Friday, October 21, 2016

Origins of Ashley's Sack

Over the past year, I've been trying to trace the origins of Ashley's Sack, one of the most moving and enigmatic objects on display in the new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.

On loan from Middleton Place Foundation near Charleston, SC, embroidered text on the bag reads:

My great grandmother Rose

mother of Ashley gave her this sack when

she was sold at age 9 in South Carolina

it held a tattered dress 3 handfulls of

pecans a braid of Roses hair. Told her

It be filled with my Love always

she never saw her again

Ashley is my grandmother

Ruth Middleton

1921 
--------

Who, many of us have wondered, were Rose, Ashley, and Ruth?  Where did they live and what can we recover of their lives? What circumstances might have led to the historical sale of nine year old Ashley, and to her grand-daughter Ruth's decision to embroider this long-term family narrative in 1921?

Now, the noted journal  Southern Spaces has published  my research, based on archival and oral historical work in South Carolina and elsewhere:   https://southernspaces.org/2016/slaverys-traces-search-ashleys-sack

Please feel free to share your reflections on these findings, in the comment space below.  What are your thoughts on this object, and on the lives of the women chronicled upon it?  It would be fascinating to hear from those who have seen Ashley's Sack at Middleton Place or at the new Smithsonian museum, or to hear from collateral relatives of Rose, Ashley, and Ruth.

Selected comments will be re-posted at the conclusion of the Southern Spaces piece.




Saturday, April 30, 2016

Justice, Mercy and Shady Acres

Shady Acres Mobile Home Park
Three weeks ago, the museum opened the exhibition, Miracles of Mexican Folk Art: Retablos and Ex Votos, containing a range of beautiful art works dedicated by ordinary people of Mexico, expressing thanks for the small miracles or milagros of everyday. At the time, we didn’t anticipate that the themes of the show—devotion, mercy, gratitude, and aspirations for a better life—would become so deeply poignant, and so precarious, for the local Latino/Mexicano community.  On April 20, we learned, through some diligent reporting by Jesse Majors and Jessica Martinez in the Ellensburg Daily Record, that the Kittitas County Board of Commissioners had executed a purchase and sale agreement,  for $1.45 million, for the Shady Acres Mobile Home park, immediately across the street from our university. Their intention is to close down the park and evict or "relocate" all its residents.  The Commissioners’ plan is to rezone the park for a seasonal RV park, to be constructed and managed by a private concessionaire, to service visitors to the adjacent County Fairgrounds, which hosts the annual Rodeo each Labor Day. and the County Fair. Under state law, mobile home residents are allowed one year to move out of a mobile home park that is being closed.

There are about thirty low-income families in Shady Acres, all but two of them Latino. The majority own their mobile homes, while renting the pad of land on which the trailer rests; the remainder rent the structures in which they reside.  These are extremely hard working families who are just getting by; given the shortage of affordable housing in the County, it is hard for them to imagine finding a comparable, safe place to live. The County officials assert that there is state or Federal funding to move many of the trailers elsewhere in the County. The availability of this funding has not been fully confirmed, however.  Nor it is clear that many of the older trailers could be safely transported. In any event, many families have invested a great deal of time and money in making improvements and extensions to their homes over the years, which would be lost if they were forcibly relocated.

This is a vibrant, close-knit community, in which parents help one another look after their children, and in which generations of children have grown up together. The residents value the current location for proximity to sites of employment, education, medical care, cultural enrichment (including the university) and worship. All of that would be lost if these families were forcibly dispersed around the county.

Our students,  my colleagues and I have gotten to know many of these families through our volunteer work at the APOYO foodbank and through outreach work at the Museum. Some have been living in  the park for decades; the average time in residence is about eight years, so this is by no means a transient population.  There are clear challenges with infrastructure and basic services in the park, but it would be wrong to state, as some officials have, that this is a dysfunctional community or an "eye-sore."  We have been struck again and again, by the kindness and thoughtfulness of these families, who conduct themselves with respect and dignity, keep the park clear and repair the homes efficiently and diligently.  There is a great deal of prejudice against mobile home parks, in many middle class quarters, but advocates and scholars generally acknowledge that mobile home parks have an important role to play in meeting affordable housing needs in the modern United States. There is to my knowledge no evidence that this is a high crime area, and plenty of evidence that these hard working families contribute taxes and many other assets to the fabric of the broader community.

We have been told that the Fairgrounds and Rodeo, which are important economic engines for the county, need to expand if they are stay viable, and that a long standing strategic master plan , emerging out of a "consultative process with stakeholders," calls for the acquisition of the Shady Park property. I’m not convinced of these premises.  The stakeholder consultation process never included any of the residents, so far as we can tell. Notices in English were placed in the newspaper, for hearings which were held in English. The strategic master plan is located on the County website, only in English. No efforts were made to talk to the residents in Spanish about their needs, perspectives, and aspirations. No long term plan was drawn out for finding safe and affordable housing for the  over 30 families of the complex. Low income housing advocates in the county repeatedly tell us they are stretched to the limit and simply don’t have the capacity to locate or build new affordable housing. (See Nicole Klaus' excellent reporting on this topic.)  The Board of Commissioners has signed a $25,000 contract with CC Consulting, which has experience in evicting and relocating mobile home residents, but this amount is of course woefully inadequate for meeting the new housing needs. We are worried many of the families are facing homelessness, or will be forced out of the County.

Nor am I convinced that the Fairgrounds really needs this seasonal RV park. There are potential parking spaces within a few blocks; the open university fields to the north could still be used from time to time (albeit without hooks up at this point). There is an existing RV park at the west interchange, and regular shuttle buses could still be run during the Rodeo and Fair.




