Some Historical Sites Try to Show the Horrors of Slavery in America

FORT MONROE, Va. — On a scraggly rock outpost in eastern Virginia 400 years ago, a ship came to Fort Monroe with colonial America’s first Africans, forced against their will to land in the New World. That moment inaugurated the racist slavery that set the course of the black experience in this country.

But travel to modern-day Fort Monroe and you’d hardly know it — there’s more Confederate and military history than black history. An arch spelled “Jefferson Davis Memorial Park” in large letters, until their recent removal. A museum preserves the Confederate president’s prison cell following the Civil War. You can see where future Confederate General Robert E. Lee was stationed as a U.S. lieutenant.

One plaque, erected four years ago, commemorates the arrival of the first Africans.

For decades, many of the country’s celebrated historic monuments similarly glossed over the cruel realities of slavery and racism that define American history.

Sites from Virginia to Kansas are now grappling with how to portray the harsh truths of the past, from former presidents’ enslavement of other humans, to the violent efforts to spread slavery in “free” states, to the historic presence of hundreds of enslaved people at well-loved tourist attractions.

But those attempts to change how Americans view history have met plenty of pushback: Some people, it seems, prefer a sanitized retelling of America’s past.

When Terry Brown took over the national monument at Fort Monroe three years ago, the absence of black history — his history — bothered him. In fact, black history was missing at an awful lot of historic sites.

“We live in a great country, but we are going to be even better when we figure out that the true part of our history involves a number of mixed cultures,” said Brown, a National Park Service superintendent.

Brown started a black cultural tour of the site, which will run from July to October every year. He also spearheaded a visitor center in honor of 1619, which is expected to open next year, and is planning a new memorial for the arrival point.

“A great nation,” said Brown, “remembers its history and embraces all the complexities of it.”

Williamsburg, once 50% black

At Colonial Williamsburg, under an hour away from where the first Africans landed, the quaint, Revolutionary War-era town originally portrayed a largely white experience, ignoring that many of its historic residents enslaved black people.

Williamsburg’s living history museum now strives to present a realistic image of the lives of enslaved and free blacks in the 18th century. For example, Tab Broyles oversees a three-day program that informs America’s teachers about the 18th century black experience and how educators can bring it into the classroom.

“My hope is that people walk away knowing that many different people contributed to who we are as Americans,” Broyles said.

The defining characteristic of a day in the program is powerful emotion.

When librarian Doug Mayo opens a book featuring a fold-out design of the hold of an 18th-century slave ship, with captured Africans packed in inhumane conditions, teachers let out audible gasps. Some take a seat or step away.

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SOURCE: USA Today, Max Cohen