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Here in Virginia, there are some pretty strong views on history. It isn’t merely in the past, it is occurring in the present as well. This can easily perpetuate the stereotype that Southerners are still fighting the Civil War, or as it is known to some of my relatives, the War of Northern Aggression. However, this view of history in the present tense can be put to good use to dismantle assumptions, rethink the past, and keep cultural institutions relevant.
The most recent episode of The Abolitionists on PBS focused heavily on Frederick Douglass. Reading his 1845 memoir, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, in school years ago was my first encounter with the realities of slavery, as I imagine it may be for many people. Somehow, seeing the scene in which William Lloyd Garrison, a prominent abolitionist, and Frederick Douglass first meet brought to mind again how wonderful it is to see these events and documents geographically located on the Abolitionist Map of America. Zoom in on Nantucket, Massachusetts, and you can view the video clip from the series as well as contemporary photographs and documents. Somehow, plotting things on a map makes them more concrete, more believable, not just backstory.
As we continue this project, we are still uncovering relevant abolitionist materials at the Library of Virginia. Just yesterday, a colleague brought to my attention a collection of anti-slavery newspapers saved by Virginia Governor John Floyd (1830-1834). At times, Floyd advocated gradual abolition since he viewed slavery as an economically flawed system. However, following the Nat Turner Rebellion in 1831, all Gov. Floyd’s official actions supported a state’s right to choose slavery. He believed that abolitionists in neighboring states were planning murder and insurrection in Virginia.
Watching The Abolitionists, I learned that Frederick Douglass eventually came to run his own abolitionist newspaper named The North Star. The documentary points out that, if slaves knew little else about how to obtain their freedom, they knew to follow the North Star.
One obscure item I selected for the Abolitionist Map is The Nubian Slave by Charles C. Green, published in Boston in the 1840s. Housed in the Library of Virginia Special Collections, this book pairs pages of an epic poem with full page illustrations. To tell the story of a slave in such grand style indicates that the author felt it a worthy subject; many would not have at the time. “The Escape” illustration even closely imitates the iconographic Flight into Egypt scene in Christian art, right down to the Classical treatment of the figures. The father points towards the North Star, as though their flight into freedom was guided by divine inspiration as well as practical navigation. An owl watches over the family where an angel would typically be seen. Drawing parallels between the enslavement of African Americans and the historic oppression of Christians would have created additional sympathy for the anti-slavery movement, especially the spiritual and moral arguments against holding slaves.
Gems like The Nubian Slave and finding copies of The Liberator in the Library of Virginia collection have made the Abolitionist Map a very interesting exploration. I hope we can continue to use new technologies such as HistoryPin to reframe and rethink historic materials. Tune in for the final installment of The Abolitionists tonight on PBS, and enjoy get lost in the map!
-Sonya Coleman, Digital Collections Assistant
For further reading:
HistoryPin blogged about their software being used on the Abolitionist Map: http://blog.historypin.com/2013/01/07/historypin-and-american-experience-on-the-upcoming-abolitionists-series/
Our PBS contact, Casey Davis, wrote about her experience on the project and app creation: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/blog/2013/01/13/abolitionist-map-america-project/
To view just the LVA pins on the Abolitionist Map: http://www.historypin.americanexperience.org/channels/view/275029/#/home