“I was born a slave on a plantation in Franklin County, Virginia . . . My life had its beginning in the midst of the most miserable, desolate, and discouraging surroundings.”
—Booker T. Washington, Up From Slavery, 1901
The landscape at the Booker T. Washington National Monument has a nostalgic beauty. A portion of the original slave plantation, now a living-history farm, rolls out green and lush, the reconstructed historic outbuildings picturesque against the trees and the small tobacco plot kept farmed for interpretive, educational purposes. The bucolic landscape of Washington’s birthplace is a kind of illusion, however. A trick of time. Absent the past’s enslaved workers, the picture-postcard views distort the site’s legacy, the very reason why these acres have been preserved. A visitor who drove to this National Park past the nearby strip malls and gas stations might think this wasn’t such a bad place to live and work, here in these green fields. Maybe this wasn’t the worst place to be trapped.
Look at that vegetable garden with its rough handmade fence and those chickens scratching in the dirt, and there, oh my god, the adorable authentic heritage lambs.
Even the recreation of the twelve-by-sixteen-foot cabin where Washington’s family lived can belie the daily misery and degradation of slavery with the old-timey charm of its hewn log construction. You must step inside to discover the absence of the most minimal makings of a home: no beds, no dressers, no cupboards. These were not necessary in the absence of comfort, extra clothes, or ample food.
At the Booker T. Washington National Monument, the National Park Service staff decided they needed a new exhibit for the visitor center, as a deliberate counterpoint to all this loveliness. I was hired as the exhibit’s content developer and writer.
My design team colleagues and I were charged with interpreting the first nine years of Washington’s childhood on this farm, where he was born and lived in slavery with his mother, brother and sister—and where they were all freed. That’s the reason this site has been preserved. Of course, if every child enslaved were memorialized on the land where they toiled, the National Park Service would be managing a huge swath of the southern United States from Virginia down to Florida and across to Texas. We interpret this site because Washington, born enslaved, accomplished more with his life than most of us born into freedom ever will.
Even though I’d already worked on dozens of exhibits, I worried, as usual, about getting the story wrong. Not factually wrong. I had plenty of experts to guide me. Narratively wrong.
Getting it wrong for the school children and the Civil War enthusiasts, for the tourists collecting stamps in their NPS passports and for the heirs of white supremacy. For the Civil War apologists and the descendants of the enslaved.
Even the most well-intentioned history exhibit is a reduction, by design. A distillation from complexity. We can’t fit a book-length biography into an exhibit of only 500 square feet, and wouldn’t want to. We must consider not only the limits of physical space but of visitors’ attention—standing, reading, walking, corralling (hungry) kids—and how to fashion for them a compelling and focused narrative from the chaos of history.
And yet, the challenge is that we need to open up, not reduce, the stories of slavery. For too long these accounts have been obscured by racist-driven neglect and the supremacy of Confederate heritage, even at the National Park Service.
” . . . wherever people act upon the idea that the disadvantage of one man is the good of another, there slavery exists.” —Washington’s “An Address on Abraham Lincoln before the Republican Club of New York City,” 1909
Twenty or even ten years ago you could visit a National Park Service Civil War battlefield site and never know that slavery was the primary cause of the Civil War. You could learn the minutiae of battlefield tactics and strategies, the numbers of dead, and the litany of their gruesome injuries, without ever confronting the question of what they were fighting and dying for, and why the states had gone to war against each other in the first place.
This oversight was originally a legacy from when the country’s War Department managed most military parks. The focus on military interpretation continued when the sites were transferred to the National Park Service in 1933. But that’s certainly not the only reason why this omission continued for over sixty years.
Within several years of losing the war, former President of the Confederacy Jefferson Davis embarked on a remarkable revisionist campaign, asserting in the pages of his excessively long memoir and from the stages of his lecture tours that the War for Southern Independence, of Northern Aggression, of the Late Unpleasantness, was not fought over slavery. No matter that many of the southern states’ declarations of secession named the preservation of slavery as their reason for leaving the Union. As just one example, Mississippi’s declaration of secession gets right to it in the second sentence: “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery—the greatest material interest of the world.” This document goes on to use the word “slave” or “slavery” six more times.
