Category Archives: PhD

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.

2014 Fieldwork Notes: Day 3

Sorry these notes didn’t get posted yesterday. I actually had time to sit and think (and write in a notebook) during my lunch and dinner yesterday. Today (Friday) I’m eating breakfast at the Natchez Coffee Company, which I popped into yesterday afternoon for some cold coffee (IT’S HOT AROUND HERE!) and they have free wifi, so I’m working on typing up my notes from yesterday.

Frogmore Plantation – Lynette Turner, owner & main tour guide

(Written while eating lunch at Pearl Street Pasta, just around the corner from the Natchez African American Museum—also sometimes referred to as the Af. Am. History and Culture Museum).

This moring I went to Frogmore Plantation, just across the river in Concordia Parrish. When I showed up, I was the first car—and sitting right out front was a BIG tour bus with a Wisconsin Badger on the side. Turns out, a large group of (white) retirees from Wisconsin was doing a group tour (ironically? with their black bus driver), so I just joined them part-way in to their tour. The tour itself lived up to the expectations generated by their website, which mentions slavery front and center. The two tour guides I interacted with were all well-informed about the history of slavery in the area and what life was like on the plantation. Particularly noteworthy was the co-owner (Lynette, owns the farm with her husband Buddy—may want to interview her in the future, but I would need an IRB for this). Lynette has apparently conducted quite a bit of archival research (and read numerous books/anthologies on slavery, many of which are worked into the tour narrative) and has written a book on plantation life and slavery. (Didn’t catch the name of this book, but I can email for more information.) The tour includes (first and foremost NOT the “big house” because it is still being used for the Turners to live in) several historical structures including the overseer’s house, the slave kitchen and quarters, a church built on the property, the smokehouse, etc., before moving on to the 1880s-era cotton gin. The Wisconsonites also toured the modern ginning operations, so I finished up with the part of the tour I missed at the beginning. While one of the tour guides (the one other than Lynette—didn’t catch her name) described the overall nature of the tour as not being a “slaves and (in?) shackles” tour, it was obvious that the operation paid a lot of attention and time to telling the slaves’ story. (Some thoughts on this: maybe easier for the Turners to tell these stories because they are not descendants of the original white plantation-owning family. Buddy leased the farm and later purchased it from descendants.) In the video that was supposed to start the tour, Lynette explains that not all of the structures were original to the property, but when the decided to restore and open the structures for touring, they searched in Louisiana and Mississippi for additional structures to purchase and move to their property. She discussed the difficulties of work in the fields…and referenced several books I need to investigate.

Other things: they have used 12 Years a Slave (the book) for 16 years as a part of their tours. Somewhat sad to see how slavery has been so Hollywood-ized through films like this, but accept the fact that at least the films put slavery more into the public consciousness. Something to think about for the slavery in the media paper this fall.

Natchez African American Museum – David Dreyer, Local historian and volunteer museum curator/docent

  • One of the earliest exhibits in the museum (it’s grown quite piecemeal over the years) is a look at middle class black life, not necessarily sharecropping. Pieces donated by Natchez African American community, reflects the fact that many were not sharecroppers, even if their grandparents had been.
  • Need to check out Richard Wright’s books! (Local to Natchez, quite famous author)
  • “We will shoot back” ­– investigate the Deacons of Defense (as counter-narrative to the common stories of the Civil Rights Movement)
  • Slavery of Native Americans – first slaves in the Natchez area under the French (lot of French tourists to Natchez). Africans were later brought as slaves, first from Mali (Bamara Tribe, I believe.)
  • Discussion of “what should be shown? What should be included in the museum?” curators struggle over this.
  • US Colored Troops ­– counter-narrative to Civil War narratives
  • Mississippi in Africa – book by Alan Hoffman
  • Prince among Slaves (and documentary film about it) ­– includes David Dreyer as a commentator
  • Liberia’s Declaration of Independence ­– read this for reference

So, it’s a good thing I’m writing a paper on popular media accounts of slavery later on this year —David and the Frogmore people discussed Hollywood films and the impressions of slavery that viewers get from them. Particularly relevant (in these parts) is 12 Years a Slave because Solomon Northup was enslaved in a nearby part of Louisiana, and a cabin from the Epps plantation is on the campus of LSU Alexandria.

