UnEarthing the Enslaved at Locust Grove

Today’s post comes from our Spring 2019 intern, Rebecca Wishnevski. As part of our ongoing efforts to interpret the lives of the enslaved at Locust Grove more fully, Rebecca’s intern project required her to research slave life, at Locust Grove and beyond, and develop a plan for re-interpreting an enslaved residence at Locust Grove. Within the scope of this project, Rebecca hoped to find ways to return dignity and agency to the men, women, and children who were enslaved at Locust Grove and to tell their stories. Here’s Rebecca with a reflection on her goals and her research.

rebecca wishnevski sits on stairs

Rebecca Wishnevski, Locust Grove Spring 2019 intern

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When I first began my internship at Locust Grove, I had no idea that it would lead me to a warehouse full of boxes of artifacts in the bowels of the University of Louisville’s archaeology building. That’s where I was in early May with Mary Beth Williams our Curator of Education and Collections, and Hannah Zimmerman, our Marketing Coordinator. We were touring the University of Louisville’s new archaeology building in Portland.

As a graduate intern at Locust Grove, I am gaining experience as a docent and interpreter, but most importantly, I am conducting research. My specific research project focuses on the narrative of the enslaved; what their daily lives looked like, what the interior of an enslaved dwelling would look like, and how to approach the delicate subject of the institution of slavery here at Locust Grove. After all of the research, I created an updated interpretive plan of an enslaved dwelling for the space which is currently interpreted as the woodshop.

black and brick building with lettering reading "Anthropology"

The University of Louisville Anthropology building in the Portland neighborhood.

For months most of my internship consisted of sitting behind a desk sifting through dissertations, the Croghan’s inventory records, oral histories from the Waters family, and the records of the archaeological digs of the enslaved dwellings conducted in the summers of 1987, 1988, and 1989. The University of Louisville’s archaeological field team, under the supervision of Dr. Joseph Granger, conducted these excavations. Each summer focused on one of the three remaining enslaved dwelling sites labeled now as the South, Central, and North enslaved cabins. After looking through the writings and talking with archeologists such as Lori Stahlgren and Dr. Jay Stottman (who actually participated in one of the enslaved dwelling digs at Locust Grove), I gained a deeper understanding of how important the artifacts recovered during these digs would be in the updated interpretation of the enslaved dwelling.

Because the digs were conducted by the University of Louisville’s field team, and ocust Grove’s limited collection space, the artifacts from the digs are housed at the University of Louisville. As a graduate student at the University of Louisville, I asked individuals in the History department where one could access these artifacts. After talking with Dr. John Hale, a field archaeologist and professor at the University, I was introduced to Dr. Thomas Jennings, the director of the new archaeology center in Portland.
After aligning schedules, Mary Beth, Hannah, and I were finally seeing Locust Grove’s immense collection of artifacts. While the collection is vast, with the help of Dr. Jennings we were able to decipher which boxes were relevant to the 1987-1989 digs, searching specifically for items that would have been unique or significant to the Locust Grove enslaved community. Even though we looked through plenty of shattered glass, ceramics, and plate shards, we were also able to find items that historians and archaeologists alike believe to have been extremely significant to the enslaved. One of these items was an old Chinese coin with a square hole in the center of it. Coins of this nature could have been worn as charms or amulets, and because they were not United States tender, would not have been offensive to white masters or overseers. We also found a silver teaspoon clearly marked with an “X” on the base of its handle. Items such as spoons, stones, and coins marked with an “X” have been found on sites where enslaved individuals dwelled.

Historians believe this “X” to be a sacred cosmogram related to the BaKongo religion of West Africa. The “X” markings use the cardinal directions to show the intersections of the living world (North), spirit world (South), birth (East), and death (West). Artifacts with the “X” markings have been found on other enslaved sites in the Louisville area and across the United States where slavery was prevalent. While we cannot prove definitively that the enslaved at Locust Grove were solely practicing the BaKongo religion from these artifacts, these items do show that the enslaved had something many of their white overseers and masters did not believe possible: individual agency.

 

One of my favorite things about this project is its implications about the enslaved at Locust Grove. While holding that silver teaspoon in the archaeology building in Portland, I was reminded of how amazing and remarkable the enslaved were here at Locust Grove. Even within the psychological and physical torment of the institution of slavery, the enslaved at Locust Grove were able to maintain their individuality, create life ways for themselves and their families. These community connections gave them resources that could not be broken, even in bondage, and may not have been understood by a white master or overseer.

I know it’s tough to tackle the issue of slavery, especially with the public. But it is a subject that desperately needs to be discussed, especially at historic sites like Locust Grove. While it can be easy to mentally disregard the enslaved individuals at Locust Grove as a product of the time or part of the backdrop of the historic home, Locust Grove would not have been what it was without their contributions through cooking, craftsmanship, childrearing and forced labor. This is an extremely exciting time for our historic house museum because another chapter of our history is currently being revealed! The narrative is changing, and the exciting part is that Locust Grove is committed to changing with it. In the words of Dr. Ibrahima Seck, Director of Research at The Whitney Plantation in Louisiana, “Shame about the past too often fills the space that should be held for knowledge. Knowledge of the past, must play its part in our liberation from the bonds of the past.” As for myself, I consider it an honor to have uncovered a few lines of the story of the enslaved through my internship here at Locust Grove. I hope to walk alongside you as we continue in our search for knowledge, and liberation from the past.

***

Rebecca presents her research to staff and volunteers at Locust Grove.

Rebecca, thank you for your time, tenacity, and commitment to researching the enslaved at Locust Grove and for suggesting new ways to share their stories. Some of the artifacts from the Locust Grove archaeological collection are currently on view in the museum gallery.

If you are interested in learning more about the lives of the enslaved in the United States and at Locust Grove, join us for the Slave Dwelling Project at Locust Grove on August 23 and August 24. Joe McGill, an educator and interpreter and founder of The Slave Dwelling Project, will conduct a campfire conversation and overnight on Friday, August 23 at 6:30 pm that will consider what can be learned from the lives of the enslaved, particularly when sleeping where slaves slept and standing where slaves stood. On Saturday, August 24, McGill will hold a public lecture discussing his work with the Slave Dwelling Project, the economy of slavery, and the ways in which individuals and historic sites can change the narrative.

For more information or to make a reservation for these programs, please call 502-897-9845.

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