Ex Voto: Eusebio Najera, 1942
In any event, is it really worth sacrificing the social health and welfare of over 50 adult and 50 children for a RV park?  There is,  something enormously disturbing, even stomach-churning, about a governmental entity evicting so many low income, minority families, without building a comparable number of affordable housing units. Is this even legal, one wonders?  And what will this do to the regional and national reputation of the County, the Fairgrounds, and Rodeo: will we be known forever as the mass exilers of the poorest and most vulnerable amongst us? Where are the values of love, mercy and compassion that we normally purport to cherish?

I first got to know to the Fairgrounds during the summer of 2012, when the Taylor Bridge wildfire raced through the county, destroying about fifty homes and displacing hundreds of people and animals. My wife Ellen and I, with so many of our neighbors and new friends, worked through many nights at the Fairgrounds at animal rescue. Ellen and I fell in love with Ellensburg and Kittitas County during these difficult, smoky weeks, as we saw the most extraordinary outpouring of generosity and concern for the displaced, from all over the extended community.  Why, I now wonder, can’t that same spirit of courtesy, kindness and generosity be extended to the over thirty families of Shady Acres, by every resident of this county?  I would like to think that this has nothing to do with the fact that these families are low-income, non-white, or in some cases, non English speaking. I like to think that, after everyone has had some time to reflect on this crisis, our better angels will come to the fore, and that we will once again band together to aid and protect our friends and neighbors at their time of greatest need.

Perhaps the most beloved Ex Voto (or painting of gratitude) in the current Museum exhibition is the one dedicated by the couple, Eusebio Najera and his wife in 1942 in Mexico. They give thanks for successfully building a house in the face of great difficulty. The written text explains that the family prayed to San Antonio (St. Anthony) and in time a house was miraculously completed. The lovely painting shows the house embraced, in shade, under the generous arms of a great tree, which, like Saint Anthony himself, gives protection to the house and all who dwell within it.

I like to think that this sacred image holds a promise for all the residents of Shady Acres, at this dire moment—when they are threatened with eviction and dispossession, when they fear they are friendless and about to be cast out. Cannot all of us in Kittitas County find within ourselves the mercy and the sense of justice to reach out our arms, to ensure that every single adult and child at risk is similarly embraced, under the protective shade of another spreading tree, the interlinked branches of our extended, caring community?

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Image and Text in Ex Votos


Ex Voto: Eusebio Najera and Wife. 1942
Tomorrow the Museum opens our Spring quarter exhibition, “Miracles of Mexican Folk Art: Retablos and Ex Votos,” built around the beautiful collection assembled by Dr. Antonio Sanchez, who serves as the university’s legislative liaison in Olympia. Anthropologists have long been fascinated with votive images the world over, through which the faithful share visions of divine beings who are normally invisible, and express their prayers and gratitude for transformative interventions by these sacred entities.

We have been wondering how we might most productively engage our visitors with these works. How should we encourage close looking, and help elicit thoughtful interpretations and readings of the votive imagery? One theme we hope to emphasize is the complex relationship between text and image in the Ex Votos: what kind of important work is done by juxtaposing visual and written representations of a miraculous event? We might introduce visitors to the anthropological concept of “performativity”: certain kinds of representative acts help to bring about precisely the state of affairs that they represent, and this dynamic can be intensified when written words and painted images operate in concert.

Consider, first, Eusebio Najera and his wife’s 1942 ex voto, in which they give thanks for successfully building a house. The text in the lower right of the image proclaims: " Due to the difficulties I faced to build my house I hailed San Antonio, who is revered in the barrio of Guadalupe, Venado, S.L.P. to grant me permission to build it, and granted the favor we are immensely grateful. Eusebio Najera and wife." diarias, SLP, January 1942. [Signed] J Badillo."

In the top center we see Saint Antonio, depicted, as he often is, holding the infant Jesus. In the middle foreground we see two depictions of what appears to be the same family, consisting of a father, mother and three children, presumably the family of the worshiper. In the center, just underneath the large image of the Saint, we see the family with their backs to us, in a straight line, facing the saint who has granted them the house. To the right we see another image of the same family, in front of their home, in a more informal pose. The mother is closest to the doorway of the house, next to her husband, as the parents look out as their three children, one of whom is bending to pick up something. The family seems suspended between two structures, a stucco-covered completed house on the far right, and a rougher building still show brick work, a little to its left.

Might we read the entire image as a linear sequence, to be read from left to right? In the far left we see an empty space, before a tree, perhaps signifying the empty plot upon which the family hopes to construct a house; then, in the middle the family prays (still in a relatively empty space) to the Saint for their hoped-for home, then we see, further to the right, the house partly constructed, and then we see the house fully completed, with the family happily gathered in the courtyard of their granted wish, the residential space itself? One wonders, speculatively, if some of the “difficulties” encountered in building the house were encountered when it was partly constructed, and if the image might allude to this. (Is is also possible that the family in fact built two structures, which are both imaged here). In any event, it is noteworthy that in front of the house, the father wears his hat; but when standing in line of front of the Saint, his head is appropriately bare.

We also might contemplate the arboreal imagery in the painting. The house is sheltered under the spreading branches of the tree, and the image of Saint Anthony is itself flanked by trees. It may be that the right tree is being represented as a manifestation of the protective Saint, whose arms bless the family within their new home. We might even read the two trees, on the right and left of the landscape, as the same tree; first, on the left, the tree stands over a bare plot of land, then, on the right, the same tree has extended itself outwards to shelter the prayerful family and their home.

Juana Rosas. 1932
It is also intriguing that the left margin of the written text is precisely aligned under the prayerful father and the left edge of the image of the Saint to whom he prays. The left half of this landscape, in effect, is relatively empty and perhaps "pre-linguistic," with everything existing in potentia, while the right half, filled with house and with the two images of the family, constitutes a space appropriate to thankful language.


