30 Days of Tennessee Archaeology, Day 23
Director, Fullerton Laboratory for Spatial Technology
Department of Geosciences, Middle Tennessee State University
Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) requires Federal agencies to “take into account” (emphasis added) the effects of their actions “on any district, site, building, structure, or object that is included in or eligible for inclusion in” the National Register of Historic Places.
Part of our mission at MTSU’s Fullerton Laboratory for Spatial Technology is to advance the use of geospatial methods for historical and archaeological research and conservation. Our goal is to add to our knowledge of Tennessee’s historic cultural landscape – both above and below ground – that ultimately can be “taken into account” in the Section 106 process and beyond by connecting primary source material with geographical locations in free interactive mapping applications for use by students, educators, archaeologists, preservationists, planners, and the general public.
Since 2014, we’ve focused on mapping Tennessee’s African American cultural landscape to raise awareness and elevate its visibility. Our initial effort, Landscape of Liberation, was a collaboration with the Tennessee State Library and Archives to show the locations of Civil War era sites in Tennessee such as contraband camps, freedmen schools, labor impressment locations, and recruitment and mustering locations for the United States Colored Troops.
But what about the African American geography of the post-Civil War period?
In “Sacred Spaces of Faith, Community, and Resistance” (Nieves and Alexander, eds. We Shall Independent Be: African American Place Making and the Struggle to Claim Space in the United States, University Press of Colorado, 2008), Dr. Carroll Van West wrote: “Upon freedom, African Americans of the 1860s quickly sought to create new physical spaces that belonged to them and reflected their values. Besides homes for their families, they rushed to create three institutions in particular: churches, cemeteries, and schools. African Americans typically clustered these institutions close together, with the church invariably as the focal point (indeed, it often doubled as the school building) surrounded by their homes and businesses.”
West’s hypothesis – that the nexus of these three institutions, as well as fraternal lodges and businesses, was the basis for early African American communities in Tennessee – is the starting point for a project currently underway at the Fullerton Lab to develop a visualization tool for the African American cultural landscape of the post-Civil War period.
Funded by a grant from the Tennessee Civil War National Heritage Area, “Places, Perspectives: African American Community-building in Tennessee, 1860-1920” project is a three-county prototype for a statewide historical geography of African American communities in Tennessee.
With a focus on one county in each part of Tennessee – Greene County in East Tennessee, Maury County in Middle Tennessee, and Hardeman County in West Tennessee – “Places, Perspectives” is developing an online, interactive and easily usable digital research platform that highlights the presence of these clusters of African American community institutions that emerged in the post-Civil War period and still dot the Tennessee landscape.
Primary source documents, photographs, and first-hand accounts are serving as evidence in the creation of a mapped landscape linked to primary sources that will be freely available to the public through the digital collections at MTSU’s James E. Walker Library.
Our strategy for the creation of this online collection and mapping platform includes filling out the historical record with additional research and contextual material and examining the locations of these institutional clusters through a variety of lenses–from military geography to transportation networks to economic imperatives.
In all three counties, community historians have stepped in to share knowledge based upon years of “boots on the ground” research. We’ve also met with community members and elders who carry first-hand information about these communities in their memories and have graciously driven with us to show us exact locations where churches, schools, cemeteries, and lodges once stood.
For the past 10 months, my MTSU colleagues, Susan Knowles from the Center for Historic Preservation and Ken Middleton from the James E. Walker Library, and I have been “drinking from a firehose” trying to record, visit, photograph, research, and follow the historical threads embodied in these sites.
We’ve learned that while some communities have clear links to formerly enslaved individuals and some are near former locations of Civil War federal outposts, encampments, or freedmen’s camps, many may have been created in out of the way locations as expressions of resistance, while those in more prominent places may represent landowners, local school or church leaders, and outside supporters.
Whatever their origins, these separate African American cemeteries, churches, and schools bear witness to the formation of sustainable community bonds that survive in historical memory, if not on a current map.
However, these cultural sites can be hard to recognize. Cemeteries may be overgrown or the church or school building that once stood on the site has been demolished. And the histories of these African American communities are often not recorded in local histories or county cemetery surveys. As Michel-Rolph Trouillot observed in Silencing the Past (1995), whether “silences” concerning past occurrences are deliberate or inadvertent, they skew our perception of the past.
Tennessee’s historic African American cultural landscape embodies a uniquely American story – from Civil War to Civil Rights – from enslavement to liberty – that deserves to be recognized and “taken in account.”