Sofia Biegeleisen

More than a Memory: The Complex Relationship Between Living History and Slavery

April 5, 2021   /  

Name: Sofia Biegeleisen
Majors: History, Spanish
Advisor: Dr. Jordan Biro Walters, Ibra Sene (second reader)

This project deals with the connection between historical memory of the US Civil War and living history, with a special focus on the role that slavery plays in this relationship. While there is no shortage of scholarship on historical memory of the Civil War, living history scholarship is generally part of a separate discussion. To fill this gap, I explain how and why living historians interpret slavery. I also connect these themes with the idea that living history which fails to interpret slavery as the primary cause of the Civil War helps to perpetuate modern racial divisions. I argue that living history must interpret slavery, despite the challenges. When living historians, living history sites, and living history organizations do interpret slavery, they represent the past more truthfully and cultivate important discussions about racism both historically and in the contemporary context. To explore this topic, I conducted oral history interviews with two living historians who use living history as a tool for teaching about slavery. In addition to providing information for the written portion, these interviews are also featured in the podcast portion of this project. I aim to bring the discussion of slavery to the forefront of living history. If slavery is missing from the historical narrative, understanding modern racial tensions is impossible.

Loader Loading...
EAD Logo Taking too long?

Reload Reload document
| Open Open in new tab

Sofia will be online to field comments on April 16:
10am-noon EDT (Asia: late evening, PST: 6-8am, Africa/Europe: late afternoon)

52 thoughts on “More than a Memory: The Complex Relationship Between Living History and Slavery”

  1. An innovative project, Sofia! It’s great to see photographs of your interviewees after hearing them talk passionately about living history. What made you decide to present your work in a poster format?

    1. Thank you, Dr. J.! I chose a poster because I already had some experience this format from junior IS, but I was curious about what it would be like to present a poster digitally.

        1. Yes! I think it was a really good way for me to think about the most important parts of my project without being distracted by the details.

        1. I will! Unfortunately, I didn’t do a symposium presentation for my Spanish IS, but I’m very happy I decided to double major.

  2. I do not understand the meaning of several terms used, including historiographical, civil war memory, public history, living history. I would like to know how these terms are related to each other.

    Also – what do you consider to be the challenges to living history in interpreting slavery?

    1. Hi Molly,

      Thank you for your comment! Historiographical has to do with previous work on the topic. For historians, a historiography is kind of like a lit review. Civil War memory refers to how the Civil War is represented and remembered in culture today. Public history is any time of history work that is catered to the public, such as museums or documentary films. Living history is a typed of costumed interpretation or reenactment. Colonial Williamsburg is one popular example of a living history site, but not all living history is connected to a museum or historic site. In my projects, living history is central to my project but I also discuss public history since living history is a type of public history. Public history, living history, and prior research (historiography) all have an impact on the Civil War’s cultural impact today.

      To answer your second question, living historians face many challenges. One is that it is impossible to be completely accurate and another is that living history often gives people a nostalgic view of the past. Interpreting slavery is an especially difficult topic, since it can be very hard to decide how much accuracy is appropriate and whether it is appropriate to interpret slavery at all.

      I hope that helps! Please let me know if you have any other questions.

      1. Thanks very much, Sofia for your clear explanation of the terminology.

        It is so encouraging to hear your commitment to finding a truly meaningful way of communicating the inhumanity of slavery using living history. Plymouth Plantation and Colonial Williamsburg show how people lived — valuable, and relatively easy. Living history of slavery needs to demonstrate interactions between people and the brutality of one person owning another — a much tougher challenge, but so very important.

        I can imagine a southern plantation living history experience with enslaved and slave owners doing daily activities, showing a diversity of interactions, and the contrasting living conditions between enslaved and owners. There are books such as Thavolia Glymph’s (2019) “Out of the House of Bondage” and John Blassingame’s (1979) “The Slave Community” that provide a wealth of well documented anecdotes. It is a shame that historical southern plantations focus on furniture, wallpaper, gardens, and the lives of slave owners, while the enslaved people who generated the wealth are dehumanized by being eliminated (or nearly so) from the picture.

        I am so impressed with what you did and the insights you gained!

        1. Thank you for your comments, Molly! I’m glad my explanation helped. Also, I like that you mentioned John Blassingame, since he was one of the first historians to write about enslaved people who were real people and who had agency. While I only mentioned him briefly in my IS, I know he is very important and I would have liked to discuss him in more detail if I had had time.

