African Diaspora Archaeology

The past few years, and especially 2020, saw the reemergence of massive racial equality movements (i.e., Black Lives Matters).  The last time this type of movement was of such large scale and presence was in the 1960s during the Civil Rights Movement.

Map showing how worldwide African diaspora is because of the vast spread of the slave trade.

Not only did this movement help to move racial equality forward, but it also allowed for the rapid development of African diaspora archaeology.  One of the first African diaspora excavations was at the Kingsley Plantation in Florida conducted by Dr. Charles Fairbanks.  While his methods were not of the New Archaeology style that was emerging during this time, he was responding to the desires of the African American population to be included in the archaeological and historical record.  African diaspora is the study of the transatlantic slave trade, slavery, and post-emancipation society.  Like most archaeological investigations, it uses an interdisciplinary approach encompassing archaeology, anthropology, architectural history, landscape studies and more.  One of the most important aspects of African diaspora that is too often forgotten is the interpretations, oral histories, and information that can be gained from working with the descendant communities.

African diaspora is heavily rooted in politics.  The capture, treatment, and injustices suffered by the subjects of this archaeological discipline were imposed by a white supremacist political ideology.  Fairbanks’ excavation was conducted without a lens of politics (at least for the most part) because he tried to simply state the facts and provide science-based interpretations.  However, because the racism and extreme ideologies exist today, it is important to view archaeological research with some degree of political slant.  This will help guide interpretations and presentation of data in order to prevent extremist interpretations and combat negative stereotype perpetuations.  If only the data were given to a group of people, each one would have a different interpretation, some good, some bad, and some just plain nutty.

By nature, archaeologists bring the past into the present.  We rediscover forgotten memories of the past, such as the presence of slavery in northern area like Long Island, the lives of the enslaves populations,

Ruins of the slave houses at Kingsley Plantation

and the struggled of post-emancipation former slaves.  Our work can also help to explain the present through the past.  Christopher Matthews brought up an excellent point in his 2008 article in the African Diaspora Archaeology Newsletter.  He pointed out that while many homesteads and structures that were occupied by whites in the past are still be occupied and used today, but the structures and communities from African American past population are no longer visible, let alone being used (Matthews 2008: 3).  If the struggles of these people in the past are hard to find, how can their current struggles be made visible? History is an important part of reform and activism.  We can map the ideologies that formed racism and how that people are all the same.  By involving descendant communities in the interpretation of their own history, we give them a voice they might never have had and the authority to take claim of their past.

 

Preventing African diaspora from being seen can only hard activism, treatment of descendant communities, and perpetuate false and inaccurate history.  It is still unclear how the current political climate will impact archaeology as a whole and African diaspora archaeology.  I hope it will bring more light to these excavations and provide more incentive to include the descendant communities.  Only time will tell.

 

Matthews, Cristopher, N.

2008   Archaeology, Obama, and the Long Civil Rights Movement. African Diaspora Archaeology Newsletter 11(4): Article 3, 1-8.

https://scholarworks.umass.edu/adan/

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John Wesley Gilbert 1st Black Archaeologist

As many of us in the archaeology field are aware, there is a large disparity between the white (European ancestry) archaeologists and African American and descendant group archaeologists.  This is a pretty whitewashed field for one that studies so many different cultures.  Many organizations including the Black Trowel Collective and Society of Black Archaeologists are trying to diversify archaeology through outreach, education, and financial support. On the homepage of the Society of Black Archaeologists, there is a panel hosted by Ayana Flewellen on Archaeology in the Time of Black Lives Matter.  I highly recommend listening to it.  The link is here. In honor of Black History Month, this post will highlight a major figure in archaeological history, classical archaeology, and black history.

Photo of Gilbert Source: https://kentakepage.com/

John Wesley Gilbert (1864-1923) is considered the first black archaeologist in America and holds a number of other firsts.  He was the first black person to receive a master’s degree from Brown University in 1891, first black professor at Paine College, and the first person to map Eretria in Greece. Because of his passion for ancient languages, he attended the American School of Classical Studies in Athens (still active today) with a scholarship.  This was where he discovered, excavated, and mapped the ancient city of Eretria. When he returned to the US, he became a professor at Paine College.  He criticized the European based textbooks and education system, seeking a new system that would allow African American students to thrive.