In turn, the image dedicated by Juana Rosas in 1932, to give thanks for her son’s recovery from illness, would seem to give visual expression to the transformative interaction between the threatened young man and the healing power of Jesus. The text proclaims, “Juana Rozas gives infinite thanks to Santo Cristo for having saved her son F.E. from danger -14-8-32”

We see on the bottom left the mother praying at the bedside of her son. The young man, “F.E.” is shown prone in bed, covered by a white blanket, which curves down from his chest to his stomach and then up to raised knees. This “U” like curve is reduplicated above him in the “U” of the clouds surrounding the crucified Christ, suspended in the sky above him, in the image’s upper center. The ruffles at the base of the blanket or bed skirt in turn seem to emulate the shape of the circular clouds above, around Jesus. One reading is that the mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection is being sympathetically transmitted from the Savior to the patient, and that the sick bed, which easily could have been a place of death, is thus through divine intervention transformed into a place of recovery.


The ritual work of visual representation may also be suggested in Efren Gonzalez’s 1935 offered image, which bears the inscription:

Efren Gonzalez. 1935


Perfeta García. 1937
"Having fallen ill of my back I invoked the Holy Virgin, protector of San Juan, and in a short time I have recovered my health. Therefore, being thankful to such wondrous woman I gift this [ex-voto]. Efrén Gonzalez, San Diego de la Union, January 25 1935. " The praying man in overalls holds in his right hand an extended straight votive candle as he faces the Blessed Virgin, surrounded by clouds. Is it possible that the straightness of the candle is iconic of the straightness of the penitent’s spine, cured by the Virgin Mother’s miraculous intervention?

Another process of healing is represented in the Ex Voto presented by Perfeta García in 1937: "Finding myself seriously ill, affected in my brain, hailed with all fervor to the Señor San Antonio to give relief, and finding myself already much better I give infinite thanks for the gift granted by such a miraculous image. Perfeta Garcia. January 24-37. Cha_can [?] S.L.P. [Signed] J Badillos. "

At the center of the image we see St Anthony, once again holding the infant Jesus. To the side of the image of the Saint pray two women and a man, presumably the patient himself. Over on the left, the patient, evidently now restored to health, stands upright beside his bed. To the right, we see a small figure on a pathway surmounting a hill, covered with trees at its crest. Might we read this pathway as a representation of the patient’s own path to health, climbing, as it were, from madness back to sanity? It is fascinating in any event that the text makes specific references to the “miraculous image”: are we to surmise that during his illness the patient contemplated a painting of Saint Anthony and that he attributes his return to sanity as a gift of the image itself, which is reproduced here.

Julián Flores. (1927)
I am particularly taken with Julián Flores’s ex voto (1927) on which is inscribed: "Mr. Julíian Flores gives infinite thanks to Señor San Antonío of the barrio of Guadalupe, Venado, S.L.P. for having found a cow lost in the hills and after many days he found her one day in the morning and he publishes his miracle through this retablo. VENADO, S.L.P. 1927"








The image is divided between a colorful landscape on the left, which depicts the moment at which the worshiper, on horseback and wearing a hat, discovered the cow with her suckling calf, and a monochromatic depiction of a church or cathedral, in which the worshiper, alone and bare-headed, faces the altar kneeling in prayer, either in supplication or gratitude. There seems to be an implied visual parallelism between the interior and external landscapes: the mountainous setting is by implication filled with the same divine grace as the sanctuary, the miraculous presence that has restored to the supplicant his livelihood.

Cosme y Gonsalo Perez. 1964
An especially graphic scene is depicted in Cosme y Gonsalo Perez’s 1964 Ex voto, recounting his recovery from a nearly fatal accident on a horse. The inscription records, “I thank the Holy Virgien of San Juan de los Lagos for having found ourselves in an encounter with horses we found ourselves in a trance of death, I invoked [the aid of] the Santa Virgien de San Juan de los Lagos, being granted the miracle.  La Piedad, Michoacan, Sep. 24 1964. Cosme y Gonsalo Perez.""

In the upper right we see the Blessed Virgin of the Lake. Below her we see rearing horses with empty saddles. Directly below the Virgin, we see a man, presumably the thankful worshiper, prone on the ground with blood pouring from his head. His arm reaches upwards towards the Virgin, to whom he prayed while on the frontier between life and death. The image powerfully evokes the penitent’s experiences of having been on the borderlands between worlds; his flowing blood may be evocative of the wounds of Christ, ultimately bound up and healed through divine intervention.

Maria Silvain. 1954
Finally, I’m fascinated by the Ex Voto offered by Maria Silvain in 1954, on which is written:

"I give infinite thanks to our very Holy Virgin of San Juan, for having granted the miracle of my son Jose Lopez returned after my in-laws took him away. Nov. 30, 1954. Maria Silva."

Here, we see the kneeling mother, in a black shawl, holding her returned son, who rests his head on her bosom, facing the Virgin. It makes sense that a mother seek reunion with her son would seek the aid of the Blessed Mother who similarly lost, and found, her own son. Are we to infer that Maria Silvain (herself named for the Virgin Mary) is shown here in mourning, and that it is the family of her late husband who had for a time taken the boy from her? I am not quite sure why the mother is shown kneeling on cobblestones; perhaps this is to contrast her earthly state with the heavenly status of the Virgin, who floats on celestial clouds Perhaps the bare cobblestones stress the isolation of the mother, left widowed and cruelly abused by her in laws, and thus emphasize how great a miracle she has experienced in being reunited with her son.

These preliminary readings of the Ex Votos are of course speculative. It will be fascinating, as community members with more direct knowledge of this genre, visit the exhibition and share their insights into these fascinating, compelling works.






