Thursday, June 27, 2013

Listening to the Stakeholder for the First Time

On April 28th CL organized a lunch and open forum on the grounds of the Hempstead House. Academics, board members, community leaders, Writers Block InK staff and students joined together with CL staff and project staff for an open ended discussion of the Hempstead House and Adam Jackson. Allegra Di Bonaventure began the discussion with highlights from her amazing book, For Adam’s Sake A Family Saga in Colonial New England. She told us how she was unexpectedly sucked into Adam’s story.

Ernie Hewett, CT State Representative and former Mayor of New London, picked up the discussion relating his own family connection to slavery and how it resonates with him today. He spoke of attending a family reunion of the family that freed his ancestor and gave him land that is in Ernie’s family to this day. For Representative Hewett slavery is neither abstract nor simple.

Others spoke of the complex nature of colonial slavery and the tenuous position of free African Americans in colonial America. Adam’s parents’ constant struggle to remain free is an important lens through which to view Adam’s life. Adam lived at the Hempstead house within the 100 year period of slavery before there is even the idea of Abolitionism, and over 200 years before the civil rights movement. The sheer scale of Connecticut slavery and length of its slow decline must also be understood.

Of course all history stories are complex, especially to those that dedicate their lives to interpreting and understanding history, but what will speak to the average visitor?

One of the Writers Block InK students then spoke to the group of his own experience getting to know Adam Jackson last summer. He told us how he first felt uncomfortable and even a little ashamed of slavery. Over the summer this remarkable young man came to be enthralled and creatively inspired by Adam’s plight. For many of us this teenager’s insight spoke volumes. It pointed out how important it would be both to tell this story and to create a safe comfortable learning experience. It also illustrates that families may come to the site with preconceived ideas about colonial slavery and what it means to them.

Many historical narratives provide an opportunity for 4th graders to image a foreign world that once was, but for African American kids the history of slavery could be intertwined with their self-image.   Most young visitors would not have the opportunity to get to know our characters over a summer. If we are to be successful in engaging the community, visiting the Hempstead House must be a positive experience for even our youngest visitors.  

Louisa Brouwer is a material culture scholar who has recently written a revised four-period furnishing plan for the Joshua Hempsted House in New London, Connecticut. She currently works at the Yale University Art Gallery as the Sack Archives Fellow in the department of American Decorative Arts.

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