Along with several of my colleagues, I attended the National Council on Public History’s annual meeting this past week. This year’s theme, “Challenging the Exclusive Past,” raised important questions about the obstacles to uncovering obscured narratives.
Several panels and workshops I attended taught me powerful lessons on these topics, but one particularly stood out to me in light of much of my own work. Courtney Hobson presented on her experience as a docent at Darnall’s Chance, a historic house museum and the only museum in Prince George’s County in Maryland interpreted from the perspective of a woman, Lettice Lee.
Courtney recognized that the narrative focused solely on the white elite woman of the household, and relegated discussion of slavery, and the important women of color within this household, to the kitchen. She has sought to reconfigure this narrative to include the women of the Davis-Bentley-Barton family, who were descendants of a white indentured Englishwoman named Mary Davis and a black slave, Domingo, who married during the colonial period. By law, their daughters inherited their parents’ enslaved status. For three generations, the Davis, Bentley, and Barton women sought means to petition the courts for their freedom.
Over the course of her work, Courtney faced several challenges, including scarce historical evidence and archival exclusivity, due to who had the power, historically, to control past narratives. She had to use the records of elite white slaveowning men from Maryland to glean much of the story of these influential women.
Courtney’s efforts brought a new and more complex narrative to the women’s history interpretation at Darnall’s Chance. However, after she left the position for a career with the Maryland Humanities Council, the interpretive narrative that resulted from her research efforts ceased to be used on tours, due to claims that the small museum did not have the staffing and resources to maintain the narrative. Courtney has been frequently encouraging the staff to find means to maintain the narrative. Meanwhile, she has shared her newfound knowledge in an article entitled, “A Mother’s Inheritance: Women, Interracial Identity, and Emancipation in Maryland, 1664-1820,” on the blog, “O Say Can You See: Early Washington D.C., Law, and Family,” even correcting misinformation she had found there.
Courtney’s presentation was particularly meaningful to me as I conduct my own research. I have been attempting to uncover the experiences of several mixed-race students of European and African descent who attended St. Xavier College in the antebellum period, but no records from their perspectives endure, at least that I can find. Even the records of their educators say little about them, perhaps intentionally, since the school was teaching them illegally despite the region’s hostility to the presence of people of color. Like Courtney, I struggle to glean a hidden account of these mixed-race enslaved individuals from the records of the white male elite. Courtney’s stories of the challenges of doing so, but her ultimate successes, have inspired me to explore new ways to read between the lines as I research, and to not give up despite setbacks in uncovering a hidden narrative. She has further motivated me to question the popular narratives at any institution or site at which I may work in the future, and to investigate what important stories may remain untold.