Dying for Equality: African Americans in Alexandria

United States Colored Troops in Alexandria, Virginia. Source: Private collection of Charles Joyce; used with permission.

“’Entreat me not to leave thee, for whither thou goest I will go’, ‘and where thou fightest I will fight’, and ‘where thou diest I will die’, and ‘there will i be buried’, and for this, your humble petitionars will ever pray.”– USCT, L’Ouverture Hospital, 1864

In 1864, a group of United States Colored Troops (USCT) wrote and signed this Patients’ Petition for burial in Soldiers’ Cemetery, later Alexandria National Cemetery (ANC) in Alexandria, VA.  Before they were considered citizens of the United States and a century before the Civil Rights Movement, these men were determined to secure the equal honor and respect earned by those who died for it.

Julia Wilbur, a volunteer at the Freedmen’s Cemetery, kept a diary that recounts the conditions and opposition faced by the USCT. Source: Haverford College, Quaker and Special Collections.

In 1862, Congress authorized the Quartermaster Department to establish fourteen national cemeteries around the nation and allowed those “of African descent” to join the military.  However, neither units nor burial grounds were integrated; rather the Union established separate units and maintained separate cemeteries.  Union occupied Alexandria, Virginia, accommodated numerous hospitals and cemeteries.  The USCT regiments continued to be separately buried in the nearby Freedmen and Contraband cemetery for former slaves despite their sacrifice as soldiers.  In nearby L’Ouverture General Hospital, sick and/or injured USCT on the black ward wrote a petition for burial in the Soldiers’ Cemetery.  Within the month, General Montgomery Meigs, commander of the Quartermaster Department, received the petition and made the decision to integrate that would set the precedence for equality and respect in cemeteries across the country.

Through this story, ANC offers an insight into the complexities of racial prejudice that has persisted throughout American history.  A century before the Civil Rights Movement, the actions of these USCT demonstrated the struggle for equality in U.S. history.  For Us the Living: Learning from the Stories of Alexandria National Cemetery is an interactive site that allows high school students to focus on this and other national themes, such as women in the military and civil duty and sacrifice.  Fighting Side by Side, the USCT module, presents students with primary sources to guide them through historical discovery and learning.   Through analysis of these documents students learn stories that highlight the history of ANC and draw connections to American history.

Launching in Fall 2018, For Us the Living is a free resource available for students and teachers around the country. This project is supported by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ (VA) National Cemetery Administration (NCA) as part of the Veterans Legacy Program.

ReSounding the Archives has launched!

ReSounding the Archive website

This interdisciplinary project bridges digital humanities, history, and music by bringing historic sheet music back to life through digitization of sheet music, performance of each piece, and student research about each piece. The website makes all of these resources freely available for use by students, teachers, researchers, and public audiences under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC 4.0).

The launch of the website marks a year’s worth of work by faculty, librarians, archivists, digital humanists, and students across various departments at Mason, UVA, and VT. You can learn more about the collaborative process here and here.

ReSounding the Archives poster session

Jessica Dauterive, Nicole Springer, and Kelly Schrum presented a poster on the ReSounding the Archives collaboration at Mason’s Innovations in Teaching and Learning Conference on Friday, September 14. We received great feedback from Mason’s community of teachers that we hope to incorporate as we expand ReSounding the Archives to include new pieces, arrangements, and time periods, as well as to develop lesson plans and other resources for classroom use.

Sign up for our email list to stay updated, and be in touch if you’d like to get involved.

Discovering the Links: Helping Students Piece Together a Story from Alexandria National Cemetery

Just after midnight on April 24, 1865, the Massachusetts, a side-wheel steamer carrying some 300 soldiers, collided with the Black Diamond, a small propeller boat anchored in the lower Potomac River. The Massachusetts struck the Diamond mid-ship, throwing soldiers overboard by the shear force of the collision. The Diamond took on water rapidly, reportedly sinking in three minutes, while the Massachusetts also sustained damage and struggled to stay afloat. All told, over sixty men from the Massachusetts and four crewmen of the Diamond were lost. Hailed by newspapers as a “sad and terrible disaster,” this tragedy was one of the worst riverboat accidents up until that time, receiving not only local, but also national media attention.