After the war, the freed people of African descent, now legal citizens rather than property, were still oppressed and were vastly outnumbered and outflanked in the battle to record a version of events. The newly freed and even those who had been free but not fully enfranchised had thousands of stories to tell about slavery and the war, but they didn’t have Davis’s platform.
Well into the 20th century, white scholars dismissed the historical value of slave narratives for being “inauthentic” and “biased.” Historian David Blight has described how post-Civil War historians of American slavery “did not acknowledge that slaves left any legitimate testimony on the character and meaning of their own lives.” Even the foundational American memoir Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass was out of print for nearly a century until Harvard University Press published a modern edition in 1960.
Only by the end of the 20th century did the National Park Service, prodded by Congress and its own interpreters and historians, start to question whose histories it was choosing to carry forward and whose to leave behind. A report from the 1998 Conference of Battlefield Managers described a new direction for interpretation at Civil War battlefield sites:
“We have an inclination to tell the story of the literate, the enfranchised, or the landed—those whose thoughts and actions are generally recorded in the historical record. We do magnificent resource-based interpretation of the use of antebellum manors by armies during the war, but little of the owners, slaves and servants who peopled and operated those sites prior to and during the war. . . . The result: interpretation that is biased racially and socio-economically.”
I read about an NPS superintendent who gave a speech in which he “mentioned that slavery ‘might’ have been a cause of the Civil War.” The public response revealed that not all Americans are pleased at the National Park Service’s shift in interpreting the war. Within a few weeks of the speech “1,100 cards and letters were sent to the secretary of the interior demanding that [the superintendent] either resign or be fired.”
Imagine, more than a thousand American citizens flourished a bitter pen because a park superintendent dared name slavery as a possible cause of the war. Even though the National Park Service now definitively and repeatedly names slavery as the national crime that tore the country apart, the desperate scrabble to reframe America’s 19th-century self-portrait is relentless.
” . . . my whole life has largely been one of surprises. I believe that any man’s life will be filled with constant, unexpected encouragements of this kind if he makes up his mind to do his level best each day of his life–that is, tries to make each day reach as nearly as possible the highwater mark of pure, unselfish, useful living.” —Up From Slavery
Washington’s exhortations of self-reliance and forgiveness were, I’m sure, a balm to the white folks nervous about a black man so damned articulate, so ambitious on behalf of his people and so convinced of the mutual benefits of a racially integrated America.
Washington transformed Alabama’s Tuskegee Institute, formerly the Tuskegee Normal School, into one of the premiere schools for educating black citizens, many newly freed, in the post-Civil War years, and was conciliatory with the white power brokers and philanthropists who supported Tuskegee. He promoted an economics-based approach to black equality, which put him at odds with other African-American leaders such as W.E.B. Du Bois who pressed for political equality and legislative redress.
Washington knew the dangers of infuriating a white majority. His fellow citizens in Tuskegee’s Alabama carried on with burning black schools and churches, as if through fire they could destroy any evidence of a shared humanity with their black neighbors. He was certainly practiced, as were most African Americans, in hiding his true self from white people.
With the echoes of slavery rumbling through Reconstruction and Jim Crow, it’s not difficult to appreciate why Washington would construct a public face. Even Washington’s name was partly an invention, the title to his persona. Lacking a family name and believing that the newly freed should cast off their names from slavery, he chose the last name Washington, the name of the country’s white father (albeit a slave owner), to stand in for the name of his missing father, a man he never knew.
Washington remained circumspect about the challenges of running a black school amid such hostility, and downright secretive about his private life. When Washington’s first wife Fanny died at a fairly young age, his few public remembrances sound like slights in his overreaching to protect their privacy: “Perhaps the way in which Fanny was able to impress her life upon others most was in her extreme neatness in her housekeeping and general work.” And when his beloved second wife Olivia also passed at a young age from illness, he couldn’t express his feelings to his closest mentor, instead writing, “Few will ever know just what she was to Tuskegee and me. But I can not trust myself to write more now.”
Even as he sought and achieved public celebrity to further his cause and fund his school, Washington buttoned up his angers, his longings, and his losses beneath his elegant suit coat.
