How can we create a digital space that fosters a dialogue about slavery in Maryland?
In the past, public historians have struggled to interpret slavery and freedom in engaging and truthful ways because these concepts are so wrought with emotional baggage in this country. Our national identity has evolved in the context of an ugly hypocrisy that our historical narratives often avoid: that the land of liberty was built with stolen labor in a culture that strove to dehumanize its darker skinned members. Americans often display a visceral reaction when their assumptions about the history of slavery are threatened. As discussed in the article “ ‘A Cosmic Threat’: The National Park Service Addresses the Causes of the American Civil War,” NPS Chief Historian Dwight Pitcaithley and others involved in a congressionally mandated initiative at national battlefields to “recognize and include…the unique role that the institution of slavery played in causing the Civil War” received scores of angry letters from members of the public and heritage groups incensed that sites which they associated with military glory should be sullied by discussions about why Americans took up arms against each other. This historic amnesia is not limited to the Sons of Confederate Veterans; Marylanders, like residents of other border states, tend to ignore our legacy of brutal chattel slavery and racism. We want to forget that it happened here, too.
To overcome the contradictions inherent in an exploration of slavery in a nation which claims as its heritage an unwavering commitment to liberty, many public history professionals have sought to tell two different stories in distinct spaces. Historic homes like Monticello (http://www.monticello.org/site/plantation-and-slavery) and Sotterley Plantation (http://www.sotterley.org/group-specialty-tours-sotterley.htm) offer house tours for the main (read: white) story and interpret the history of the enslaved residents in separate “slave” locations like the gardens. Docents and interpreters at plantation sites are often encouraged to limit discussions of slavery to marginal spaces like an outside kitchen rather than weaving it into all aspects of a house tour. Our project should instead emphasize the interconnected lives of slaveholders and their enslaved workers. We want to represent a more accurate sense of the blended setting in which white and black Marylanders functioned in the time before emancipation.
Our site must be uncompromisingly faithful to our historical research while also representing the stories of those whose voices tend to be left out of the documents. Can we create opportunities for descendants of those enslaved in Maryland to share their stories? Will we be able to move beyond the well-known narratives of famous Marylanders Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman to uncover the lives of everyday African Americans living in places like Baltimore, Rockville, and Annapolis? Cheryl Janifer LaRoche from the University of Maryland advocates the use of geography in the quest to dig deeper into the stories of the past. When we diagram the communities in which people lived and the journeys they traveled, we begin to paint a fuller picture of world inhabited by black and white, enslaved and free. The digital space we design should include interactive maps so that visitors can begin with a visual landscape of slavery and freedom in Maryland. By clicking on links, those using the site could then “drill down” to access in-depth stories and the source documents that support those narratives.
Most importantly, our digital project should not seek to resolve the tensions inherent in any discussion of slavery. Rather, we want to support a virtual environment in which visitors will have the opportunity to explore the contradictions of the past. Through our project, we can propose a more complete picture of slavery in Maryland.