleston,” Labor 17, no. 1 (2020): 45–73.


Enslaved people also acted as firefighters in nearby Charleston, where they prepared with “fire hooks, axes, and ropes” to pull down burning properties. Furthermore, they collected lead from the facades of buildings and converted them to bullets to assist colonists. Charleston—including nearby James Island—was under British occupation for two years during the American Revolution. Quarles, The Negro in the American Revolution, 102.


Davis shared in our first meeting: “I work at the Riversdale House Museum where I’m the director, and my museum is at a crossroads. And so I felt like I did not have option to say no. I had to say yes, because my museum is really at a phase where it’s trying to transition and transform the messaging around the rhetoric, around what it is and the stories that it’s going to tell.…I thought this would be a perfect opportunity to highlight the work that we’re doing and then also be in conversation with these scholars and other museum professionals who are also doing this work because it’s all about connecting our stories and tying it to the present.” See NCPH, “Rhetoric of Freedom,” 58:23. Brent Leggs of the National Trust has recently written about this moment in the field—sites revisiting their institutional stories, and seeking to make them more diverse. He stated, “Another important preservation frontier [beyond the designation/preservation of new sites] is elevating the African American narrative at traditional historic sites (or already designated historic sites), where Black experiences previously have been treated as tertiary to the stories of famous industrialist, wealthy farmers, former presidents—the ‘George Washington slept here’ trope.” Brent Leggs, “Growth of Historic Sites,” The Public Historian, 40, no. 3 (August 2018): 102.


Aja Drain, “This Prince George’s County Plantation Museum is Bringing Stories of Enslaved People Out of the Shadows,” DCist, August 19, 2022, https://dcist.com/story/22/08/19/riversdale-house-museum-prince-georges-stories-of-enslaved-people/. For more on Riversdale specifically and slavery in Prince George County, Maryland, in general see Steven Sarson, The Tobacco Plantation South in the Early American Atlantic World (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), 4–7. See also William G. Thomas III, A Question of Freedom: The Families Who Challenged Slavery from the Nation’s Founding to the Civil War (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2020); Ann S. Eberwein, “Perpetuating the Architecture of Separation: An Analysis of the Presentation of History at Riverdale House Museum in Riversdale Park, Maryland,” Field Notes: A Journal of Collegiate Anthropology 10, no. 15 (2019): 128–14; Margaret Law Callcott, Mistress of Riversdale: The Plantation Letters of Rosalie Stier Calvert, 17951821 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991).


It was a private property until 1949, when the Maryland-National Capital Parks and Planning Commission purchased the house and four acres. The site opened to the public in 1993 and it was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1997. “Riversdale, Calvert Mansion, Baron de Stier House,” Historic American Building Survey (HABS No. MD-655); https://tile.loc.gov/storage-services/master/pnp/habshaer/md/md0500/md0567/data/md0567data.pdf.


Ruffins, “Revisiting the Old Plantation,” 396.


For example, in the months before the American Revolution began, patriots throughout the colonies—including in Maryland—were anxious that their tensions with the British would spill over into plantations. They feared slave insurrections. A small delegation visited the Maryland governor to make an appeal on behalf of their four counties. Also, early in the war some free Blacks in the state (for example in Anne Arundel County) were hired and sent as replacements by men who were summoned to serve in the Continental Army. Marylanders also tried to cut off enslaved people’s ability to escape to the British. Quarles writes: “Enslavers took steps to prevent the flight of slaves to the British forces. In 1781, a group of Baltimoreans purchased two look-out boats at their own expense.” Quarles, The Negro in the American Revolution, 14, 59, and 124–26.


Quarles, The Negro in the American Revolution, 56.


This action was far more ubiquitous in northern states where Blacks had also served in the Continental army. In 1785 there were twenty-two members of the state legislature who voted against slavery and thirty-two who were for it. Quarles, The Negro in the American Revolution, 194. See also Barbara Jeanne Fields, Slavery and Freedom on the Middle Ground: Maryland during the Nineteenth Century (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985), 4 and Joanne Pope Melish, Disowning Slavery: Gradual Emancipation and “Race” in New England, 17801860 (Ithaca: Cornell Press, 1998).