2014 Fieldwork Notes: Day 2

There’s not a whole, whole lot new to report today. Kind of like yesterday, I spent something like five to six hours in the car driving across western Alabama and all of Mississippi. Along the way I popped into Tuscaloosa to photograph three historical markers for the Alabama marker program paper. Tuscaloosa was a convenient place to stop because it has three of the scant few markers in Alabama that even give slavery a mention. Montgomery has a handful, too, so that’s why it’s the last stop on my way home next week. Tuscaloosa has a surprisingly small town feel for having such a large university. It also looked liked it has some holdovers from segregation, just by driving across town there are some clear signs of poverty and race on the landscape.

After Tuscaloosa, I stopped after another 1.5 hour drive in Meridian, MS, to have lunch with an old high school friend—Gavin Breeden. Gavin is a Presbyterian minister in Meridian, and it was fun to catch up with him and also talk about my research. He gave me some insights into Meridian and confirmed some things about the differences of living in the “Deep South” vs. where we grew up (Martin, though not that far from Meridian or climatologically all that different, definitely fits the mold of a “Mid South” town…whatever that means. I’m too tired to flesh that out right now.)

Two key insights/points from talking with Gavin: one, without me even having mentioned this, he brought up how important the idea of empathy is to understand the memory of slavery. Second, he brought that up by telling me about a new board game he bought recently called the Underground Railroad. While at first blush, that game might sound like it trivializes issues surrounding slavery, Gavin explained that the game is not some much a cutesy kind of game but one for serious board game types. Through various strategy, the players “work” as abolitionists helping slaves escape to Canada, with a lot of historical information woven in. Sounds like a game I’m going to need to check out. Apparently the best card in the is “Harriet Tubman.” Neat!

After lunch, I had my first good sweat of the trip under the Deep South sun/humidity combo. I stopped in at the Meridian Tourism Office to pick up a copy of their Civil Rights marker map. I walked around downtown Meridian for about an hour to see/photograph the first seven signs in the program. I didn’t know anything about Meridian before starting this research, so I only found out at lunch that the city was once the largest city in Mississippi sometime before/shortly after the Civil War. The downtown area is substantially dilapidated today, hurt tremendously by white flight, though it showing a few signs of life/gentrification. Similar to Tuscaloosa, there is a palpable separation that still hangs over the city between the formerly African American business district and the rest of the downtown surrounding the county courthouse and the federal court (which, I learned today, was the site where the case against the Mississippi Freedom Summer murderers was heard.) There were not many people downtown at all, and I stuck out like a sore thumb in a red t-shirt with a gigantic camera… And yes, until I started heading back toward the federal courthouse side of downtown, I one of only three or four white people that I saw out and about. From a reflexivity standpoint, this was a very surreal moment. Having read a lot about the experiences of blacks in the South during Jim Crow and the range from uneasiness to outright terror that people experience during that time, this geographic/spatial act of just walking around in an unfamiliar, dilapidated area allowed me a moment (however brief, and yes, I can’t overemphasize how fully I am aware that the situations do not truly compare given my positionality as a white male) of empathetic understanding with the people who had to experience those feelings as a part of their everyday life.

After Meridian, I drove the final 3 or so hours to Natchez, arriving too late to get any real work done. I checked into my hotel and drove a little bit around downtown Natchez. It is unlike pretty much anywhere I’ve been before, and definitely a unique gem of a Southern city. Having read Steve Hoelscher’s (2003) article on Natchez, it’s starting to come together for me seeing it in person. I’ll have more thoughts on this later, since I’ll be here a couple more days. I ate dinner at a local place, Biscuit and Blues. Pretty good food. One thing I observed already about Natchez is that it’s apparently very popular among European tourists. I walked into the hotel with a German (or possibly Austrian, Swiss, or other German-speaking nationality) couple, and at dinner I had first an Italian couple and later a French family sit on either side of me at the restaurant! No, I didn’t strike up a conversation with any of them, but that is one advantage of being able to identify around half a dozen European languages just by hearing them! (Side note: I count English, Norwegian, German, French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese. Plus I can usually guess when it comes to Russian. Now if only I spoke any of them fluently besides English!)

Tomorrow’s plan is to get up early and head over to Frogmore Plantation across the river and spend the afternoon at the Natchez Museum of African-American History and Culture.

