Outrage continues to bubble over a planned black history museum memorial initially billed as a “Slave For a Day!” celebration intent on luring kids to the event with the promise of being able to undergo some of the same conditions and experiences their forefathers were routinely forced into enduring while working the grounds of the notorious Hampton mansion.
Despite all the outrage, the Maryland-based National Historic Park Towson continues to promote the July 8 event as an educational experience for youngsters, highlighted by the opportunity for them to learn how to “work in the fields with actual hoes and scythes and carry buckets of water with a yoke on your shoulder,” just as their ancestors may have.
“We celebrate Black History Month here each and every month,” park ranger and event organizer Angela Roberts Burton said in defense of all the museum’s various projects. “But this month we decided to try something new… we’re trying to get more African-Americans to come to the site. By no means am I trying to assimilate the atrocities that enslaved African-Americans endured. This is just a glimpse of the hard work, being out in the heat and the sun.”
Organizers have also enlisted the African Diaspora Ancestral Commemoration Institute in orchestrating a full-fledged ceremony aimed at coinciding with the event. An altar on the farm’s slave quarters is also slated to be unveiled featuring a montage “paying tribute to those who were in bondage” and all visitors are encouraged to bring names of all their known ancestors to place at the feet of the monument.
“Hampton is the story of people — enslaved African-Americans, indentured servants, industrial and agricultural workers, and owners,” Hampton officials note on their web site. “It is also the story of the economic and moral changes that made this kind of life obsolete,” the website states.
Just the same, critics easily point to the clearly insensitive nature in which the event was initially billed. In the wake of the firestorm, the name has now been changed to the “Walk a Mile, a Minute in the Footsteps of the Enslaved on the Hampton Plantation.” Organizers point out that even the exclamation point has been removed from the original event name.
“I was excited because this program would be a first time event at the Parks, and I was trying to get a catchy title to get as many people to the come to the event as possible,” Roberts-Burton told the Washington Post in explaining away her “Slave for a Day” beginnings.
Apologies aside, the blatant misstep wasn’t lost on well-read local blogger Rachel Monroe. “The inescapable and brutal fact of slavery was that it wasn’t for a day,” noted local blogger Rachel Monroe. “No,carrying buckets of water with a yoke on your shoulders will be nothing like what it may have been like to be enslaved. Some things are too profound.”
Roberts-Burton, who holds a master’s degree in history from Howard, maintains she has studied the African diaspora extensively and her actions were purely motivated by the hope and prospect of attracting more of of a diverse audience in “a city that is majority black but a majority visitation nearly all white.”
As an example, she points that a recent museum concert featuring musician Joe Becton detailing the evolution of blues music which attracted about a crowd of 40 spectators— none of which were African-Americans.
“The National Park Service allowed me to pick and change the name,” she said. “No one did it for me… I picked it.” Added Vincent Vaise, chief of interpretation for the National Park Service: “We didn’t want people to be upset because of the title of the program. We want people to see the purpose of the program, to tell the story and empathize with people of that era.”
To date, museum officials’ note they have received roughly 50 emails and phone calls initially reacting to the title and now requesting that the event be altered to instead represent a healing ceremony.
“Such a ceremony would be moot without knowledge of what needed healing,” added Roberts-Burton. “Hampton is the story of people, enslaved African-Americans, indentured servants, industrial and agricultural workers, and owners. This exhibit merely shares the story.”
The National Park Service began running the property in 1948, but the slave houses and overseer’s quarters have only been open to the public since 2006.
Glenn Minnis is a NYC-based sports and culture writer. Follow him on Twitter at @glennnyc.