Thursday, February 4, 2016

Solar System App

 "Wildcats in Orbit" app logo, designed by Xander McCready
The Museum Studies program and the Museum of Culture and Environment are collaborating this quarter with a team of Computer Science seniors, supported by the CWU Mosaic2GearUp program,  to create an app, “Wildcats in Orbit,” to help over 2000 middle and high school students participating in the GearUp to  program explore the solar system during their visits to the CWU campus.  The app builds on the campus solar system model,  curated by Museum Studies student Liz Seelye (assisted by Drew Johnson), which is “anchored” by a three inch model of the sun, hanging in front of the entrance of the Museum of Culture and Environment.  Click here to see a diagram of the solar system orbits superimposed over a map of the CWU Ellensburg campus. The model, on a scale 1 : 18,560,000,000, was generated by the ThinkZone's solar system calculator.

We’ve really enjoyed working with Physics  and Science Education Professor Bruce Palmquist in conceptualizing the model. The  orbits of the inner planets—Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars— all more or less fit within Dean Hall. Pluto, out in the Kuiper Belt, has as an average orbital distance of 1038 feet--so the students placed their poster on Pluto over in the Art Department in Randall Hall.  I especially like the students’ poster of Uranus, placed at the entrance of the Language and Literature building, which emphasizes the planets’ many “literary moons,” most of them named after Shakespearean characters.  We hope this physical model helps the GearUp students and other visitors better conceptualize the vast scale of the solar system and grasp the relative distances between celestial objects orbiting the sun.  (For visual effect, the Museum Studies students have made large-scale models of the inner planets, hanging from the lobby ceiling; to be accurate in scale, we realize, the planets would be tiny specks relative to the baseball-size sun.)

Our physical model of the solar system is necessarily static and we wanted to create a large scale "orrery," classically a mechanical model of the solar system in which the planets physically rotate around a fixed center point representing the sun, to demonstrate their relative positions to one another.  Rather than a mechanical orrery, the new app is a virtual, digital model of the solar system, that tracks the relative positions of the planets in orbit around the sun.   The “Wildcats in Orbit”  app  (named for the university's "Wildcat" mascot) will encourage users to walk through campus and discover the relative locations of planets, asteroids, and Kuiper belt objects.

To make the model more dynamic, we have “sped up” the movement of these imaginary celestial objects, so that one earth year in orbit around the sun takes only one day on campus. Thus, instead of taking 248 years to orbit the sun, “our” virtual  Pluto will only take 248 days to complete a rotation around Dean Hall. The real orbital period of Saturn is  is 29.45 earth years; our virtual Saturn orbits Dean Hall every 29.45 days. Inside Dean Hall, our virtual Earth takes one day to complete its orbit; thus, Earth will pass the same point in the Dean Hall lobby at the same time each day.

Using virtual GPS, our “Wildcats in Orbit” app will inform users through a push notification each time they cross the orbit of a planet or celestial object, and give them directions on how to find the virtual location of that planet on campus, at that particular date. (For example, “Saturn is 150 meters northwest of your current location.”)  The user can also navigate through a dynamic overlay map of campus, showing the orbit and relative positions of each planet.  Once users reach the planet’s virtual location on campus, they will be "rewarded" with digital overlays--allowing them to take selfies of themselves in ways that are connected to the planet. A user who reaches “Pluto” for instance can take a picture showing her or himself standing on Pluto’s frozen surface with an image of Pluto’s moon Charon in the background.  These selfies can them be emailed or instagramed to friends with messages such as “Greetings from Jupiter,” or “If you lived on Pluto, you'd be home now.”  Users will also be able to access images of the planets and gather fun facts about space exploration. Push notifications will inform users of interesting celestial phenomena visible in the Ellensburg night sky, of the sort described in Bruce's Ellensburg Sky astronomy blog.

We are hoping the app will encourage GearUp students to learn more about the solar system and broaden their curiosity about astronomy and the sciences.  Perhaps there will be a way for specific high schools in the GearUp program to adapt the app to their own campuses, creating virtual solar systems across many home towns in central and eastern Washington. We also hope the app can be tied in with the university's planetarium classroom, slated to open in Fall 2016 in the new Science II building. Our hope is that, in time, CWU students in Physics//Astronomy, Science Education and Museum Studies, as well as selected GearUp and other K-12 students, will create planetarium shows, using the open source WorldWide Telescope platform,

We are planing a launch party of the app on Wednesday, March 9 at 6:00 pm in the Dean Hall lobby.  Please join us for the fun!

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Tracing Ashley's Sack

"Ashley's Sack," Middleton Place.
 Note on 12/7/16:   for an updated discussion of the origin of Ashley's Sack, please see my new publication:   https://southernspaces.org/2016/slaverys-traces-search-ashleys-sack

Like many, I have been excited to learn that “Ashley’s Sack,” a fascinating, enigmatic artifact in the collection of Middleton Place (Dorchester County, South Carolina), one of the nation’s preeminent slavery-era plantation sites, will be on long-term loan to the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington D.C., where it will presumably be viewed, in time, by millions, once the museum opens in Fall 2016.  The object is described in the epilogue of Heather Andrea Williams’ book, Help Me to Find My People: The African American Search for Family Lost in Slavery (University of North Carolina Press, 2012; pp. 196-197) and has been the subject of coverage in such newspapers   as the Summerville Journal Scene and the Savannah Morning News. The bag, evidently made out of the same “Negro Cloth” used to produce the clothing of enslaved people, is embroidered with the following text:

My great grandmother Rose

mother of Ashley gave her this sack when

she was sold at age 9 in South Carolina

it held a tattered dress 3 handfulls of

pecans a braid of Roses hair. Told her

It be filled with my Love always

she never saw her again

Ashley is my grandmother

Ruth Middleton

1921


The “sack” was purchased at a market in Springfield, Tennessee in Feburary 2007; the finder surmised that it might be connected to Middleton Place in Dorchester County, South Carolina, given the last name of the embroiderer and given the grandmother’s name, “Ashley,” which, it was thought, might be linked to the nearby Ashley River.  My understanding is that at the present moment, the provenance of the object has not yet been traced. Curators have assumed that the story told in these 56 or so words is accurate: that there was a woman named Ruth Middleton who in 1921 wrote in embroidery the story of her grandmother Ashley, who was sold at age nine, during the era of slavery (which would mean Ashley would have been born prior to 1857) somewhere in South Carolina--and that Ashley was the daughter of an enslaved woman named Rose. It is further presumed that the sack was an heirloom passed down through a family line until Ruth decided to embroider the story on it in 1921.

