I recently attended the Landscape, Race, and Culture: Shaping a World of Color in the American South, a conference sponsored by Old Salem Museums & Gardens, the Wake Forest Department of History, and the Southern Gardens History Society. There were many interesting presentations, including local Winston-Salem topics focused on the historical development of the African-American neighborhood, Happy Hill; Old Salem’s Hidden Town Project; and Reynolda’s Five Row.

For the purposes of this blog post, however, I will focus on some of the other presentations featuring presenters from outside of Winston-Salem. The conference started with a keynote by Professor Kofi Boone, who is a Professor of Landscape Architecture at the NC State University College of Design. His presentation, titled “Black Landscapes Matter” noted that few of our landscapes are not touched by oppression, colonialism, and racism. The landscape is a way of organizing our world, and in many cases, the policies and systems reinforce racism (i.e. highway development through African-American neighborhoods throughout the South or the locations for toxic waste) where racial policies are disguised as spatial progress.

Quoting the words of Alicia Garcia, Professor Boone set the tone for the entire conference:

“To be seen, to live with dignity, and to be connected.”

Dr. Louis P. Nelson (Professor of Architectural History and Vice Provost for Academic Outreach for the University of Virginia), spoke about the landscape architectures of enslavement in West Africa through the lens of networks, spaces, mobility, and connectivity, which Professor Boone’s focused on in his keynote. He noted that while 11 million people were transported to our hemisphere, they were moved in small groups of 8-15, which the West African holding and transport buildings illustrate. Looking at the coastal structures, you realize what an economic machine this truly was. Dr. Nelson pointed out that while a smaller percentage were sent to the US (as opposed to South America and the Caribbean) the total numbers of loss and death come close to Holocaust numbers—of our own making. (Dr. Nelson also co-edited Educated in Tyranny: Slavery at Thomas Jefferson’s University, which is currently on order for ZSR’s collection).

Dr. Dana Byrd (Bowdoin College) shared about the development of a city of freedmen in Mitchelville (Hilton Head, SC) after the Civil War. She developed a mapping tool Tracing Transformations in a Digital Age, to “help organize the relevant information within a geographically oriented framework, which would in turn help her better understand the spatial dimensions of Hilton Head’s transformation.” She also compared uniform maps and illustrations from periodicals such as Leslie’s with original photographs from the National Archives (displaying individual choices made for housing). The houses were organized by their owners according to both nuclear (place) and kin (blood) networks, and they chose stone and glass for their homes. Dr. Byrd sees the decisions being made by the dwellers as dismissing the material elements of slavery and enacting their newfound freedom.

Finally, the Director (Matt Reeves) of Archaeology & Landscape Restoration at Montpelier, the home of James and Dolley Madison, presented an update on their work to locate the “Hidden Sites of Labor” at a President’s Plantation. Their work is intended to make the intangible tangible. In the past two decades, preservation efforts have dealt with the main house as well as the cabins for the enslaved, many of which were close by.

Now the staff are searching for the work sites and other enslaved home sites representative of the plantation economy. The goal is to record how the enslaved contributed their labor in order to give them a sense of dignity. The Madison heirs unfortunately destroyed the records documenting the labor of the plantation, but the Montpelier staff knew the sites still existed, for the most part untouched, albeit often under forest. The archaeological staff used a variety of techniques and methodologies to find information, including assessment of the landscape for foundation posts and markings, architectural surveys based on the type of historic nail, and other objects found from digs such as threshing equipment. Thus far, they have found the overseers site, cabins used by the enslaved, threshing barns, and livestock areas. They also want to locate the actual plantation fields (again, under forest) and are relying on physical aspects of the property, including field edges, property lines, plow furrows, erosional gullies, agricultural ditches, road traces,  and witness trees (tulip poplars, oaks). The presence of certain trees often represent the crops grown there in the past. They are also relying on modern technologies such as LiDAR (light detection and ranging) to create 3D maps. Only 1/5 of the entire estate has been surveyed so far.

In 2018, Montpelier and the National Trust for Historic Preservation hosted a symposium, A National Summit for Teaching Slavery. That work also included developing Engaging Descendant Communities in the Interpretation of Slavery at Museums and Historic Sites. As noted in the best practices “it is essential for institutions to demonstrate respect for descendant communities and to approach interactions with sensitivity, humility, and cultural, social, and emotional awareness.”

This was an excellent conference, and I appreciate the opportunity to attend and hear these insightful and fascinating presentations.