“Slaves accounted for nearly one-third of Maryland’s population in 1790. By 1850 their proportion had fallen to less than one-sixth. In 1790 Maryland already had the second largest free black population in the country (following Virginia) and by 1810 had achieved first rank, which it retained until the final abolition of slavery throughout the country.” Fields, Slavery and Freedom on the Middle Ground, 1.


Jessica Millward, Finding Charity’s Folk: Enslaved and Free Black Women in Maryland (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2015), 15, 24.


Millward writes, “Enslaved at Riversdale Plantation in modern-day Prince George’s County, Eleanor Beckett bore five children by George Calvert, her owner, beginning in 1790. In 1799, Calvert married socialite Rosalie Stier, he then arranged for Beckett to marry a male slave. Calvert apparently maintained some sort of relationship with Beckett, and in 1801, he freed her and five of her children.…We have only a limited ability to know the context and details of such long-term relationships between enslaved women and slaveholders, but we must assume that Beckett and other women calculated risks and possibilities of using sexual connections to negotiate manumission.” Millward, Finding Charity’s Folk, 24.


Alexis noted in the first program that most of the panel said their interest in history began from a space that was rooted in family and community. She identified with the group, sharing: “for many of us, family and community, our other family is so central to how we came to this field or arrived on it. It also was hearing my own family recount proudly of how they’re Haitian and the successes of the Haitian Revolution. And so that was something that was on repeat consistently in family discourse and community discourse as well.” NCPH, “Rhetoric of Freedom,” 18:43.


Alexis shared she joined the committee because “both the topics of rhetoric and how we represent as well as freedom are so pertinent and central to my own field of study, as well as my teaching about the African Diaspora in the United States as well as Latin America in the Caribbean.” See NCPH, Rhetoric of Freedom, 04:21 and Yveline Alexis, Haiti Fights Back: The Life and Legacy of Charlemagne Péralte (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University, 2021), 2–29.


See Marlene Daut, Awakening the Ashes: An Intellectual History of the Haitian Revolution (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2023); Julia Gaffield, Haitian Connections in the Atlantic World: Recognition after Revolution (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015); Laurent Dubois, A Colony of Citizens: Revolution and Slave Emancipation in the French Caribbean, 17871804 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004); Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (Boston: Beacon Press, [1995] 2015), 31–69.


Gaffield, Haitian Connections in the Atlantic World. See also Julia Gaffield, “Haiti was the First Nation to Permanently Ban Slavery,” Washington Post, July 12, 2020.


Robert Scott Davis, “Black Haitian Soldiers at the Siege of Savannah,” Journal of the American Revolution, February 22, 2021. Also see George P. Clark, “The Role of the Haitian Volunteers at Savannah in 1779: An Attempt at an Objective View,” Phylon 41 (Winter 1980): 358–59.


Marcus Nevius, City of Refuge: Slavery and Petit Maroonage in the Great Dismal Swamp, 17631856 (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2020). See also Ruma Chopra, Almost Home: Maroons Between Slavery and Freedom in Jamaica, Nova Scotia, and Sierra Leone (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018); Sylviane A. Diouf, Slavery’s Exiles: The Story of the American Maroons (New York: New York University Press, 2006); Richard Price, ed., Maroon Societies: Rebel Slave Communities in the Americas (Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 1996); Herbert Aptheker, “Maroons within the Present Limits of the United States,” Journal of Negro History 24, no. 2 (April 1939): 167–84.


The first was recorded and posted on YouTube (see NCPH, “Rhetoric of Freedom”), but the rest were not.


I am thinking of Nevius’s contributions to the discussion: “The scholar Gabriel in the mid-twentieth century gave us a language and a concept for this form of freedom-seeking when he cited it as a maroonage and when he cited two forms of maroonage, petite maroonage and grande maroonage to sort of signify scale. And more recently, scholars have problematized that binary, but it really is essentially an action of resisting enslavement to be free and succeeding at that. That is the common thread that we understand as maroonage today.” NCPH, “Rhetoric of Freedom,” 42:10–42:54. He was referring to Gabriel Debian, “Le marronage aux Francaises au XVIIIe siècle,” Caribbean Studies 6, no. 3 (1966): 3–43. Further, it is crucial to discuss with visitors how we know certain things as well as share what we know. These kinds of questions are helpful: Which scholars wrote about this and how? What archives did they use? How did they use the archive—meaning, what was their methodology? In what ways did they read the sources against the grain?