The face Washington presented to wealthy benefactors was certainly not the one he considered in the mirror, scraping a blade across the white mask of his morning’s shaving soap. He may have seen a man frustrated by the pace of change or exhausted from ignoring the daily slights suffered as a black man. Or maybe he saw a man disappointed in how little of himself he saved for his wife, or bemused with how much he was getting away with.
Was he startled again each morning not to see the eager sixteen-year-old Booker who arrived filthy and destitute on the steps of Hampton College after an arduous 300 mile trek, in possession of only his keen mind and determination to be educated? Washington alone knew.
Washington was a real man, yet he’s twinned to a constructed historical character deliberately created by Washington himself. In his many speeches and books he strung together words as if he knew he’d be quoted in perpetuity, as if he were consciously sculpting the public persona Booker T. Washington to be immortalized in museum exhibits.
Is it enough to know Washington through his public face? He remains more like a character than an individual. A role model, rather than just a man. The historic persona overtakes the person. Perhaps that’s what he intended all along: never to relinquish ownership of his true self.
* * *
At the outset of each exhibit project I speed-read as much foundational content as I can, as if cramming for an exam in a class I haven’t yet taken. I pick the brains of museum staff during meetings and phone calls, worried that as the content developer (but not content expert) and propelled by the project schedule, I’ll miss something and diminish the efforts of the larger exhibit team. The exhibit design process is a collaborative one, and our individual efforts tightly interdependent.
The exhibit designer configures and reconfigures the exhibit space, puzzling through different arrangements of thematic areas and exhibit elements, and the functional design of interactive exhibits, models, and object displays. The graphic designer creates the overall visual aesthetic, integrating imagery and text and often acting as a project’s art director. The entire team, including the project manager, brainstorms and develops iterations of the interactive exhibits, and we pair with specialty subcontractors, such as media producers, as a project requires.
By the time I started on the Booker T. Washington exhibit, I’d already worked on several exhibits that interpret slavery. From talking to park rangers I learned that some visitors to historic slave cabins will voice a mild protest when the conditions of slavery are described as a unique burden. These visitors insist that their white ancestors also lived difficult lives in shacks similar the slave cabins; they too were impoverished with barely any economic mobility.
Until I learned about these visitor comments I didn’t realize I’d have to explain in the exhibit text why slavery was worse than poverty. So I wrote about the unique nature of American slavery: that it was racial, lifelong, and passed down from generation to generation. Then, after describing the terrible physical conditions of slavery—unceasing labor, insufficient food and clothing, and brutal violence—I reminded visitors that enslaved people had no citizenship and no liberty. When they worked long hours under inhumane conditions they were putting food on someone else’s table and clothing someone else’s children. They couldn’t protect themselves or their loved ones. Free black men were kidnapped and sold into slavery and enslaved women were raped with impunity. The laws of our country allowed children to be taken from their parents and sold like livestock.
I harbor a petty resentment that I must devote a portion of my limited word count to addressing this—that slavery was more terrible than some would like to admit, and was, indeed, not only the cause of the Civil War, but the worst aspect of America. The park staff and I make sure that those who protest, still, that the War Between the States was fought over “states’ rights,” will know that the rights the seceding states demanded were the rights to own, retrieve, torture, rape, breed, buy, and sell people of African descent.
I must also follow the Editorial Style Guide of the National Park Service for writing exhibit text. While slave is the common label for people of African descent who lived under the American laws of slavery, enslaved is better, according to the 2015 NPS Style Guide: “Enslaved acknowledges the dignity of a human being; slave is a non-person, property.” For those who protest that this is nothing more than political correctness, think about it: if your parents had both died, would you prefer to be known strictly as foundling or orphan? If those parents of yours never married should you be forever labeled bastard? A slave is a person stripped of his or her personhood and identified only by the condition of slavery, imposed without consent.
The right words make the person visible within the experience. The preferred naming is: enslaved person or the enslaved. The park superintendent at Washington’s site preferred enslaved Africans or enslaved person of African descent to emphasize both the racial component of American slavery and people’s African heritage. It also made my task of adhering to strict word counts more challenging: slave is one word; enslaved person of African descent is five. Repeat that three times in a 75-word panel and 20 percent of my word allotment is taken. But that’s the point, in a way. Slave is shorthand, it’s incomplete. A slur, a diminution, an abbreviation of a person.
