Starr Center works with Kent County to preserve African-American history

By Erica Quinones

News Editor

Washington College students have workChesapeake Heartlanded for two years on a nearly $1 million cross-campus initiative to discover and digitize the rich African-American history of Kent County.

Chesapeake Heartland: An African -American Humanities Project is a collaborative initiative between the Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience, the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), and the Kent County community to preserve, digitize, interpret and make accessible materials related to African American history and culture in Kent County.

Following a visit from honorary WC alumnus and Founding Director of NMAAHC Lonnie Bunch, the Starr Center was invited to make a proposal to help curate a public African-American history program, from which Chesapeake Heartland was conceived.

The focus of the project pertains to community orientation with several core community-identified goals. They were defined by community leaders and include statutes such as that the community should both collect and share materials as well as curate and interpret them; Chesapeake Heartland should strengthen local schools and nonprofits; the project should support cross-generational mentorship; research should engage, employ, and train local teenagers; and the project should document not just injustice and activism, but also daily joys like sports, music, food, and religion, according to Starr Center Deputy Director and Chesapeake Heartland Director Dr. Patrick Nugent.

The collection and dissemination of the materials is focused on fulfilling these tenements. While they are collecting and archiving different artifacts, the project is not about professional historians retelling stories or making arguments with the sources, according to Dr. Nugent.

Instead, the project seeks to give families the ability to digitize historical or contemporary materials that they want to share with the community and create opportunities for them to interpret the materials themselves in academic and artistic ways.

“Everyone is so passionate about the work that they do. Speaking to a lot of community members, they feel like the Eastern Shore history is lost,” Chesapeake Heartland intern and junior Paris Young said. “This is their way of using their own voice and sharing what they want to share about their own history. This is a way for them to tell their stories.”

Young and over nine other WC students have worked to bring the project to fruition over the past two years. Interns have worked on interviewing community members about their history, hosting events to celebrate local African-American history, and finding Kent County originated resources that are in archives and private collections across the country.

One intern who has worked with community members is junior Jada Aristilde. She said that one of her favorite experiences was at Mount Olive AME Church in Butlertown, where she helped organize and learn about materials for digitization.

“When we went to the church, there were some church members there who had been members [of the congregation] their entire lives,” Aristilde said. “They started taking out pictures from boxes and telling the history of these people. And that’s what we want, because a lot of this is things that they know but there is no digitized version for. So, people will have access to them, and they will be around forever.”

The ability to tell their own history and reminisce about the past is something that helps connect interns and community members. While Aristilde said the process was “the cutest thing ever,” Young said that working with members to tell their stories made her relate to and understand the Eastern Shore’s residents better.

Chesapeake Heartland is focused on being a tool for the community. Part of making the program successful is meeting “community members on their own grounds,” Dr. Nugent said.

This will be possible by re-purposing a food truck into a mobile digitalization stations and humanities festival.

Interactive amenities both inside and outside the truck are planned. Inside will be a space to digitize materials, provide oral history interviews pertaining to the material’s metadata, and set up a small community exhibit featuring paintings or featured artifacts. Outside they hope to install a waterproof television, pull-down movie screen, and speakers so they can create humanities events anywhere in the county.

The truck is still in its preliminary phase, but Dr. Nugent said they are looking towards having it ready for NMAAHC’s visit in March or April 2020. During their 2020 visit, NMAAHC will be hosting digitization, genealogy, and humanities workshops.

In addition to the archival website and truck, Chesapeake Heartland is designing a fellowship and education program.

There are planned to be two fellowships, community and faculty. The fellowship criteria are in development, but likely will include the five community-oriented goals.

The educational program is also in planning, but will likely focus on asking students what they are interested in researching, helping them consider how they are currently making and are involved with history, and sharing their own personal experiences.

“For the community, I think it’s an amazing opportunity to put Kent County on the map as a really significant place for African-American history, to celebrate that history, to discover new ways of thinking about that history, and to integrate it into how Kent County — both white and black — thinks about their own history and experience and identity here,” Dr. Nugent said. “For the campus, it’s a great opportunity to think through and make a model of what campus–community collaboration can be. What academic scholarship can do with the community.”

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