Lendol Calder, “Uncoverage: Toward a Signature Pedagogy for the History Survey,” Journal of American History 92, no. 4 (March 2006): 1362; Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, Understanding by Design (Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision & Curriculum Development, 1998), 98–114.


James Oliver Horton, “Presenting Slavery: The Perils of Telling America’s Racial Story,” The Public Historian 21, no. 4, (Fall 1999): 20; Gerda Lerner, Why History Matters: Life and Thought (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 123; See also James Loewen, Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything your American History Textbook Got Wrong (New York: The New Press, 2018).


Tony Horwitz, Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War (New York: Pantheon, 1998).


Scholarship in the fields of Black Studies and Black Women’s History is particularly adept at critically engaging with archives, history, and historiography. I am thinking, for example, of the types of work taken up by scholars including Annette Gordon-Reed, Erica Armstrong Dunbar, and Martha S. Jones. The work of these scholars does not end with book publications. Rather, it begins anew through teaching public(s) what they found and how. See Annette Gordon-Reed, “Rescuing Lives at Monticello,” The Hingham Historical Society Channel, YouTube, April 9, 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VsqR325_E0c&t=13s; Erica Armstrong Dunbar, “Still Reading the Silences” Youtube, Readex, July 2, 2014; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fHv_Y5uChUU; Martha S. Jones, “Hard Histories: A Conversation with Martha S Jones,” YouTube, SAIS Events, Martha 23, 2021, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zvaWEjYAPrg. See also Hannah Scruggs and Tiya Miles, “A Way Forward for Plantation Sites: Reimagining Space and Relations in the Wake of Black Lives Matter,” in Revisiting the Past in Museums and at Historic Sites, ed. Anca I. Lasc, Andrew McClellan, and Änne Söllannet (New York: Rutledge, 2022); Leslie M. Harris, “Imperfect Archives and Historical Imagination,” The Public Historian 36, no. 1 (February 2014): 77–80.


Visitors bring a variety of their own interests and sometimes the larger political climates can be topics they want to bring up. For example, the panel convened in 2022 for the second in this series commemorating the Revolution, entitled, “The Identities Created by the American Revolutionary War,” discussed the changing meaning of concepts such as loyalism and patriotism as well as the political networks behind such identities. The convener Jean-Pierre Morin noted the importance of the contemporary in the panel’s programming: “In the lead up to the 250th anniversary, it is important for public historians and practitioners to understand how these origin stories and identities of Patriots and Loyalists are being used in the societal conflicts being experienced in the 2020s, including the storming of the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, and the so-called ‘Freedom Convoy’ in Ottawa in February 2022.” Morin, “Considering the Revolution: The Identities Created by the Revolutionary War,” The Public Historian 45, no. 1 (February 2023): 23.


I am thinking of Fath Davis Ruffins and James Horton’s substantive writings that reference frontline staff. More recently, Amy M. Tyson’s work is a good space for further study. See Ruffins, “Revisiting the Old Plantation,” 406; Horton, “Presenting Slavery,” 29. See also Amy M. Tyson, “‘Ask a Slave’ and Interpreting Race on Public History’s Front Line: Interview with Azie Mira Dungey,” The Public Historian 36, no. 1 (February 2014): 36–60; Amy M. Tyson, The Wages of History: Emotional Labor on Public History’s Frontlines (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2013).


For one such example, look at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute’s institutional history for examples of how this museum has been responsive and intentional about civic engagement. Many ideas and programs draw from feedback from volunteers and frontline staff. See Priscilla Hancock Cooper, “A City Embraces It’s Past, Looks to the Future,” The Public Historian 40, no. 3 (August 2018): 221–31.


I opened the first plenary by asking each panelist why they said yes to being a part of this suite of programming. Clarke shared, “I said yes because when it comes to unspoken narratives, I talk enslavement all day, every day from sort of precolonial eras, with the various European powers, as well as a lot of connections to modern day. A lot of it is both very prescient and very present. And so when it comes to things like the word freedom, what that means and how that’s changed over time, both in terms of ancestors and modern folk [matters].” NCPH, “Rhetoric of Freedom,” 5:50–6:30. See also Halifax, “McLeod Plantation Historic Site,” 252–57; Hoefer, “Quarantining Blackness, Writing Whiteness,” South Atlantic Review 82, no. 2 (Summer 2017): 36–58; Stephen P. Hanna, Amy Potter, and Derek H. Alderman, “Modern-day Struggle at James Madison’s Plantation to Include Descendant Voices of the Enslaved,” The Conversation, June 1, 2022, https://theconversation.com/modern-day-struggle-at-james-madisons-plantation-montpelier-to-include-the-descendants-voices-of-the-enslaved-181929; Kelly Fanto Deetz, “Modern-day Culture Wars are Playing out on Historic Tours of Slaveholding Plantations,” The Conversation, December 6, 2021, https://theconversation.com/modern-day-culture-wars-are-playing-out-on-historic-tours-of-slaveholding-plantations-170617.