The National Park Service’s stance on language usage keeps evolving. While the 2011, 2013 and 2015 NPS Style Guides recommended enslaved over slave, in previous guides the words slave, enslaved, or slavery never appeared at all. The nuances of naming the enslaved were not addressed in Style Guides written fewer than ten years ago.
“I would permit no man, no matter what his color might be, to narrow and degrade my soul by making me hate him.” — Up From Slavery
Born Here, Freed Here. That’s the theme we created for the new exhibit. It’s the elemental take-away. Born, Here Freed Here printed on the colorful banners that parade up the drive.
To draw you out of your cars and toward the entrance, we broadcast field songs from the visitor center. The melodies of longing rise and fall over the steady work rhythms, easing your shift in perspective to the plantation’s past. Once in the lobby, the view of the farmland beyond the building and the distant squawks of the animals might beckon you out the back glass doors. But we hope instead to lure you down the hall to your left, towards a formal photographic portrait of a middle-aged Washington. He’s standing in an elegant coat, his right hand tucked under his lapel and his left holding papers, a suitable portrait for one the most influential American public figures of the late-19th and early-20th centuries. The photo looms over an almost-life-sized bronze statue of the enslaved boy he once was, barefoot and draped in a ragged shift (a statue we inherited from the park’s previous exhibit). We designed this paired display of the distinguished, celebrated man rising above his childhood self in slavery to pull you down the hall toward our new exhibit, and to illustrate Washington’s declaration that the man he became arose from his experience in slavery.
Who is the Booker T. Washington in the exhibit at the National Monument? He is the boy Washington describes in his memoir, poorly clothed and often hungry. On the Burrough family’s plantation he fetches water, weeds fields in the hot Virginia sun, and takes sacks of corn to the mill. He is the barefoot boy forbidden from learning to read, carrying the books of his slave holder’s daughter to school, the place he imagines as his most longed-for paradise. He stands by the supper table in the Burrough’s house, fanning away the flies as they eat their fill without regard for his hunger, and discuss their fears of black emancipation without a thought to his presence. He is a boy loved by his mother and siblings.
The adult Washington in our exhibit is the famous one: practical, assured, and tireless in his efforts. From his wretched childhood, he extracts what he needs and discards any bitterness that might hold him back. He is almost too good to be true. And yet no matter his masks, he was a real man.
So we let Washington speak to his own history. His memories form the spine of the exhibit and then we frame his memories with thematic areas that expand on the exhibit title: Born Here, Freed Here. Past the twinned portraits of Washington, you turn into the 500-square-foot exhibit space transformed with large, curved mural walls that create both a visual backdrop and a distinct path through these areas: Born Here, Lived Here, Enslaved Here, Dreamed Here, Freed Here, Remembered Here.
At each area, you’ll first read a quote from Washington, describing his childhood on this plantation. You can then choose to read the exhibit text printed across the murals’ custom illustrations depicting enslaved life. These 75- and 100-word text labels describe Washington’s specific experiences in slavery with his family, and how these fit in the broader historical context: the South’s economic dependence on slavery; the laws preventing enslaved people from being educated; the effects of the Civil War on the residents of Virginia plantations, blacks and whites; and how formerly enslaved Americans tried to started new lives after emancipation.
In a flipbook, you can turn pages to see copies of historic property inventories and census records that are paired with questions meant to provoke discussion: “Why were the ‘negro’ men, women and children listed in the plantation inventory and not in the census?”
Among the dozens of items inventoried in the 1861 plantation property inventory are:
Grind stone $1.50
16 fat hogs $128
1 negro boy [Bowker] $400
In the 1860 slave census you see Washington listed, unnamed, among the other enslaved people as:
Age 4, Male, Mulatto
But none of the enslaved are included in the same year’s federal census, which counted only white people.
You can listen to audio dramatizations voiced by actors, based on Washington’s writings. In one, you’ll hear the dinner table conversation among the Burroughs family members from the perspective of young Booker, who is fanning the flies from their meal. At another audio station you’ll listen to Washington’s recollections of the moment of emancipation, while you look through a window to the very spot out back where the enslaved people heard they were free. You may be thrilled to hear Washington’s actual voice in a recording of his speech at the 1895 Atlanta Cotton States and International Exposition.