2014 Fieldwork Notes: Day 1

Editor’s note: Per the rules of qualitative geography, general “best practices” in fieldwork, and my advisor, I am debriefing every day of this week of fieldwork—a practice that basically entails taking extensive notes about what happened during the day, what I saw, thought, felt, etc. Writing these ideas down when they are fresh is KEY to being able to remember, processes, and write about these fieldwork experiences in the future. Since I rarely blog, and my readership is all of about five people, I thought I would share my notes with the world. They are not heavily edited—part of the “safety” of this kind of note taking is that there is no judgment for stream of conscience writing. Perhaps you will enjoy following along.

So far, so good. The trip has had a successful start after picking up the UT car (nice Dodge Avenger) and hitting the road. Took a conference call with some UCW folks at the Smith County rest area for about an hour.

In Nashville, I visited the Tennessee State Museum. Although my visit was brief, I saw two short-term (“Changing Gallery”) exhibits while there—the Slaves and Slaveholders of Wessyngton Plantation and an exhibit of African American art from Tennessee artists. The Wessyngton Plantation exhibit could be useful as an example of a museum exhibit (while temporary) that encompasses a deep history of a single plantation. It succeeds in telling a pretty complete and authentic narrative about slavery practices in Tennessee. Some of the particular things that stood out to me were the inclusion of displaying shackles (two different kinds, have to review the photos), under glass though–can’t be held/touched, in the exhibit and the decision to focus much of the narrative on a few key personalities and their descendants. I also liked the exhibit’s efforts to include a few information placards at key spaces that explained how the information came to be known/researched/included in the exhibit. (Question to go back to in the photos—were these shown with any kind of controversial parts of the exhibit?!) So, for example, one sign discussed how a lot of information presented in the exhibit was made possible because the white planter-class family kept extensively detailed records about everything. Another “method” if you will that was mentioned was oral histories that were passed down through some of the slaves’ descendants and their families. All very useful to think about.

One other item to note — I didn’t spend a ton of time looking through the museum’s permanent galleries, but I meandered briefly through the state’s Civil War history section. Spatially, it was quite interesting to observe how much prominent space was given to armaments (cannons, rifles, pistols, swords, etc.) in the exhibit and to explaining some of the key battles and state politicians/personalities VS. the extremely small section devoted to discussing Nathan Bedford Forrest and the start of the KKK, which occupied a small glass case tucked away facing a wall about three feet away, on the “bookend” of “end cap” of two other displays.

After driving to Birmingham, I first stopped in downtown to (re)photograph some of the city’s Civil Rights district. I have photos of the park area from the last time I was in Birmingham, for the Southeastern Journalism Conference during my undergrad. I think the city (or another group/institution) has added some informational markers around Kelly Ingram Park, adjacent to the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute (which was closed by the time I got there) and 16th Street Baptist Church where Martin Luther King, Jr. was once pastor. These photos can come in handy later for discussing (and teaching about) Alabama’s desire to latch onto Civil Rights history/memory vs. addressing the slavery and the Emancipation eras.

Plans for tomorrow:

  • Stop in Tuscaloosa on the way to Natchez to photograph three signs for the Alabama Marker paper – Alabama Riverwalk and a couple of historically Black churches
  • Drive to Meridian, MS, for lunch with an old friend (Gavin Breeden) and if possible, take a look at/photograph Meridian’s new Civil Rights Trail
  • Drive to Natchez and evaluate what I have time to accomplish.

A Well-Deserved Update

I realize it has been a long time since I posted any kind of update to the blog. My apologies.

With that apology comes the roll-out of a new blog template! I thought it was high time that my dark and drastic website design change to a brighter, cheerier, and easier to read look. Voila! Feels better already.

In case you haven’t been informed, my dear five readers, this semester has been one of substantial change for me, academically and professionally. I switched to working with Dr. Derek Alderman, Geography Department Head at UT Knoxville and all-around outstanding scholar in the fields of geographies of race and memory and the U.S South. In the process, I temporarily lost my funding at UT (but I will be back teaching Geography 101 in the Spring – yay!), started looking for jobs, completely changed up my dissertation ideas, and started working as a server at Puléo’s Grille at the Strawberry Plains Pike exit on I-40.

I plan to use my blog/website better, more frequently, and more professionally in the future, after being inspired by my new colleague Tyler Sonnichsen. But we all know I’ve made similar claims before!