Herb Frazier, Bernard Edward Powers, Jr., and Marjory Wentworth, We Are Charleston: Tragedy and Triumph at Mother Emanuel (Nashville: W. Publishing Group, 2016); Peter Holley, “Dylan Roof’s Eerie Tour of American Slavery at its Beginning, Middle, and End,” Washington Post, July 1, 2015. See also Leah Worthington, Rachel Clare Donaldson, and John W. White, Challenging History: Race, Equity, and the Practice of Public History (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2021), 2.


Early writers in this area include Fath Davis Ruffins at the National Museum of American History, Rex Ellis and Christy Coleman when they were at Colonial Williamsburg, and John Oliver Horton at George Washington University. Rex Ellis, “Interpreting Black History in the South,” Journal of Museum Education 11, no. 4 (Fall 1986): 10–11; Rex Ellis, “Forward,” in Interpreting Slavery at Museums and Historic Sites, ed. Kristin L. Gallas and James DeWolf Perry (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015); Christy S. Matthews, “Where Do We Go From Here?: Researching and Interpreting the African American Experience,” Historical Archaeology 31, no. 3 (1997): 107–13; Interview, “Christy S. Coleman on the Role Museums Play in Shaping Public Understandings of History,” in Tales of a Red Clay Rambler Podcast (August 7, 2020, episode 335); Fath Davis Ruffins, “Mythos, Memory, and History: African American Preservation Efforts, 1820–1990,” in Museums and Communities: The Politics of Public Culture ed. Ivan Karp, Christine Mullen Kreamer, and Steven D. Lavine (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992); Ruffins, “Revisiting the Old Plantation.” See also Ywone Edwards-Ingram, “Before 1979: African American Coachmen, Visibility, and Representation at Colonial Williamsburg,” The Public Historian 36, no. 1 (February 2014): 9–35; Avi Decter and Ken Yellis, “Authenticity and Authority: The Role of Historic Sites,” American Association of State and Local History blog, 2020; Cary Carson, “Lost in the Fun House: A Commentary on Anthropologists’ First Contact with History Museums,” Journal of American History 81, no. 1 (June 1994): 137–50.


I am thinking of this recent work: Leah Worthington, Rachel Clare Donaldson, and John W. White, Challenging History: Race, Equity, and the Practice of Public History (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2021), 2; Mary Battle, “Confronting Slavery in Historic Charleston: Changing Tourism Narratives in the Twenty-First Century” (PhD diss., Emory University, 2018).


Hannah Gaston, “If These Walls Could Talk: Best Practices for Storytelling in Historic House Museums” (MA Thesis, Seton Hall University, 2019), 61–64.


Chris Taylor, “The Burden We Carry: The Lived Experience of Museum Professionals of Color with the Ideology of White Normativity in Museums, A Grounded Theory Study” (PhD diss., University of St. Thomas, 2021); Chris Taylor, “Getting Our House in Order: Moving from Diversity to Inclusion,” American Archivist 80, no. 1 (Spring/Summer 2017): 26.


I think Davis helps best explain the value of this method, when she explained why she said yes to being a part of this whole suite of programming: “I had to say yes, because my museum is really at a phase where it’s trying to transition and transform the messaging around the rhetoric, around what it is and the stories that it’s going to tell…I thought this would be a perfect opportunity to highlight the work that we’re doing and then also be in conversation with these scholars and other museum professionals who are doing this work because it’s all about connecting our stories and tying it to the present.” NCPH, “Rhetoric of Freedom,” 6:25–6:53.


