Chesapeake Heartland Project launches digital archives to further engage the community in collaboration

By Victoria Gill-Gomez

News Editor

The Chesapeake Heartland Project, a historical and cultural collaboration happening on the Eastern Shore, launched its digital archive on Feb. 17 to further engage the public with the multifaceted history of the African American experience in the region.

Deputy Director for the Starr Center and Lecturer in History Dr. Patrick Nugent said that the Eastern Shore is often “where the African American story begins,” or is traced back to. These collections enable the team to build themes or stories out of the grouped information that is ever-growing.

Chesapeake Heartlands began when the former Director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, Lonnie G. Bunch III, received an honorary degree from Washington College. 

At that time, WC and Sumner Hall were in partnership for an exhibit that Bunch attended. There he met various students and community partners involved and was impressed by the enthusiasm by this group, according to Dr. Nugent.

Bunch invited the campus community to propose a project to the museum that would “celebrate the Chesapeake region as the heartland of an underappreciated heartland of the African American experience,” Dr. Nugent said.

This collaborative effort includes members of the WC community and several local organizations, including Sumer Hall, Kent Cultural Alliance, and Kent County Public Library. 

According to the project’s website, one of the goals for this year was to create a “public-facing website to engage the public in the celebration and interpretation” of this African American history. 

The online platform enables accessible archival information regarding various aspects of life in the past and present.

“We are uncovering all of the blanketed stories of Chestertown,” Starr Center Intern and sophomore Diana Moneke, one of the 30 student interns on this project, said. “[It is] bringing voices back to the ghosts of Chestertown.”

As of March 8, there are three featured collections in the archive, including “Yearbooks from Garnett High School, Chestertown’s All-Black High School (1923-1967),” “Irene Moore Vita Foods Collection,” and “History Now.”

Vita Foods was a pickling and food processing plant, where in the 20th century many of the local African Americans found employment.

The collection’s 93 images of the plant and its workers in the 1960s and 1970s show an integrated workplace. 

However, according to Dr. Nugent, there is a “wealth of materials outside of the featured collections” that can be found in the “Browse Digital Archive” tab on the project’s website. 

The website also poses different mediums in which viewers can experience the collection, including moving images, still images, sound, documents, and interactive resources.

“In addition to injustice and activism, this archive presents images of daily life, images of joy and happiness that are so often missing in textbooks and classrooms,” Dr. Nugent said.

An example is the H.H. Garnet Elementary School, once a K–12 African American school. The archive carries 16 yearbooks that have poems, letters, and other pieces of writing from teachers and students to their peers. 

“The amount of pride and joy and resilience on display in these yearbooks is just incredible. Many community members take great pride in the history of Garnet School and from having graduated from it,” Dr. Nugent said.

There continues to be gaps of time that the Chesapeake Heartland team is trying to fill by finding more yearbooks. According to Dr Nugent, the team is currently looking for information from the early years of integration to compare the African American experience in the educational system.

The website also assists with another goal for the year: obtaining the Chesapeake Heartland African American Humanities Truck, a mobile pop-up station that can “meet community members on their own grounds” and digitize what they deem as historical.

Described by the team as a mini museum, this truck creates a platform by which the community can curate, interpret, and preserve the history that they want to see; all the team does is stand back and support that effort.

“Community curation and community digitization can provide such unique, grassroots perspectives into history. If you invite the community to document the materials that they want to see archived for future generations and that they would like to see incorporated into textbooks and classrooms, they put forward a set of images and documents and stories that have in many ways never been seen before,” Dr. Nugent said.

Additionally, they are working on a community catalogue by asking community members to generate details about individuals who appear in photos or documents.

While Dr. Nugent said this process is successful so far, the ability to have larger events has slowed down due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

To combat this, there is also a “History Now” tab on the website that allows community members and students to upload any materials that they believe are of them “making history in the moment,” Dr. Nugent said. 

One example of this could be attendance at a protest which occurred during summer 2020, even if the protest did not occur in Chestertown. 

Dr. Nugent addresses students as a diaspora of Chestertown history.

“I don’t think there’s a single discipline that could not engage this archive: English, education, anthropology, music, business, environmental studies, math, science; history students will of course find a lot of rich materials to work with, but it’s definitely not limited to history majors,” Dr. Nugent said.

Dr. Nugent gives the examples of the soon-to-be-released Abraham Robinson Ice Cream Collection. This collection includes most, if not documents about expenses and revenues that Dr. Nugent thinks could serve students in business, economics, and management.

Moneke, who double majors in international studies and economics with a minor in peace and conflict studies, worked with other interns on her research team to cull through documents and created weekly presentations of each team’s research and interpreted their documentation.

“You get to put a face to history,” Moneke said. “Most of the time people sit in a history classroom, taking notes; you never know. You don’t get to connect with that person because this just is a general topic, this is just a general statistic you’re going to keep somewhere just to study for a test. But working on this project, you get to put…faces to these stories. You might even meet them.”

Featured Photo caption: Chesapeake Heartland’s interactive public archive will be able to digitize historical documents, home movies, oral histories, photographs, and other pieces of historical information. The truck also serves as a mini museum to showcase at public gatherings and be more accessible to the region. Photo Courtesy of Dan Divilio.

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