Quick check-in: Oslo 2013

Hi all,

I thought I had better post at least something to my blog as a record of my trip to Oslo in 2013 even if I only have five people who read my blog. Karen is doing a much better job of blogging, and she has tons of followers somehow! I’d say it’s not fair, but she does put more effort into it…

Anyway, two busy works days down in Oslo, and about three work weeks to go. This weekend all of Norway celebrates two holidays – a one of our interview participants put it yesterday, “We get one day off for Jesus and one for the constitution.” Friday is Norwegian Constitution Day, the major national holiday (think Independence Day, all you Americans). Monday is the Pentecost bank holiday, so most everyone doesn’t work then either. Sort of bad timing for research purposes, but super cool that our team gets to experience the national holiday.

I got my desk and security card for Fafo today, and I should be there all day tomorrow to work on my dissertation research and Micheline’s project. So far, I’ve been splitting my time between finishing the revisions for publication of my thesis research on the Stolpersteine Project and working on scheduling interviews for Micheline’s NSF project (for which I am her research assistant, just on the off chance you didn’t know). We’ve had quite a lot of success lining up interviews for the first two weeks of the fieldwork, during which our two undergrads are here. Some of our interviews will also help my dissertation research, but I will do more on my own during the second two weeks. So maybe I’ll have time to post about that research then, but don’t count on it. I treasure sleep too much most evenings!

I’m sure there is more that I could say, but I’m currently drawing a blank and I’ve got to get back to my revisions. If I were going to give short recaps, I’d tell you:

  • Weather hasn’t been that great while we’ve been here. It’s rained harder than normal, and everyone’s told us this is a colder than average spring.
  • Washing dishes by hand almost everyday is a pain, but that’s what you get when you rent an apartment after only seeing one photo. Speaking of apartment photos, I think Karen is working on a post with those right now…
  • The bathroom is small. Like ridiculously small.
  • Several of the staff at Fafo remembered me from last year, and we already started catching up on the last several months. Their kindness and generosity constantly impress me, and it is really nice to know people in a foreign country, especially in comparison to Berlin in summer 2011 when Karen and I were pretty much alone for a month.
  • Norwegian TV is pretty cool. The apartment I stayed in last year didn’t have one, but even the basic channels have a lot of American TV and the Norwegians don’t dubbed anything, so we watched Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull a few nights ago, and Karen’s had the TV on for several American TV shows while I’ve been working the last few nights.

That’s all for now. Oh! Wait, now I remember what I was going to say earlier! Karen asked if we could take a train to Sweden one weekend so we can see more of Scandinavia on the cheap. Except it isn’t cheap. So if anyone wants to loan me about 500 bucks… let me know.

13 Questions for 2013 [Part 1]

1) If you weren’t doing whatever you’re doing with your life right now, what would you be doing?

I think if I weren’t in grad school working on my PhD in Geography, I’d be doing one of two things. If I were still on the academic path, I’d probably be studying math/physics/astronomy/some combination thereof. But, alas, science is hard. The other choice would have to be music-related, though I can’t exactly say doing what. It probably depends (in my alternate universe) if I made different decisions in high school (I’d probably be a professional trumpet player/band nerd) or in college (I’d probably be a professional singer/choral guy). Either way – I’d probably have about as much money (and that’s not much!)

Isn’t playing with alternate timelines fun? But, as they say on Lost, Whatever Happened, Happened.

2) What’s the oddest term of endearment you’ve ever used or that someone’s used for you?

To understand the answer to this, you have to realize that Karen and I are slightly crazy when alone… That said, I can’t even remember half of the crazy nicknames and terms of endearment we have for each other, but I think one of the top ones has to be Bread Head. I don’t remember the entire back story for this, but I know it involved the Bunny Bread slogan… “That’s what I said: Bunny Bread!”

3) Is the country you live in really the best fit for you?

Ha, this is a tough one! I’m inclined to say no, given that I find plenty of things wrong with the United States (and something new to dislike/frown upon seems to pop up every week). Sometimes I really wouldn’t mind living outside the US for an extended period of time, especially if that meant working (teaching) in Canada, the UK, Norway, Germany, Australia, etc. But for all its faults, I do think the US is where I am supposed to be for this period of my life. The whole graduate education in another country thing does not really suit my fancy, which is why I never seriously considered it when applying for PhD programs. That, and in conversations with Karen it has been made perfectly clear that she prefers to visit and not live in other countries. Oh well.

Those are all the questions I’ve come up with so far. Have some intriguing questions of your own? Leave me a comment, and I’ll get back to any questions deemed worthy in the next installment of this series!