John Vlach also used Aiken-Rhett as a case study, but his focus was not on the contemporary tour experience. The site had not yet opened to the public when he wrote about it. His article instead provides a substantive overview of the house’s architectural history. John Vlach, “The Plantation Tradition in an Urban Setting: The Case of the Aiken-Rhett House in Charleston, South Carolina,” Southern Cultures 5, no. 4 (Winter 1999): 52–69. See also Martha A. Zierden and Jeanne A. Calhoun, “An Archaeological Interpretation of Elite Townhouse Sites in Charleston, South Carolina, 1770–1850,” Southeastern Archaeology 9, no. 2 (1990): 79–92. Also see Stephanie Yuhl, A Golden Haze of Memory: The Making of Historic Charleston (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005); Amy E. Potter, Stephen P. Hanna, Derek H. Alderman, Perry L. Carter, Candace Forbes Bright, and David L. Butler, Remembering Enslavement: Reassembling the Southern Plantation Museum (Athens: University of Georgia, 2022).


At the time I was a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow, working with the National Park Service.


See Karen L. Cox, Dreaming of Dixie: How the South was Created in American Popular Culture (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011).


Revolutionary War Trench, Aiken-Rhett house audio tour, https://web-app.cuseum.com/?183#!/tour-stop/6586.


Vlach, “The Plantation Tradition in an Urban Setting,” 53; William Nathaniel Banks, “The Aiken-Rhett House, Charleston,” Antiques 98 (January 1991): 236–39.


The HABS paperwork writes of Sr. as a businessman and Jr. as a plantation owner. Sr., however, likely also was a plantation owner and probably left his son enslaved property. See “Governor William Aiken House, Robinson—Aiken House,” National Register of Historic Places, November 21, 1977.


For example, Allison Dorsey says this: “For the American story simply cannot be told without discussion and analysis of the experiences of black people whose labor created the nation’s wealth, whose enslavement undergirded and undermined the concept of democratic freedom, and whose civil exclusion sparked the political revolutions of the twentieth century.” Allison Dorsey, “Black History is American History: Teaching African American History in the Twenty-first Century,” Journal of African American History 93, no. 4 (March 2007): 1172. Also see Steven Mintz, “Historical Context: The Constitution and Slavery,” History Resources, The Gilder Lehrman Institute website; Paul Finkelman, “Garrison’s Constitution: The Covenant with Death and How It Was Made,” Prologue Magazine 32, no. 4 (Winter 2000); Lulu Merle Johnson, “The Problem of Slavery in the Old Northwest, 1787–1858” (PhD diss., University of Iowa, 1941).


Deetz, “Modern-day Culture Wars”; J. Mark Souther, “The Disneyfication of New Orleans: The French Quarter as Facade in a Divided City,” Journal of American History 94, no. 3 (December 2007): 804–11; Mike Wallace, Mickey Mouse History and Other Essays on American Memory (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1996).


Historic Charleston Homepage, https://www.historiccharleston.org/.


Visitors are encouraged to download the app before visiting. “If these Walls Could Talk,” Historic Charleston, https://www.historiccharleston.org/house-museums/aiken-rhett-house/. Here is a link to the app: https://app.cuseum.com/historic-charleston-foundation.


My understanding of the only exception being very large tour groups. Kytle and Roberts, Denmark Vesey’s Garden, 319.


Gaston, “If These Walls Could Talk,” 61–64.


I am thinking, for example, of feedback that Clarke has received from tourists at the countless places he has worked. Clarke shared: “There is a constancy of pushback of, oh, well, why are you telling these stories? Why are you talking about these things?” NCPH, “Rhetoric of Freedom,” 49:17–49:46. The technology can provide not only an authoritative voice, but also space for visitors to process. They can ask questions of docents and other practitioners that are more thoughtful than they might without having heard the audio tour.


Intro to the Storeroom, Virtual Tour, Aiken-Rhett House, https://web-app.cuseum.com/?183#!/tour-stop/6065; Library, Virtual Tour, Aiken-Rhett House, https://web-app.cuseum.com/?183#!/tour-stop/6597.