Gilbert faced many struggles to even begin his

Gilbert and Pickard with an unknown Greek man at Eretria Source: https://www.ascsa.edu.gr/

education. He was born into a slave family in who were freed after the Civil War.  He lived with only his mother in Augusta, GA who worked as a domestic servant and Gilbert attended segregated public school.  He began his high school education at the Augusta Institute for black ministers and teachers.  Eventually, he attended Paine Institute where he was mentored by minister George William Walker who helped Gilbert attend Brown University. He became the first black student and one of the first 50 scholars to attend the American School of Classical Studies in Athens where he explored Greece and along with John Pickard excavated and mapped Eretria and the tomb of Aristotle.

Gildert’s map of Eretria Source: https://www.ascsa.edu.gr

This highly accomplished man not only paved roads for future African American archaeologists but also provided valuable information about classical Greece and spent his life inspiring and teaching others, specifically a wealth of languages.  Among his students were Channing Tobias and John Hope who would become leaders of the NAACP. His accomplishments also extend past archaeology.  Between 1911 and 1912, Gilbert went on a mission trip to the Belgian Congo where he translated the New Testament from Ancient Green to Tetela.  He was also an active patriot during World War I.

With this very impressive history and achievements in archaeology, I would have expected to have learned about Gilbert in the classics-based ungraduated archaeology program.  While I do not remember all the archaeologists I learned about during that time, I am pretty sure that Gilbert was not mentioned or possibly only mentioned in passing.  This is a shame and should be fixed in the future.  I even attended an excavation hosted by the American School of Classical Studies in Athens, where his major accomplishments were done and heard nothing.  One of the main ways to encourage others to pursue fields such as archaeology is to provide role models.  While anyone can be a role model, those that are most effective are often the ones that come from similar backgrounds as the up-and-coming archaeologists.  Female archaeologists inspire female students, indigenous archaeologists inspire indigenous students, and black archaeologists inspire black students.  The more visible minority groups are and the more their accomplishments are appreciated the more inspiring their story.

For more information:

John Wesley Gilbert: The first African-American Archaeologist

https://www.ascsa.edu.gr/news/newsDetails/john-wesley-gilbert-room

John Wesley Gilbert (1863-1923)

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The Mere Distinction of Colour

Montpelier is mostly known for its association with President James Madison.  However, the site has created a new exhibit called The Mere Distinction of Colour focused on the lives of slaves living at the site.  “This provocative, multimedia exhibition, offers visitors the opportunity to hear the stories of those enslaved at Montpelier told by their living descendants, and explore how the legacy of slavery impacts today’s conversations about race, identity, and human rights.” This exhibit, located in the Cellar of the site, aims to educate the public on how slavery impacted individuals, their families, descendants, and the entire history and development of the United States.

 

“We have seen the mere distinction of colour made in the most enlightened period of time, a ground of the most oppressive dominion ever exercised by man over man” – James Madison, 1787

The exhibit opened to the public on June 4, 2017.  Both historical and archaeological research was used to create this holistic story of America and those enslaved humans whose stories are rarely told.  The emotional and evocative story is told through letters, documents, artifacts, and art, to not only tell the story of the Montpelier slaves but also the full legacy of slavery in the United States and its impact on the world we live in today.

History and archaeology cannot ignore the ugly histories.  Slavery was a large and impactful part of American history that is often glossed over or told in simple black-and-white terms.  Because of this, the real stories of those enslaved peoples are not told.  These stories are just as important to understanding our past as James Madison’s story.  Archaeologists can use the formation of slavery and interactions between the races to combat modern notion of race and racism.  Slavery and its role in American history is more than the black and white picture history classes portray.  The archaeological finds used in the exhibit and Heather Lash’s thesis debunk some of the myths associated around the daily lives of slaves.  In doing this, these people are given their agency, personalities, thoughts, dreams, and voices back.

“This isn’t African American history, it’s American History” – Hugh Alexander, descendant

 

For more information about The Mere Distinction of Colour exhibit, visit Montpelier.org.

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Information, Videos, and Image from Montpelier.org