I don’t mean the ice dams and icicles that plagued the house and streaked the service ell’s windows as they melted: I mean change.
I’m reading The Half Has Never Been Told (it kept selling out, so I only just got a copy), and thinking about the representation of a past that people would rather forget, and sometimes actively deny in the North– and the South, as you will tell from reading African-American History Fail.
Change in historic houses can be glacially-paced, as staff and docents alike resist changes to interpretation. Resistance to change is usually about comfort and confrontation, especially when the change is large.
I get that: Oh no, new stuff to learn. What was wrong with what we did before? But docents and staff get comfortable and loose sight of the context of the content they present. They say some interesting stuff.
Most jaw-dropping of all: Sometimes I like to pretend I’m Mrs Owner of the House. That one was creepy, to me. But it did give me some insight into the “ooh, wish I lived here” backwardly aspirational tour motivation.
How would you feel if living here meant you owned and traded slaves? Defended the slave trade in Congress? If a small girl had the care of your horses? We don’t ask those specific questions, but I think we need to. Slavery is slavery.
In the 1790 census of Rhode Island, there are 948 slaves, representing 1.3% of the population. That would be 13,000 people of Rhode Island’s total population today, less than the city of Central Falls (19,383 in the last census, and one of our smallest towns).
We think it’s a small number, but to those 948 people, being enslaved was everything. I don’t necessarily want to make our visitors feel personal guilt about slavery– that’s up to them–but I do want to them to think about what slavery meant, and what it did, as an economic system.
I want visitors to understand that the beauty of the house they see is built in part on the ugly and forced exploitation of a class of people. If they relate that to the rest of the world they inhabit today, even better. I think we owe at least this much to every site where enslaved people worked or lived.