Because the park wanted this exhibit to appeal to families and school children, we even designed seven interactives. This is a tricky business because we didn’t want to trivialize the experience of slavery but to guide you to an empathetic imagining of a life enslaved. In the design of the interactives we tried to show the resilience of those enduring the terrible conditions of slavery:
People who were forced into brutal, constant labor still made efforts to care for each other. At the “Hard Choices” interactive we ask if you would take a chicken to feed your children, as Booker’s mother did. And would you, as Booker’s older brother John did, wear the scratchy flax shirt Booker described as feeling like “a hundred small pin points” until it softened enough for Booker to wear.
At the interactive “What If You Couldn’t Read?” we ask you to sort tasks that could or couldn’t be done by enslaved people who were forbidden from learning to read. While they couldn’t write a letter, they could still learn, and could teach each other their lifetimes’ worth of experiences: to plant, to harvest, to cook, to sew, to build, to sing, to pray, to remember. Short of book learning, the plantation’s enslaved workers were often more knowledgeable about running the farm than the farm’s owners.
Others were able to deftly to glean valuable information, such as the movements of the Union Army, by eavesdropping on conversations. At the “What’s the News?” interactive, you can listen to audio snippets of conversations to try to piece together news of the larger world. As Washington wrote: “the man who was sent to the [post] office would linger about the place long enough to get the drift of the conversation from the group of white people who naturally congregated there . . .”
After emancipation, Washington built an extraordinary life. So we share highlights of his full life’s journey, etching his later memories into elegant, free-standing frosted glass panels. And when you look up, you’ll see Washington’s inspiring quotes on a banner that curves overhead like the ribbon tail of a kite.
When you admire the former plantation’s landscape, it is Washington, not us, who fills in the blanks, Washington who describes the roughness of his flax shirt, the ache in his hungry belly, the yearning of his unfulfilled desires.
“I have learned that success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life as by the obstacles which he has had to overcome while trying to succeed.”
—Up From Slavery
The park staff at the Booker T. Washington National Monument know very well that their landscape can work at odds with their primary goal of interpreting slavery. So in addition to the new visitor center exhibit, the park offers ranger-led activities, outdoor interpretive signs, an audio tour and, for special events, living-history actors-—all which tell the vital, hidden stories of this place. Reconstructing history is not always about burying the bones; it can be a revelation.
The park has researched and laid stones outlining the location of the home of the Burroughs, the white people who owned the plantation, with its land, livestock and enslaved people, including Washington and his family. Here the park has peeled away the years to make visible the landscape’s true face: its enduring power as an artifact of slavery and emancipation.
From Washington’s recollection in his book Up From Slavery, we know that he and the other enslaved people gathered in front of the Burroughs’ “Big House” the day a Union soldier arrived. The uniformed man stood on the front porch with members of the Burroughs family, and with only words from a piece of paper and the sound of his voice, backed by the law of the land, they were free.
Free men and women. Free boys and girls. Free families, if they were lucky enough to have survived slavery together. Free husbands and wives whose marriages were not recognized by law.
” . . we were told that we were all free and could go when and where we pleased. My mother . . . kissed her children while tears of joy ran down her cheeks. . . . this was the day for which she had been so long praying but fearing that she would never live to see.”
You can stand there, as I did, as visitors do, in the short grass in front of the stones that mark the outline of the Big House, where the sounds of pigs snuffling in the nearby pen mingle with the muffled noise of cars from the road beyond. You can stand in the precise spot where these people gathered all those years and a world ago. You might feel, as I did, a shiver not from the breeze, but from imagining the words that changed everyone’s narrative. When person-by-person, black and white, each life pivoted off that moment: slave owner to slave owner no more; enslaved person to citizen.
Any story about the past, public or private, is partly an invention. But it’s a useful invention, a necessary one. We peel away parts of the narrative that don’t hew to the theme and unveil those that have remain hidden too long, so that for a brief time we can settle on one particular story, in this place and time. Every act of historical storytelling is a type of revisionist history.
The Booker T. Washington exhibit shares with visitors a narrative that is nested within the one Washington created for public view, and which we, in turn, interpret in response to the shifting American narrative of slavery and the Civil War. None of these are constant. None are fixed. We bind the truths of the past, as well as we can understand them now, to the stories we need to tell.