Friday, December 14, 2012

Correcting Mis-impressions re the Post

I've gotten a number of inquiries around the country from scholars curious about the Washington Post article,

which reports on my research on enslaved labor in the making of the Smithsonian Castle building.

As is perhaps inevitable in a quickly written story, there are some inaccuracies in the Post article, or at least the potential for misunderstanding on a few points. Among them:

  • The assertion that enslaved African Americans did not physically construct the Castle building.  Actually, I think it quite likely, given the Washington labor market from the late 1840s-early 1850s, that some enslaved people did work on the building's physical construction, as they did on hundreds of other buildings in antebellum Washington, including the Capitol and the White House. The point is we don't have direct historical evidence for enslaved labor on physical construction, mainly because so many Smithsonian records were lost in the great Castle fire of January 1865.  We do have stronger evidence for enslaved people working at the Seneca quarry, where the sandstone used in the Castle was quarried. But that doesn't mean we can rule out the use of slave labor in building the Castle.
  • Many readers seem to have been left with the misimpression that people at the Smithsonian were not supportive of this research. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Smithsonian Archives staff, especially archivist Pamela Henson, has always been great--sharing ideas and tips and putting in extra time to locate documents and files. It is a wonderful professional archives, a joy to work in.  As I link to in my paper, the Archives has great virtual exhibitions highlighting  the contributions of people like Solomon Brown and Lou Purnell (Air and Space).  And senior Smithsonian administrators have always expressed great interest in and support for this research.  
  • The article mentioned that SI officials hadn't called back back to comment, but that may be simply because the reporters were working on such a tight deadline; as is usual practice, a newspaper likes to publish about a scholarly paper the moment the paper is published.
  • There was line in the Post article about Smthsonian officials "allowing" me access to documents; I don't know where that line came from. The Archives is of course open to any serious researcher-so nobody would ever not be granted access to historical documents.
  • I was quoted as saying that the at the highest level, the Smithsonian hadn't yet begun a 'truth and reconciliation' process about legacies of slavery as such at the institution. When I talked to the reporter, I did emphasize that there are many areas across the institution, especially the Institutional History Division and  the Archives, where people for years have been working hard and bravely to bring the diverse history of the institution to light, especially African American contributions. 
  •  It is true  that so far as I know, there has been anything equivalent at the Smithsonian to the US Congress' resolution on the role of enslaved people in building the US Capitol (which included the labor of enslaved men in quarrying building material); Brown University's Committee on Slavery and Justice;  The College of William and Mary's Lemon Project; or Emory University's Transforming Community Project, which led to the January 2011 official statement of regret, by the university Board of Trustees for the university's "entwinement" with slavery.  Something like that is yet to come at the Smithsonian, as it is yet to come at so many major American civic institutions.   As I noted, I do think there is great openness at the Institution's highest levels to working in that direction.  I recognize that such a process will be more challenging at the SI than at private institutions; having said that,  it would serve as a kind of national model for how such honest and healing public conversations about slavery and historical accountability could be conducted. 
I certainly hadn't expected this much public attention to a short piece in an academic journal. The major thrust of my research is actually on race, labor and science at the Smithsonian in the post-slavery period.  I'm hoping to explore the many remarkable stories of African American staff at the Institution, concentrating on the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  The legacy of slavery in DC, Maryland and Virginia is part of that story, but by no means the whole story!

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