Having helped many African American families trace their lineages over the years, I have been wondering who might Rose and Ashley have been.  Rose was a common name for enslaved women. The marvelous searchable database of the South Carolina Department of Archives and History generates hundreds of entries from its digitized collection of slavery-era wills, bills of sale and other documents, when the query “Rose (Slave)" is entered. However, Ashley was a comparatively rare name in the 19th century for enslaved women, being used more often for men (as in "Solomon Ashley Northup,"  author of Twelve Years a Slave).  The South Carolina database has only two antebellum entries I believe for “Ashley (Slave).” One of them is a bill of sale, recording the purchase of three “mulatto slaves” to John E. Bonneau named “Sappho, Ashley and Abraham,” dated 25 May 1836.  “Sappho” was clearly female and “Abraham” was clearly male. But what about “Ashley,” who might have been of either gender?  Fortunately, for our purposes, Ashley's gender is implied by a phrase in the bill of sale,  “Three mulatto slaves Sappho Ashley Abraham and with issue [thereof?] of the females;” the use of the plural indicates that both Sappho and Ashley were female. (By law and convention, the enslaved or free status of a person followed the status of the mother, so the authors of wills and bills of sale were usually carefully to append, “and the future issue thereof,” to any mention of female slaves who were, or who might someday, be fertile.)
1836 Bill of Sale to John E. Bonneau for Sappho, Ashley, Abraham (Detail)



There is no indication in the bill of the age of Ashley; if she were nine at the time of this 1836 sale, then she would have been born  in 1827. It is possible of course that Ashely was sold repeated times during her life, and that she might have sold away from her mother before this 1836 sale.

Ashley and the two other slaves were sold, the document indicates, by Samuel Wilson of Charleston , acting as attorney on behalf of a Judith I. Wilson, "currently residing in Bordeaux."   This woman is almost surely Judith Isabel Wilson (January 8, 1760-December 11, 1838), a woman whose fascinating life might cast some light on the history of the enslaved woman “Ashley.”  The daughter of the Charleston physician Dr. Robert Wilson (Sr., 1736-1815) and Ann Isabel (Chisholm), Judith Isabel Wilson married, on September 14, 1782, just before British troops evacuated Charleston, her cousin Lieutenant John Wilson, an officer in the British Army (who had been held as a prisoner of war in Concord, Massachusetts in the early days of the Revolutionary War). John Wilson was a planter in Jamaica and later settled with his wife Judith in Stirling, Scotland, his ancestral home. After his death in 1798, Judith and her family returned home to Charleston in 1807. She left Charleston around 1826, with her daughter Ann, for Philadelphia and then settled around 1832 in the Bordeaux region of France, where she died in Libourne  (Gironde, Aquitaine, France), northeast of Bourdeaux, in 1838. Hence, the reference in the  1836 Bill of Sale to “Judith I. Wilson, currently residing in Bordeaux.” It would make sense that Samuel Wilson (the son of Judith Isabel's brother Samuel, Sr.) still based in Charleston, would have acted on her behalf in selling the slaves, “Sappho, Ashley, and Abraham.”

Perhaps the mulattos “Sappho, Ashley, and Abraham” came to Judith Isabel Wilson out of the estate of her late father Dr. Robert Wilson Sr., who died in 1815, eight years after Judith Isabel returned from Scotland, and that they were related to other enslaved people owned by the extended Wilson family of Charleston. It may also be relevant that Judith Isabel's son, Major John Wilson, died in 1833, three years before the slave sale; in 1820, we had owned six slaves in Charleston, including four enslaved women; perhaps Judith Isabel acquired one or more of these persons.  In this connection it is interesting that Judith’s nephew, Isaac Mazyck Wilson (born 1789, died 1828 in Charleston) on September 1, 1815 purchased from William H. Wilson, a  “Mestiizo slave named Abraham, son of Rose.”  Seven months earlier on February 13, 1815 Isaac sold to another cousin, William Chisholm, a “Mulatto slave named Will, son of Rose.”  It is perhaps significant that Isaac Mazyck Wilson's 1828 estate inventory lists an Abram, valued at $500 and a Rose, valued at $250. It is possible that Abraham, Sappho, and Ashley, named in the 1836 bill of sale from Wilson to Bonneau, were brother and sisters, all three children of the same Rose. It is possible that Rose was retained within the Wilson family network; we do not how long she lived.

What might have become of Ashley, following the 1836 sale? John Ewing Bonneau (1786-1849), who purchased Ashely, Sappho, and Abraham, was a prominent businessman and importer. a partner in the firm of Mathews and Bonneau on Hamilton’s Wharf in Charleston.  He was also a significant slave owner and rice planter whose rural holdings in Charleston District were based along the eastern branch of the Cooper River at Villa Plantation-- thirty miles north, or upriver, from the city of Charleston. Evidently, Bonneau and his white family primarily resided within Charleston city itself, at 15 Church Street (adjacent to Calhoun House, owned by Bonneau’s nephew John Ewing Calhoun.)   In the 1840 census, Bonneau held six slaves at his Charleston city residence and 73 slaves at his plantation within St Johns Berkley Parish, Charleston, South Carolina. (As lighter skinned mulattos, we might speculate that Ashley, Sappho and Abraham were held in the urban location as house servants, but we cannot be sure of this.)  It is also possible that these slaves were bought and sold as investment property, since John E. Bonneau had at least some involvement in the domestic slave trade; in 1833 his ship the John Chevalier transported a 30 year old enslaved woman "Rose" (part of the estate of John Garrett) from Norfolk, VA to Charleston. ( I do not know if this "Rose" had any relationship to the mother of Ashley.)

