2014 Fieldwork Day 4

Not a whole lot new to report from yesterday. I’m writing during breakfast at the Fairfield Inn in south Baton Rouge.

Yesterday, the first thing I did after writing up the notes from Thursday at Natchez Coffee was to tour the William Johnson house. Johnson in and of himself is a counter narrative to commonly assumed notions of slavery in the Deep South—Johnson and his mother were freed by his (white) father, and Johnson became a middle class free African American in Natchez’s community of around 200 free blacks, who were either former slaves from nearby plantations or Haitians who fled Haiti after the successful slave rebellion. Johnson eventually owned four barbershops in Natchez, serving mainly the upper class white community, and he even owned slaves himself at one point. The National Park Service, which owns and operates the house museum, pointed out that Johnson never says much in his dairy about owning slaves, despite being formerly being one. They hypothesize that Johnson was well aware of how free black were constantly under white suspicions because of their potential to foment slave rebellions, especially after the Nat Turner rebellion. Johnson also knew that by owning slaves he could provide for them a safer existence than life on a white owned plantation.

The museum itself consists of the renovated downstairs—the NPS information desk, small bookstore, and several informational panels and displays—and a few rooms in the upstairs that shows the main living quarters of the Johnson family.

After that, I said goodbye to Natchez and drove down to Baton Rouge. I stopped in for a quick lunch (without intending to, at the same exit as my hotel) then continued on to Donaldsonville, across the river. In Donaldsonville, I stopped at the River Road African American Museum to investigate it’s potential as a sight of counter memory. I think it was David Butler who originally brought it to Derek’s attention, who then in turn suggested it to me. The museum literally is four rooms in an old house that tells the story of slavery and emancipated life in the River Road area through a collection of a artifacts, news clippings, home-made (by which I mean not professionally printed) signs, etc. The museum is a noteworthy addition to the River Road area’s stunning number of plantations simply because it exists to tell the stories of black life in the area. Like many small, local museums, it does suffer from a lack of funding but their is potential (and certainly the spirit/desire from its owner) to be so much more.  I ended up spending around a half hour in the museum, with only one employee/volunteer(?) there in the house. As I have been doing at all of the sites I’ve been visiting, I took dozens of photographs of the museum’s collection to aid me in further processing/dissecting/evaluating/whatever else needs to be done later for publication and dissertating.

The plan for Saturday (today, as I’m writing it) was to tour the two main plantations that the research team has been studying for a number of years now—Laura and Oak Alley—to see, basically, what is done on these plantation tours and to experience first-hand the sites that I’ve heard and read about from the research team over the last year as I’ve become a part. I’ll update more about that later.

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