This interpretation demonstrates the importance of the type of work Maya Davis is doing at Riversdale. One of the owners of Riversdale was Rosalie (Stier) Calvert, a wealthy female Belgian émigré who fled to the US with her father during the French Revolution. She married George Calvert, a descendant of the first proprietors of Maryland colony. For decades the stories of the Calverts’ wealth, power, and opulence overshadowed the cruelty of slavery on their property. A son of the Calvert’s, George Henry Calvert, was later credited with helping to found the Maryland Agricultural College (now University of Maryland) and donating land for the school. Davis has a vision for Riversdale. Davis shared, “Rosalie Stier Calvert who owned my [place of employment], she threw a mean party, and she had great style and taste, but she also enslaved individuals, and they suffered under her hand greatly. We have to acknowledge that. I ask people all the time if I enslave people today, would you really care how well I dressed? Would you really care if I threw a great party? Would you really care whether I made the best peach cobbler in Maryland?” Rosalie’s father built Riversdale and later gifted it to the couple. Remarkably, Riversdale has a rich archive for telling more inclusive stories, including a biography entitled, Out of the Depths or Triumph of the Cross, by the daughter of Adam Plummer, a man who was once enslaved on the property. Also, hundreds of letters about the plantation from Rosalie Calvert were published. Drain, “Prince George’s County Plantation Museum.” See Riversdale, HABS report; NCPH, “Rhetoric of Freedom,” 44:44–45:29.


Powers shares: “You realize that everything about the situation of enslaved people there was geared towards work and keeping them oriented towards work. But the other thing that I found quite striking was, just in the way of contrast was when you walk across the backyard and you go to the stables. And you look at the ornate woodwork inside the stables, and there is no equivalent to that in the slave quarters. That is very striking too.” Extra: Power and Status, Virtual Tour, Aiken-Rhett House, https://web-app.cuseum.com/?183#!/tour-stop/6586.


Power and Status, Virtual Tour.


The audio tour shares: “Dorcas Richardson was only eleven years old when she had her first child as a personal slave to Harriet Aiken or her daughter Henrietta Aiken Rhett.…After the Civil War Dorcas took a job as a matron of the Colonel Shaw Colored Orphan Asylum, an orphanage for African American children. Not only did she care for children full time, she opened bank accounts for her children and other formerly enslaved people who lived here. Her signature on the accounts tells us she was literate, despite having lived most of her life at time when it was illegal for enslaved people to read or write. Later in life she opened her own fruit store in Charleston.” Enslaved Quarters Part 1, Virtual Tour, Aiken-Rhett House, https://web-app.cuseum.com/?183#!/tour-stop/6064; See also Tara A. Bynum, Reading Pleasures: Everyday Black Living in Early America (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2023). This site also demonstrates how slippery and insufficient language is for explaining certain spaces in the site. For example, the rooms where free blacks lived are the same spaces enslaved people lived. After emancipation, they were no longer slave quarters, but they were once slave quarters. Somehow, they need to be interpreted as both. I felt as though the tour handled these distinctions quite well. See Hortense J. Spillers, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book,” Diacritics 17, no. 2, special issue: “Culture and Countermemory: The ‘American’ Connection” (Summer 1987): 64–81.


The virtual tour aptly explains: “Emancipation did not put an end to tense race relations and economic injustice in Charleston. Domestic servants of African descent struggled to make a living.” Enslaved Quarters Part 4, Virtual Tour, Aiken-Rhett House, https://web-app.cuseum.com/?183#!/tour-stop/6589.


Clarke offers thoughtful commentary about slave quarters, considering what they teach us about slavery as well as about the legacies of slavery. He says, “[Slavery] went from physical ownership to economic ownership. And particularly, at my main site, McLeod, a plantation and historic site where I have my office, we have documentation of descendants of freedmen who lived in the cabins on site until the latter part of the twentieth century, rather specifically until the summer of 1990…in structures that are 300 ft in size, that lack plumbing, that lack electrical, you know, all those things.” NCPH, “Rhetoric of Freedom,” 30:20–42:00.


Shortly after being hired, Maya Davis shared with a local reporter, “We have to do our due diligence and [that means] making sure that we update our interpretation here to be reflective of the [history of slavery] and make sure that the descendants of [enslaved] people feel that same ownership that the descendants of the Calvert family actually feel.” Here, too, Clarke notes, “And we frequently get people who will ask…why did they stay? How could they live like this? And, you know. You struggle with it. I struggle with it because there’s the obvious of, okay, well you can list off, well, they were elderly, or this is all they knew, or all of these things. But the reality of it was, it was a continuation of a system. And so I look at a lot of this as a system. Systems orient more than anything else of understanding. All of these linkages from this in a lot of ways, mythologized past, because countries love founding myths.” NCPH, “Rhetoric of Freedom,” 48:30–48:54. Also see Enslaved Quarters Part 3, Virtual Tour, https://web-app.cuseum.com/?183#!/tour-stop/6588.