After John E. Bonneau’s death in 1849, Villa Plantation and 84 slaves in his estate were sold in a large estate sale in March 1852; about a dozen other slaves were sold b his daughter and executrix, Eliza McCraady Bonneau, who under the terms of her father's will had freedom to dispose of his estate "real and personal," as she thought best. The South Carolina Archives contains a detailed list of these slaves and their buyers, but there is no mention of Ashley, Sappho or Abraham, so it is possible that they had been resold elsewhere, or had passed away, prior to the estate sale, or that they were sold in a related estate sale that left behind no documentation. It is also possible that Ashley was  retained by Eliza M. Bonneau. Among the 12 slaves in her home in 1850 were three adult women, ages 19, 28, and 30; perhaps one of these was Ashley?

Alternately, Ashley may be referenced three years before John E. Bonneau's death  in the 16 January 1846  manifest of the slave ship The Parthian, owned by the Richmond, Virginia-based slave trader George W. Apperson, which arrived in New Orleans, Louisiana from Norfolk, Virginia.  On its arrival in New Orleans, the ship contained 17 year old woman "Ashley Dunn" (five feet high and "copper" colored) and her infant child. This Ashley would have been born around 1829, which would be roughly consistent with our estimated age of "our" Ashley if she was in fact sold at age 9 in 1836. (Ashley Dunn's "copper" color is also consistent with the "mulatto" designation in the 1836 bill of sale.)  Between 1844-1847 Apperson is known to have run five domestic slave shipments by ship from Virginia to Louisiana, transporting a total of 308 enslaved people.  His ships at times stopped in Charleston, where there are records of him selling slaves; it is possible that Ashley Dunn and her infant child were taken on board The Parthian in Charleston, or they may have begun the journey in Norfolk. (In this connection, it is worth recalling that John E. Bonneau, who purchased Ashley in 1836, himself imported on his ship at least one enslaved person from Norfolk.)

As Solomon Northup reports in Twelve Years a Slave, George W. Apperson's New Orleans partner was the slave trader Theophilus Freeman, who ran a major slave-selling operation in the city, notorious for its violent abuse of captives.  Freeman primarily sold slaves in the lower Mississippi valley, but from New Orleans, Ashley Dunn and her infant child could have been sold anywhere in the Deep South.


Finding Ruth Middleton

How old we presume Ruth Middleton to have been in 1921 when she did the embroidery? If we read the stitching as done in a child or adolescent’s hand, Ruth was likely to have been born between 1900 and 1915. Her mother thus was likely to have been born after Emancipation in 1865. Ruth does use the present tense (“is”) in referring to her grandmother Ashley, but it is conventional at times to use the present tense in referring to a dead family member, so we do not know if Ruth ever met her grandmother, or if she only learned the story from her mother or other relations.

The 1920 U.S. Census lists three African American female children or adolescents with the name "Ruth Middleton" born in this time frame (born 1900-1915), who are literate and who might be potential candidates to have been the Ruth who embroidered the sack:

1.  Ruth Middleton born around 1912, residing on Adams Run Road on the Toogoodoo River in Saint Paul’s Township, Charleston County, South Carolina. This is a point north of Edisto Island about 25 miles southwest of the city of Charleston. Ruth would have been nine years old in 1921, so presumably of an age that would be likely to embroider. Her mother, Lousia Middleton, was born around 1886 and her father, Will Middleton, was born around 1881. Perhaps Louisa or Will was the child of Ashley? The census indicates that neither parent can read nor write, but that Ruth herself is literate. The 1930 census indicates that Ruth now has a newborn brother, named Abraham. (One can’t help but imagine that the family name Abraham came down from earlier generations!) The 1940 census records that Ruth, still unmarried, is employed as a cook in a private family, and the highest educational level she attained was fourth grade.

2. Ruth Middleton, born around 1912, residing in Hemmingway, Carroll County, Mississippi (near Greenwood, on the edge of the Mississippi Delta.)  She also would have been nine years old in 1921.  Her father, George Middleton, was born in 1870 and her mother, Nora Middleton, was born 1890. Her father's mother is evidently Mariah Middleton, who is listed in the  1870, 1880 and 1900 census records as born in Virginia, around 1824, 1825, or 1828. Mariah married an Elijah Middleton, born in Kentucky, around 1850.  This Ruth appears to be the only one of our 'candidates' with a grandparent born in time window consistent with the narrative proposed above (but could her name have shifted from "Ashley" to "Mariah'?).

3. Ruth Midleton, born 1906, living in Meadville, Franklin County, Mississippi (the southwestern corner of the state) would have been 15 years old in 1921.  Her father Bennie was born around 1879 and her mother, Verlon (or Verlene) was born 1884.

It appears that the final three lines of the embroidery (in blue or green thread) are in a somewhat more mature or skilled hand  than the preceding lines ("Ashley is my grandmother/Ruth Middleton/1921." So it is possible that Ruth returned to work on the sack after an interval of a few years, noting her relationship to Ashley, signing her name, and dating the piece.

There is a good deal of speculation in all of this, of course, but perhaps we now have enough hints in the historical record to the reconstruct the family line and the passage of this precious object across the generations. It will be fascinating to see what future research unearths; perhaps it will be possible to locate Ruth’s descendants and bring them into the conversation and the exhibition development process.

NOTE: The above entry was revised on 1/9/2016, in light of several helpful suggestions from Toni Carrier of Low Country Africa. 

Addendum on 1/23/16: In addition to the above "candidates," I should note a Ruth Middleton (born about 1902( who does not appear in the 1920 census, but who married, in Philadelphia, PA, in 1918, an Arthur Middleton. She appears as Ruth Middleton in the Philadelphia area in the 1930 and 1940 censuses. Her roots, and her husband's roots, appear to be in Richland County and Kershaw County, South Carolina. 

