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Bringing to the table: Engaging descendant communities in research at W&M

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     George R. Monroe, Jr. discusses family history with other researchers at James Monroe’s Highland.  Photo by Sara Bon-Harper/Courtesy Highland
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Jennifer Saylor Stacy’s favorite Thanksgiving dish is one that has been handed down for generations — an assembly of homemade cornbread, fresh vegetables, chicken, stock and lots of love, called “moose stuffing.” 

“I don’t know how it got that name,” Stacy said, “But my grandmother said it was passed down to her from her mother and, as a far as anyone knows, it’s always been called “moose stuffing.’”

Stacy and her mother, Ada Monroe Saylor, serve on the Council of Descendant Advisors for William & Mary's Highland, a historic site outside Charlottesville that was once the home of W&M alumnus and 5th U.S. President James Monroe — and home to Stacy and Saylor’s ancestors, who were enslaved by the Monroe family. Stacy’s sister, Gloria Saylor, who is a chef and food truck proprietor, will join the council next year.

“My grandmother used to talk a lot about making something out of nothing,” Stacy said. “The enslaved were given the scraps and they had to do their best to make a delicious, enjoyable meal. It speaks to the resilience of our people. They were given scraps, they made something out of nothing, and they survived. Not only did they survive, they taught those lessons to their children to make sure they would survive as well.” 

Stacy says the meals that were created by the enslaved, out of necessity, still have repercussions today. She points to high fat and calorie diets that have led Black Americans, especially Black women, to have the nation’s highest obesity rates. She says the health of her community today, and the health of those raising future generations, will require a transformation in thinking about food.

It’s why Stacy and The Highland Council of Descendant Advisors have partnered with William & Mary’s Institute for Integrative Conservation and the Highland site on a new research initiative to explore the history and legacy of Black foodways.

W&M students, faculty, staff and researchers will work with Highland’s descendant community to understand the ways in which the historic American plantation system established environmental and cultural conditions that are still influential today.

“One of our central goals at Highland is changing the future by changing the way history is presented to the public,” said Sara Bon-Harper, executive director of Highland. “This new project is layering on research by engaging the descendant community, engaging scholars and students, to think deeply about the traditions passed down from table to table over the generations and connect that with broader society, with ecology, to look at how the plantation system has shaped all of our lives and formed the current era that we're in ecologically, socially and economically.”

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Building ‘the rubric’

The Highland Council of Descendant Advisors was created after a group of 49 educators, curators, scholars, activists, museum and historic site professionals, and descendants of people who were once enslaved, gathered at James Madison’s Montpelier for the inaugural National Summit on Teaching Slavery during one weekend in February of 2018. Stacy’s cousin, George Monroe, Jr. and Bon-Harper were in attendance.

By the end of the weekend, the summit’s participants laid the framework for a document titled, “Engaging Descendant Communities in the Interpretation of Slavery at Museums and Historic Sites,” known colloquially as “the rubric.” The framework serves as scalable methodology that sites can utilize to engage descendant communities in their work. 

“The central idea was shared authority,” Bon-Harper said. “We came away from the summit fully understanding that the authority should not rest with the museum professionals, that it should be shared by a descendant community.”

The rubric generated by the summit produced a template for sites throughout the nation to follow — rooted in best practices for historical research, community dialogue, exhibition design, and historic preservation.

“The rubric represents a consensus of the thinking of a broad range of experienced professional site interpreters, scholars, and members of descendant communities, formalizing a methodology and evaluative criteria for true public engagement — an engagement with descendants that would allow accurate and equitable narratives of slavery and the enslaved,” Michael Blakey, W&M NEH professor of anthropology and American studies and director of the Institute for Historical Biology, wrote in the document.

“In the more than two decades since the term ‘descendant community’ was drawn from language of the National Historic Preservation Act and first applied as an empowering handle for African Americans who rallied to dignify the New York African Burial Ground, a struggle for the human right to memorialize and tell their own stories has continued to grow,” he wrote.

An institutional undertaking 

In departments and initiatives throughout William & Mary, efforts have been underway for nearly two decades to build up relationships with descendant communities and include their members as a vital part of the university’s research efforts.

In 2003, William & Mary anthropologists Martin Gallivan and Danielle Moretti-Langholtz started fieldwork at Werowocomoco, the capital of the Powhatan chiefdom in 1607. The town was the principal residence of paramount chief Powhatan and the location of encounters between Tidewater Algonquian leaders and English colonists from Jamestown.

In addition to tracing the history of the town, the research team focused on how archaeological practices change with the sustained involvement of contemporary Native communities. 

