The Power of the Past
Remarks on NJ National History Day
Keynote Remarks To Middle and High School students, teachers, and families
I would like to begin my remarks by telling you a bit of my family’s New Jersey history:
My wife is a direct descendant of Penelope Stout, the first European woman to have settled in New Jersey. In point of fact, Stout remains a given name in my wife’s family. Although details of Penelope Stout’s life are still debated, the story goes as follows:
In 1643 Penelope and her husband took a ship from the Netherlands to New Amsterdam, which had to land at Sandy Hook to pick up supplies. When the ship left, she stayed behind with her husband in New Jersey, who was too ill to travel. They were subsequently attacked by a native American group and left to die. She survived and was rescued by the Navesink tribe of Leni Lenapi. When she was well enough to travel she was then traded to the Dutch. In new Amsterdam (NYC) she married Richard Stout, where they had a rather large family of 7 sons and 4 daughters who were mostly born at Gravesend in the area of Coney Island, Brooklyn. (where by the way, my immigrant family summered around 300 years later). The Stouts eventually moved to Middletown Township, New Jersey around 1665. This story as you can imagine reigns powerfully in my wife’s family heritage. And I want to build on this personal history to make the broader, and perhaps provocative assertion that:
There is nothing more powerful than History
in shaping people’s beliefs, values, behaviors and decisions.
William Faulkner the laureate American writer is famous for having said:
"The past is never dead. It's not even past."
By this I believe he meant that the past, present and future are all tied together.
Today I would like to challenge you all to take this perspective one step further by considering the following assertion:
The past can be either an opportunity for positive cultural change
or a rhetorical tool to rationalize social injustice
I started by offering a story from the 1600’s. now I would like to turn to an historical moment recently published. In an article titled: “Is America a ‘nation of immigrants?’ immigration agency says no”, the New York Times reported that he director of US Citizenship and immigration services – the agency that issues green cards and grants citizenship to prospective immigrants, has removed, from its mission statement, the phrase: “America’s promise as a nation of immigrants.”
This turn of phrase immediately brought to my mind my own family’s immigrant experience, when they left Europe at the turn of the 20th century with the rise of antisemitism. I began thinking about my presentation to all of you young historians and how this seemingly simple omission was an example of the power of history – in this case by re-writing history. I put on my archaeologist hat and thought about my archaeological research in South Carolina at the Native American Mulberry mound atop and around which lies the historic 19th century Mulberry plantation. Over the past 40 years, my colleagues and I have supervised scores of students at the University of South Carolina field school to research at this site for the answer to two seemingly simple questions:
Who built the Mulberry mound?
Who built the mulberry plantation?
The Mulberry site, records the answer to these questions through its layers of archaeological artifacts. The story begins with the founding of the site as a hunting and fishing camp some 5000 years ago, which it remained for several millennia. It continues similarly until around 1000 years ago with the building of a large earthen mound that was the center of the village of Coffitichiqui the prehistoric capital of what is now the southeastern United States. This town of perhaps 5-10,000 people was ruled by a queen and subsequently visited by Desoto and his colonizing conquistadors in the 1500’s. The site’s history then continues through the building of the plantation at the end of the late 18th when the slave master’s house was built on the original mound and surrounded by slave cabins. For the purposes of this paper I will focus on the historic occupation of the mulberry site.
So, who in fact, built the mulberry plantation?
The answer to this question lies in the artifacts excavated by students such as yourselves and documents – including the iconic Diary from Dixie written by the landlady of the Mulberry Plantation Mary Boykin Chestnut. Both of these sources of information reveal a perhaps unexpected answer: The plantation was built by enslaved Africans.
Early South Carolina history was in fact was essentially an African based culture and economy. The 100’s of enslaved Africans built the slave master’s house, their own cabins houses and the main plantation house. Perhaps more impressively they also built miles of levees that formed the economic geography for the rice economy, which they imported from Africa. Slaves imported their African technology to make their ceramic kitchenware. This latter point might seem inconsequential until I tell you until the 1970’s and work of Prof. Leland Ferguson, archaeologists and historians had assumed that slave ceramics was made by Native Americans.
If Africans built Mulberry plantation;
Then who then built South Carolina?
Let me conclude by telling you another story that illustrates the power of how we come to answer this question.
Shortly after moving to South Carolina I took a carriage tour of the beautiful, historic city of Charleston, which lies out 100 miles downriver from the mulberry plantation. The tour guide described the beautiful architecture of the city, which is the among the top 5 most visited cities in America, as he told a history of Charleston and south Carolina. For the most part this was a pretty informative pitch. But when he He closed the tour he characterized Charlestonians in a way that took my breath away: He proclaimed that
“Charlestonians are a lot like the Chinese,
we speak with a funny accent and grow and eat a lot of rice.”
Although I did not say anything at the time as this would have been quite rude: I remember very clearly thinking:
“This characterization is an amazing revision of South Carolina history. It completely eliminates the African presence in colonial South Carolina and even more than this it denies the total reliance on African culture for the state’s initial survival and subsequent economic prosperity.
Who in fact built South Carolina?
Who Built new Jersey
Who built America?
Is America a land of immigrants?
I hope that all of you future historians (and hopefully archaeologists) keep in mind the Power you hold as you pursue your interests in answering these types of questions as you research American history.