  3. Very interesting! Congratulations! What was the deciding factor that made you chose this topic?

    1. Thanks, Brandon! I chose this topic because I was interested in both living history and memory of the Civil War. My advisor suggested that I combine the two topics. Originally, I planned to investigate living history sites to see how they portray slavery, but I changed my plan slightly because of Covid. With this topic, I was able to use most of the research I had already done during my Junior IS.

  4. Splendid work Sofia!

    I’m intrigued when you say poor interpretation perpetuates stereotypes which inflame modern racial tensions. What exactly do you mean by this?

    Additionally, what were the main approaches used by the two interviewees to properly approach such an awkward subject in living history as slavery?

    1. Hi Cormac,

      To answer your first question, I think there are many ways this can happen but one that I thought was especially interesting often happens when first-person living historians are answering questions from visitors. One issue that these living historians face is that people often have many misconceptions about slavery. For example, in one article I read a woman who interpreted an enslaved person at George Washington’s Mount Vernon commented that people would sometimes tell her that she shouldn’t worry because she would be freed upon George Washington’s death. In addition to this being a very weird interaction in general, she would also have to communicate to them that “she” was actually enslaved by the Curtis family and that George Washington did not have the power to free her. I think this example shows that if living historians are not well-trained and prepared for ignorant questions, it would be easy for the audience to come away with misinformation. More generally, I think that living history activities can sometimes perpetuate either the “happy slave” narrative or the idea that enslaved people completely lacked agency. My hope is that with careful interpretation, living historians can help to weaken these myths.

      Regarding your second question, one of my interviewees emphasized the importance of thorough research and of remaining calm during difficult interactions. Whenever she felt that she could have an influence on someone’s perspective, she would cite evidence to support her claims. If she felt that the person could not be reasoned with, she would disengage from the situation.

      Thank you so much for your comments!

  5. Congratulations on completing your I.S. journey, and thanks for your work that considers today’s societal challenges in context of historical issues. We wish you the best in your plans beyond Wooster!

    1. Thank you, Dr. Pasteur! I appreciate you taking the time to check out my poster.

  6. Congrats Sofia! This is such an important topic and a novel take. What were you most surprised to come across and/or discover in your research?

    1. Thank you, Stephanie! When I began this project, I wasn’t sure how living historians really felt about portraying slavery. I had also heard some stories about how emotionally taxing it can be. So, I was surprised by how passionately my interviewees talked about portraying slavery through living history.

  7. Hi Sofia,

    It’s awesome to see that you’ve continued your junior IS into a project like this! The idea of living history is really interesting because it is a tangible representation that we live with our history, and thus it is a serious injustice to omit lived histories.

    I’m just curious in how you went about making a podcast/what was inspiration to do this style?

    I’ve never heard of that in terms of an IS project, but it seems really unique especially with current public dialogues surrounding long-covered issues of racism in American history (what comes to mind is the recent Spotify podcast special “Renegades” with Bruce Springsteen/Barack Obama if you’ve heard that).

    1. Hi Justin,

      Thank you for your comments!

      I was inspired to make a podcast because I knew I wanted to do an alternative project because I wanted my project to have a public history component in addition to the academic component. I wasn’t sure what format would be best, but luckily my advisor specializes in alternative projects and she recommended that I make a podcast. Overall, it wasn’t too hard to make but the editing was definitely tedious and it wasn’t always fun to be listening to my own voice.

      I hadn’t heard of “Renegades” before but I’ll definitely have to check it out! I’ve listened to several interesting podcasts recently and my favorite is the Unobscured Podcast. I like it because I think it’s really good historical work and it’s also kind of scary. The first season is about the Salem Witch Trials and it completely changed my understanding of what really happened.

  8. Hi Sofia,
    I really enjoyed the poster format of your IS! Did you use the concept of living history in your other IS?

    1. Thank you, Heather! I’m glad you enjoyed the poster. I didn’t use the concept of living history in my other IS but I did talk about historical memory in both my ISes. In my other IS, I did a lot of research on theories of historical memory. While I didn’t write about the theories in this IS, learning about them was very interesting and it really helped me to understand historical memory on a deeper level.

  9. Congrats on your project, Sofia. NCPH (National Council on Public History) had just recently posted an article about someone talking to living history historians who interpret slavery. I made me think about your project. Great job with the poster.