“From the beginning, the Werowocomoco research has been framed as a collaborative project, involving academic researchers, members of the Virginia Indian community, the general public, and the site’s owners,” explained Gallivan, a project lead and chair of William & Mary’s Anthropology Department. “Descendant community involvement has been an integral part of the Werowocomoco project from its inception.”

For over a decade, William & Mary has investigated its history of slavery, with the descendant and local community actively engaged in the work. In 2009, after student and faculty resolutions calling for a full investigation of William & Mary’s past, the Board of Visitors acknowledged that the university had “owned and exploited slave labor from its founding to the Civil War; and that it had failed to take a stand against segregation during the Jim Crow Era” and offered its support for the establishment of The Lemon Project: A Journey of Reconciliation.

The Lemon Project describes itself as “a multifaceted and dynamic attempt to rectify wrongs perpetrated against African Americans by William & Mary through action or inaction.” The project is an ongoing endeavor, which contributes to and encourages scholarship on the 300-year relationship between African Americans and the university, and building bridges between the university, descendant communities and the Williamsburg and Greater Tidewater area.

"Since its inception in 2009, the Lemon Project has intentionally engaged and collaborated with African American communities in Williamsburg and the greater Tidewater area to document more authentic narratives," said Jajuan Johnson, a postdoctoral research associate with the Lemon Project. "The project is a model for other community engagement initiatives at William & Mary and other Universities Studying Slavery Consortium institutions. My research, applying a community-based participatory approach to find enslaved, free, and freed persons and their descendants using genealogical research builds on the project’s research agenda to center the voices of our community stakeholders."

Since 2019, The Village Initiative, a grassroots organization focused on educational equity, has partnered with faculty and students at William & Mary on The Local Black Histories Project. This project originated in the local community as The Village hosted a series of oral history events to reflect on the complicated legacy of 50 years of school integration in Williamsburg-James City County. The Village then forged a partnership with W&M faculty and students to amplify this work.

W&M faculty and students work directly with a Community Advisory Board of 16 leaders in the Black descendant community who guide the research priorities, participate in data collection, and collaborate with the analysis and presentation of the data.

On Nov. 14, The Local Black Histories Project website was launched, which is an open educational resource housing an online archive of oral histories and curated exhibits that illuminate the experiences of the local Black community. In just two years, 44 W&M students have worked alongside community members to contribute research, analysis, writing and design of the archive and curated exhibits. The goal is to put these resources in the hands of the community and K-12 teachers to incorporate into their classrooms.

“Having the descendant community lead this project is important,” explained Jacqueline Bridgeforth Williams, founder and director of The Village Initiative, “because it is us telling our stories. From the time that we were brought over here during slavery, everything about us has been owned or controlled by someone else, our stories have been told by someone else. This is something we own — we own the stories and the project. We often watch our history being told from another angle, another side. Now we get to tell the story from our side. It gives our community a sense that our history matters and we belong.”

William & Mary has recently launched the W&M Bray School Lab, a ground-breaking and innovative partnership between William & Mary and The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation with the shared goal of uncovering, documenting, preserving, and disseminating the history and legacy of the Williamsburg Bray School, an 18th-century school dedicated to the religious education of enslaved and free Black children.

The Bray School Lab will engage research teams that will include undergraduate and graduate students, post-doctoral fellows, and community members to incubate and scale innovative social justice scholarship, in collaboration with descendants of Bray School students and other partners. 

"The Bray School Lab is a most exciting venture, one that is rooted in research and community partnership,” said Maureen Elgersman Lee, director of the W&M Bray School Lab and the university’s Mellon Engagement Coordinator for African American Heritage. “We will explore the history of the Williamsburg Bray School (1760-1774) as founded by The Associates of Dr. Bray and managed by local leaders. More importantly, however, is the work we will do to identify and restore to history the Bray School students and their familial legacies. The Lab seeks to engage the power of storytelling — in all its forms — to enlarge the narrative of African American history, education, and culture."

In 2019, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation awarded William & Mary a $1 million grant to support inclusive research, teaching and community engagement around the legacies of slavery and racism.

The five-year grant was designed to fund several key initiatives, including community-led research into the legacies of slavery at William & Mary and James Monroe’s Highland, an oral history project that documents the untold stories of descendants of enslaved men and women, new historical exhibits and university-wide courses that promote inclusion and civil discourse.

“The William & Mary campus was built and maintained by dozens, if not hundreds, of enslaved people, including children,” said Mellon Foundation President Elizabeth Alexander. “By partnering with their descendants to conduct new research and share it widely with the public, William & Mary demonstrates how building meaningful partnerships can move communities towards reconciliation and lift up histories that have not yet been fully understood.”