Addendum on 2/7/16: It is also worth considering Middeltons with connections to Springfield, TN, where the sack was found in February 2007.  Consider, for example, Harvey Nathaniel Middleton, an important African American physician. Born in Denmark, South Carolina in 1895 (or 1893), he lived for most of the 1910s in Columbia, South Carolina (roughly during the same period that Ruth Jones  [later Ruth Middleton] was growing up in the same city. He attended Boston University in the early 1920s, then Meharry Medical  College in Nashville, TN, and during the year 1928 briefly practiced medicine in Springfield, SC, the town where Ashley’s Sack was later discovered. He spent most of his career in Indianapolis, Indiana, as a prominent cardiologist.  I have not been able as of this writing to determine if he had any kinship ties to the other Middletons discussed above.  (It may be significant that during the period Dr. Middleton resided in Middleton, the Rev. Williima Hailey, an African American minister in the Methodist Church, who was also born in South Carolina, was also residing in Springfield; perhaps he invited Dr. Middleton to practice medicine in Springfield, after Dr. Middelton’s graduation from Meharry, a Methodist-sponsored institution.  

Also of interest is a white woman, “Tiny” Williams Middleton (1904 -1974), at least two of whose childrens resided in Springfield, TN. Her firstborn child, Estel Lee Middleton, (born. Nov. 15, 1921) lived in Springfield from at least 1988 onwards, and passed away in Springfield, TN on Nov. 24, 1992. His widow Mary Middleton passed away in Springfield in 2008/  (Estel Lee is  incorrectly identified as female in several records.)  Tiny’s daughter, Ruth Middleton (born 1935), married a Rev. Ewing Hale in 1953 in Springfield, and the couple appears to have resided in Springfield until at least 1960. So far as I can tell, the parents and grandparents of Tiny Williams Middleton identified as white; I have not found any genealogical connection to South Carolina.  

Addendum on 12/7/16: After more research in South Carolina and Pennsylvania, I have re-thought much of the above. I believe the Ashley purchased by John Bonneau is probably too old to have been the historical Ashley referenced in the embroidery, although perhaps she was related to the "Ashley" of Ashley's Sack. I am convinced that Ruth Jones Middleton, born 1903 in Columbia SC and married in 1918 is in fact the embroider of the sack.  My new conclusions are published in Southern Spaces, at;   https://southernspaces.org/2016/slaverys-traces-search-ashleys-sack




Monday, December 7, 2015

Forensic Photography and the Roads of the Dead

I have just finished reading Jason De León’s stunning new ethnography, “The Land of Open Graves: Living and Dying on the Migrant Trail” (University of California Press, 2015). He makes a powerful argument that the official US “Prevention through Deterrence” immigration policy funnels hundreds of thousands of undocumented migrants through the killing fields of the Sonora Desert, allowing Federal policy makers to disavow direct complicity the annual deaths of thousands, projecting onto the realm of nature responsibility that more properly should rest with collective human agency.  (See the evocative National Geographic interview with the author on the project.)  

I’m especially moved by the way in which De León builds on the forensic work he and his students in the Undocumented Migration Project  have been doing, teasing out from the bodily remains and material traces of lost migrants to reconstruct the lives of those who travel el camino, “the road,” in search of a modicum of economic security in the United States.  To my mind, the book becomes profoundly compelling n its final third, as the discovered corpse of one woman, eventually identified as Maricela, found in the desert, opens up in the reconstructed narrative of an entire kinship network that spreads from Cuenca, Ecuador to New York City. Central to this ethnographic process of giving voice to the dead and the survivors is Jason’s meditation on the circulation of photographic images taken by him and his team.  Although he had initial reservations about photographing the dead woman refugee and sharing the image of her remains with her surviving relations, he gradually came to appreciate that the image, in time, came to function as a kind of substitute body, providing a degree of resolution for those negotiating the agony of “ambiguous loss,” uncertain whether to conceptualize their loved one as alive or dead.  The photograph, as it is contemplated and re-narrated by her relatives in collaboration with the ethnographer, allows them to imaginatively re-situate her on the migrant “road,” to arrive at a degree of understanding of her final moments as she attempted, with whatever strength remained in her body, to fulfill her dream of traversing the borderlands and providing for her children left back home. Through the UMP’s forensic work and the labor of her New York family, her remains, albeit devastated by the desert environment, were in time returned for internment in Cuenca. Her physical remains and the spectral shadow of the forensic photograph  continue to exist in a complex tension in the social imaginary of her mourning family.

For all the life-diminishing functions of the “state of exception” produced through US border policy, these memorial practices have restored a measure of dignity and personhood to at least one lost soul.  One is put in mind of Roland Barthes’ meditations in Camera Lucida  on the simultaneously tortuous and life-sustaining functions of memorial photography, which allow for curious forms of time travel, moving back and forth across the borderlands of life and death: to paraphrase Barthes, “She is dead; and she is going to die.”  To be sure, there are many circumstances in which sharing forensic photographs of dead economic refugees with their family would be an act of social and psychic violence, but in this fascinating, haunting instance, the photograph takes on a vital substitute function for the absent person. (It is perhaps for this reason that De León could not bring himself simply to email her image to the family, but felt compelled to present her family members with physical prints of the photographs; merely digital images, one senses, could not adequately convey or embody the ritual dimensions of the missing body/person.)