    1. Thank you, Megan! I’ll have to check out the NCPH article, it sounds really interesting. Also, I just wanted to say thank you once again for your help with the podcast!

  10. Excellent work, Sofia! You should be very proud of what you accomplished.

    I’m curious: have you visited any public history sites where you think the first-person historical interpreters did an effective job teaching about slavery and enslaved peoples’ experiences?

    1. Thank you, Professor Holt!

      That’s a really good question, but unfortunately, I don’t really have a specific answer. I don’t think I’ve visited any living history sites since I’ve been in college, so it’s hard for me to remember. But I will definitely be thinking about slavery when I visit living history sites in the future.

  11. Congrats Sofia! I thought that your project was not only excellently researched but also extremely timely, and I am also interested in the relationship between Civil War memory and public history for future research. I noticed in a comment above you referenced your reading on theories of historical memory and how they helped to guide your project. Specifically, what theories did you find to be the most informative?

    1. Hi Glenna,

      Thank you for taking the time to learn about my project!

      That’s a great question. One scholar I recommend you check out is Hayden White, a historian and literary critic known for his book Metahistory (1973). Basically, he analyzed historical writing from a literary perspective. He argued that historical understanding is impacted by how the historian writes and what literary devices they use. I think this is super important to understanding the separation between historical writing and what actually happened. He also argued that historical events are a type of “raw material” and that they do not have meaning until historians or other people give them a meaning.

      Another scholar who I think is important is Pierre Nora. Some aspects of his work are quite problematic, but his idea of les lieux de memoire was very important to my Spanish IS. I recommend checking him out as well.

      Also, I thought found of these theoretical works extremely difficult to understand, but I was able to find some other articles that critique them. Those helped me a lot.

      Anyway, let me know if you have any other questions!

  12. Nice job! I once attended a summer program at The College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia and I would love to return to the Colonial Williamsburg living-history museum there! Did you come across it in your research?

    1. Hi Anna,

      Thanks for your comment! I remember that I wanted to do that summer program but I don’t remember why I never actually did it. Colonial Williamsburg has a very interesting story which I wrote about in my IS. I don’t remember all the details, but sometime in the ’90s they decided to host a reenactment of a slave auction. While the event was very well-research, it received mixed reviews. While some people thought it was very powerful, others were worried that the audience might view it as entertainment. Interestingly, even NAACP leaders were divided on what they thought of it. It’s a very interesting story and I referenced it in my project to show how difficult it can be to interpret slavery using living history.

  13. Congratulations, Sofia! To me this embodies the best of what an IS can be: an important social issue examined critically and with reference to an abiding personal passion. So cool to see you bring your experience and expertise in interpretation to bear in this way. Awesome job!

    1. Thank you, Professor Freeze! I appreciate both your comments and you taking the time to read about my project.

  14. Great work, Sofia! I am glad that you incorporated the oral histories in your work. Interviewing people is such an important tool for historians and most historians don’t get much practice with it. You really brought all of your skills to bear on this project. Congratulations!!

    1. Thank you, Professor Hettinger! I agree that interviews are very powerful and that interviewing is an important skill. I am so happy I did interviews, because I was very, very nervous about them but they ended up going wonderfully. I was very lucky to have such kind and well-spoken interviewees.

  15. Congratulations, Sofia! I’m so proud of you. I am going to share your poster with my class.

  16. Congratulations Sofia! This is such a committed research. Creative, intellectual and committed research with your own tradition. I am also impressed that you integrated alternative sources and methodologies to produce your IS. Absolutely fantastic! I am also impressed that you were producing two ISs simultaneously with the same concept (historical memory). Congratulations Sofia!

  17. Good Job Sofia, you are truly an inspiration and one hec of a historian.

  18. Wow, this is so neat! Living history is such an interesting topic and I love looking at historical memory. Congratulations and best of luck in your future endeavors!

    1. Thank you, Emily! I hope you’re doing well and I appreciate you taking the time to read about my project 🙂

  19. Congratulations, I really enjoyed reading your research!
    I am looking forward to discussing it with others when we have living historians at community events.
    Thank you for shinning a light on this topic.
    Might I ask how one can access the podcast?

    Thank you!

  20. Congratulations, Sofia! Your topic is undoubtedly important for facilitating an urgent conversation that is long overdue in this nation.

Comments are closed.