If you had to choose one or two favorite historic sites, which ones are they and what about them interested you?
The Levi Coffin House in Fountain City, Indiana hands down was the best visit to a historic site I have ever experienced. The site is captivating because Levi Coffin was such a significant figure in the underground railroad (he was often dubbed “president of the underground railroad”). He wrote about his anti-slavery work, providing fascinating documentation of events that took place at the house and other typical experiences of those working with or escaping through the underground railroad. More than 2,000 people passed through this house on their way to freedom. That fact alone makes standing in the house a moving experience. However, it is made more meaningful by experiencing the design of the house, built to be not only his and his wife Catherine’s home, but an ideal station on the underground railroad with specially concealed hiding places and more than one entrance/exit to every room to allow escaping slaves to avoid capture by exiting through one door while a slave catcher searching for them entered through the other. You gain a heightened understanding of the danger of escape from slavery and the reality of the Fugitive Slave Act which made it impossible for enslaved people to securely find freedom anywhere in the United States, regardless of whether it was a “free” state.
Which, if any, historic sites have you worked at? What was your job?
I was an archivist at the Mary McLeod Bethune Council House, an historian developing public programs and exhibits for several sites in Prince George’s County, MD, a curator and director of visitor services at the Supreme Court of the United States, and the manager of African American initiatives at Colonial Williamsburg.
If you’ve worked at a historic site, what is one challenge of running a historic site that most people would be surprised to learn?
I have worked with several sites (the Supreme Court, parts of Colonial Williamsburg, and some of the sites in Prince George’s County) that are actively in use as people’s homes, places of worship, or of business. This presents numerous challenges for interpretation and visitation that visitors tend to be unaware of. Colonial Williamsburg, for example, is comprised of numerous buildings, many of which are private residences or staff offices. Visitors often walked into my office thinking it was a site to tour. Those who live at Colonial Williamsburg have similar experiences of visitors coming to their door, trying to enter their home, and constantly visiting their yards and gardens, which are open to the public. Perhaps the most surprising challenge at Colonial Williamsburg was that having an office on the main street, Duke of Gloucester street, or living in one of the houses on that street, means that you can’t have anything “modern” in the windows facing the street so that the idea of an 18th century environment is not too marred for guests. For me personally working in the heat of Virginia, one consequence of this was that the only type of air conditioner I could have in my office was a fairly inefficient and very loud floor sitting model with a somewhat inconspicuous tube that vents out a window. In general, I would say people are surprised by the concealing of modern necessities at historic sites, which is always a challenge. AC and heating vents being placed in fireplaces and other inconspicuous crevices, creative lighting, or the lack of all of the above often come as a surprise.
What is a history site you hope to visit some day?
What?? You are going to force me to choose just one?!?!? I will cheat a bit and mention one that I hope to see but feel chances are slim that I ever will, the Forbidden City in Beijing, China, and one that I fully intend to get to at some point, Taos Pueblo in New Mexico. I chose to mention these two out of the many other possibilities because I think they help to illustrate the incredible variety of what is out there to be discovered at historic sites. Taos Pueblo is a still actively inhabited village that has been in existence for over 1,000 years. The Forbidden City was the imperial palace in China for almost 500 years. They are vastly different from each other, and vastly different from any of the sites I have visited thus far. There is at least one historic site out there to interest everyone!
Why do you think people should visit historic sites?
Experiencing historic places in person affords an understanding of events and people that can’t be gained in any other way. No matter how many accounts I have read or heard, or how many times I have seen the news coverage in a documentary film of the march from Selma to Montgomery, nothing compares to being at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in person and seeing the view marchers had as they headed across the bridge. You understand the perspective of the marchers in a whole new way when you see for yourself how far they had to come before they could see the police lying in wait with billy clubs ready and you witness that there really was no place to go to escape. There is nothing I ever read and no documentary film that I have seen that provides the same sense of the life and work of Clara Barton that visiting her home in Glen Echo, MD has the power to impart. Seeing how she lived and where she lived conveys just how deeply enmeshed she was in her work and how thoroughly her life was committed to it. You emerge from these experiences with a completely different understanding of the historic figures, significant events, and daily life in other periods.
Our favorite history places is a new feature on Historyplaces where I ask my public historian friends to talk about their favorite history sites and share some of the challenges they face presenting history to visitors. If you’re a public historian and you’d like to be featured, please contact me.