I am also fascinated by another instance of ritualized image deployment in the book, a desert religious shrine photographed by Jason’s collaborator Michael Wells (p.176).  In a niche within a weathered rockface, somewhere in the desert, we see over a dozen votive images of the Virgin and of saints, along with rosaries and crucifixes, left by migrants evidently praying for safe passage across the potentially deadly desert expanse. The images are lodged into rocky ledges and the lines of prayer beads in some cases seem to extend along indentations in the stone, worn over time by water or extremes of temperature. Speculatively, might these offerings —-consisting of a framed image and an extended line of beads— themselves function as microcosmic models of the traveling selfhood of each migrant, or, in structuralist terms, as ‘structural operators,” that mediated between migrant, saint and the desert landscape--producing iconic images of “the road” (el camino) that the refugees seek to complete?  Is each line of beads, in other words, a little model of the hoped for line of the dreamed-of path to a safe haven? Might we conceive of such a shrine, in Godfrey Lienhardt’s terms, as a kind of  symbolic action, performatively calling into being a hoped-for extension of the donor’s intentionality?  Beyond that, might such ritual practices be understood as an attempt to re-enchant, to render knowable, the otherwise alien and enigmatic landscape of the desert, for migrant passersby who are, as De León notes, alienated from the multi-layered knowledge of the land that its indigenous communities are heir to? At the same time, given that migrants are deeply cognizant of the dead who have proceeded them on el camino, and of the great risk of death they themselves face, can such votive shrines be understood, in part, as memorials for others, as well as acts of potential, pre-mortem self-memorialization--so that even if one does not physically survive the trek, an aspirational pathway to the Other World is traced?

To be sure, given the extraordinarily tenuous and perilous circumstances of fieldwork by the UMP—and given the fact, as De León notes, that surviving migrants are nearly always unwilling to dwell on their experiences in the desert---these may be ethnographic speculations beyond clear cut verification. Yet they are the kinds of vital, if heart-breaking questions, suggested by this painfully beautiful book.






















Thursday, November 19, 2015

Film Noir of Lampedusa by Clay Apenouvon

“Film Noir of Lampedusa." Clay Apenouvon
“Film Noir of Lampedusa” (November 20 - December 20, 2015)
Artist: Clay Apenouvon
Commissioned by the Église Saint-Merri, (Church Saint Merri) for the Paris Climate Conference COP21.  Installation in situ: Extended plastic film with various objects.

In this extraordinary installation, artist Clay Apenouvon, born in Togo, West Africa, has created a haunting memorial to the untold thousands of migrants/refugees from Africa and the Middle East who have struggled across the Mediterranean to reach Sicily and the safety of Europe in makeshift boats and rafts. In many cases, their corpses and possessions have washed up on the small Italian island of Lampedusa, 70 miles from Tunisia and 127 miles from Sicily. The artist is inspired by the work of Lampedusa activist Giacomo Sferlazzo, who has tirelessly collected the objects thrown overboard or lost at sea by the refugees and assembled them into a “Museum of Silence,” composed of the mute traces of those lost forever beneath the waves.

Nearly all of those who attempt this perilous crossing are climate refugees, victims of the modern world’s relentless hunger for hydrocarbon-based energy. The current wars and economic crises in Africa and the Middle East are ultimately driven by struggles over oil and related resources, and are exacerbated by climate change, itself the product of the endless burning of fossil fuels. Here, from a ledge that sometimes hold the host, an endless waterfall of blackness pours out from the walls, a vast oil spill that cannot be capped. Upon the floor of the sanctuary waves of black gold disgorge all manner of lost things—a mismatched pair of children’s shoes, a bottle containing a message of love, a Qur’an, an image of the virgin, a small crucifix, a cell phone.   In this corner of a stunningly beautiful ancient church we find ourselves before a latter-day sacrificial altar, pondering all those whose dreams of refuge will never be realized.

The work’s title, “Film Noir,” has many allusions.  It recalls the black film left on the ocean’s surface by each oil spill. It reminds us that so many of the victims of the Mediterranean are African, who all too quickly fade from the view and conscience of the world’s wealthy nations. It evokes as well the Film Noir genre of Hollywood melodrama, celebrated for tangled plot lines of crime and passion, low key lighting and unbalanced composition. For here we are in the presence of a vast crime scene, a movie reel that plays over and over and over again, a film noir nightmare from which, it appears, we can never awake.

The installation was commissioned for the Paris Climate Conference COP21, before the brutal mass murders of Friday, November 13 in the environs of the Saint Merri Church.  The work now strikes us eerily prophetic, anticipating the spontaneous memorials erected to the lost in the nearby Place de la République.  The very walls of the church, one senses, are weeping—for all the victims, near and far. This endless filmstrip of tragedy plays again and again, mute testimony to all those who can no longer speak for themselves.

Appropriately, Apenouvon’s installation emerges from beneath the grand painting by Charles Antoine Coypel,  Les Disciples d'Emmaüs,(The Disciples of Emmaus, 1749),  Soon after his death and resurrection, Jesus reveals himself to two of his disciples, who are despondent over his crucifixion. When he breaks bread with them, they recognize him and are filled with joy (Luke 24:13-35). This setting, it seems to me, is even more deeply appropriate after the terrorist horrors of November 13. In our anguish, in our grief,  whatever our faith, we long for some trace of hope, for a better future for ourselves and for those that will come after us.  That is the spirit of COP21—an insistence that we gaze squarely and unflinchingly upon the ravages to which our planet is now subjected, combined with a demand that we act in concert to imagine, and actively produce, a better world. That is now the silent prayer of Clay Apenouvon, a Parisian born in West Africa: that the atrocities of the Paris assaults will not cause us to turn our back on the world’s least fortunate, on the refugees struggling to reach Fortress Europe. The terrorists, after all, viciously attacked those engaged in the most fundamental expressions of common humanity—eating and drinking together, listening to music, dancing together.   Should not our response, in the spirit of Coypel’s painting of the scene from Luke 21, be to move beyond misrecognition of those whom we encounter on the journey? Should we not, instead, recognize in the Other all that binds us, from the richest and poorest, and join in that most basic of communions, breaking bread together?