Someone in the scholar’s roundtable workshop recommended Clint Smith’s work as a space for folks in the field to study how visitors experience historic sites that explore histories of slavery. See Clint Smith, How the Word is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America (New York: Back Bay Books, 2021).


At the time that I am writing this, one of the most recent reviews read: “It is vitally important to present the enslaved experience alongside the enslaver’s experience, to even elevate the enslaved experience, as the one does not happen without the heinous truth of the other.” Google Reviews of Aiken-Rhett House, https://www.google.com.ng/travel/entity/key/ChoI0viRt-DageiRARoNL2cvMTFiYzVxcTQzcxAE/reviews?utm_campaign=sharing&utm_medium=link&utm_source=htls&ts=CAEaBAoCGgAqBAoAGgA.


It was an important example of the city’s community’s internal work of reckoning with the devastating mass shooting at historic Emanuel AME Church. The shooter murdered nine people: Clementa C. Pinkney, Cynthia Graham Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lee Lance, Depayne Middleton-Doctor, Tywanza Sanders, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, and Myra Thompson. One person survived the shooting and at least five people were in the building, but were able to hide. Doug Pardue and Jennifer Berry Hawes, “In an Hour, a Church Changes Forever,” Post and Courier, June 19, 2015.


Yuhl, A Golden Haze of Memory; Kytle and Roberts, Denmark Vesey’s Garden; David Butler, “Whitewashing Plantations: The Commodification and Social Creation of a Slave-free Antebellum South,” International Journal of Hospitality & Tourism Administration 2, no. ¾ (2001): 164–75.


Some work was done in the wake of the devastating mass shooting at Emmanual AME Church. For example, Mary Battle organized a conference that resulted in the book, Challenging History: Race, Equity, and the Practice of Public History. The authors wrote: “This volume’s origin, in fact, began with a conference in Charleston, South Carolina, organized as a direct response to the racist massacre of Black people in a Black Charleston church.…In 2017 scholars from Europe, the Caribbean, and across the United States came to Charleston for the public history conference ‘Transforming Public History: From Charleston to the Atlantic World.’” Leah Worthington, Rachel Clare Donaldson, and John W. White, “Introduction,” in Challenging History, 2.


I am thinking of the work taken up, for example, by the Avery Research Center and generations of leaders, including Lucille Whipper, Myrtle Glascoe, W. Martin Dulaney, and Edmund L. Drago. Edmund L. Drago and W. Marvin Dulaney, Charleston’s Avery Center: From Education and Civil Rights to Preserving the African American Experience (Charleston, SC: History Press, [1990] 2006), xxx; “Developing the Avery Research Center,” College of Charleston library website, https://ldhi.library.cofc.edu/exhibits/show/avery/developingavery; Fath Davis Ruffins, “‘Lifting as We Climb’: Black Women and the Preservation of African American History and Culture,” Gender & History 6, no. 3 (November 1994): 376–96. Powers published a social history of Black Charleston in 1994. See Bernard E. Powers, Jr., Black Charlestonians: A Social History, 1822–1885 (Fayetteville: The University of Arkansas Press, 1994).


Nicole Ivy, “Facing Change: Insights from the American Alliance of Museums’ Diversity, Equity, Accessibility, and Inclusion Working Group,” 2018. See also Taylor, “The Burden We Carry”; Amber Mitchell, “Reclaiming Our Peace: Preparing for a Career as BIPOC Museum Educators,” in A New Role for Museum Educators: Purpose, Approach, and Mindset, ed. Elizabeth Wood (London: Taylor & Francis, 2023), 175–80.


See Bernard Powers, “International African American Museum in Charleston, S.C., Pays New Respect to the Enslaved Africans Who Landed on its Docks,” The Conversation, July 17, 2023. See also Mary Battle, “Re-envisioning the Museum: Developing the International African American Museum in Charleston, South Carolina during an Economic Crisis,” The International Journal of the Inclusive Museum 5, no. 1 (July 2013): 11–24.


Maya Angelou, On the Pulse of Morning: The Inaugural Poem (New York: Random House, 1993).


NCPH, “Rhetoric of Freedom,” 46:16–46:40.


NCPH, “Rhetoric of Freedom,” 51:10–52:12.