According to a commemorative plaque at Alexandria National Cemetery (ANC), four men had “lost their lives April 24, 1865 while in pursuit of Booth the assassin of our beloved President Abraham Lincoln.” (RRCHNM 2018)

However, I, like many of you, had never heard of this tragic event before I came across it during my research for For Us the Living, a series of online learning modules for high school students, developed by the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media (RRCHNM) for the National Cemetery Administration’s Veterans Legacy Program. As I perused several newspapers from 1865, it became clear that the coverage of the Black Diamond tragedy had been largely eclipsed by another event, which in fact, was the original topic of my research: the nationwide search for John Wilkes Booth. As I would discover during my research, the story of four men buried at Alexandria National Cemetery, the Black Diamond tragedy, and the manhunt for Booth, were profoundly intertwined.

When we first started working on For Us the Living, one of our key aims was to find and tell compelling stories from ANC (a national cemetery often overlooked due to its close proximity to Arlington National Cemetery) that would engage high schoolers in the same process of discovery historians use to uncover the past. While students from nearby Alexandria City Public Schools would first use the modules, we needed to find stories that US history students across the country would find relevant.  After discovering the four “Booth pursuers,” the project team agreed that this story, intertwined in the larger story of Lincoln’s assassination and the end of the Civil War, fulfilled these goals.

The gravestones list their branch of service as “CIV” [Civilian] “EMP” [Employee] of the “QMD” [Quartermaster Department]. (RRCHNM 2018)

To get started, I examined the photographs from our cemetery research trip which showed the memorial plaque and gravestones for Peter Carroll, Samuel Gosnell, George Huntington, and Christian (also listed as Christopher in some places) Farley. While the plaque and gravestones provided a starting point, they also left questions: What work did they do for the Quartermaster Department? How did they die? What role did they play in pursuing Booth? Why are they remembered? How can their story help us better understand this period of American history?

I pored over period newspapers, photographs, maps, and other scholars’ accounts to try to piece together the story of these men’s lives, deaths, and memorialization. Using databases such as Chronicling America (Library of Congress) and Virginia Chronicle (Library of Virginia) to search newspapers from around the time of these men’s death, I finally struck gold when I found several articles on a single page of the May 11, 1865 Virginia State Journal which shed light on these men’s story. 

The first article informed me that a steamer had returned to Alexandria, VA “with the bodies of A.Q.M. employees lost by the accident between the steamer Massachusetts and the propeller Black Diamond.” The second told me that the men who died were members of the United States Steam Fire Brigade (firemen) who died “performing the sacred and important duty of volunteer soldiers, manning a boat engaged in patrolling the Potomac to prevent the escape of the murderer of our late President.” The third article described their funeral which was “attended by almost every employee of the department” and concluded with “a large and imposing procession…headed by the brigade band.” In short, the men I was investigating were, in fact, the four crewmen who died in the Black Diamond tragedy.

This photograph shows members of the U.S. Steam Fire Brigade in Alexandria in July 1863, about two years before the disaster. While none of the men are identified, it is entirely possible that Carroll, Gosnell, Huntington, and/or Farley are pictured. (Library of Congress)

The clues in these articles allowed me to track down other sources to learn more about the Black Diamond, the U.S. Steam Fire Brigade, and the memorial placed at the cemetery. Highlights include using historic and modern maps to geolocate the disaster to St. Clements Island in the Potomac, and reading an Alexandria Gazette article noting the first memorial laid to these men in November 1865, only seven months after the disaster. Even with these successful finds, much of my research reminded me that historians’ searches don’t always yield straightforward answers. For example, I had hoped to use genealogical resources to learn more about the men’s lives. However, census records revealed that their names were fairly common and it was almost impossible to determine exactly which “Peter Carroll” or “Samuel Gosnell” is buried at ANC.

I used what I had found in my research to create a module entitled “A Sad and Terrible Disaster.” This module walks students through much of the same process of discovery as my own, asking students to examine the same primary sources I found and employ historical thinking skills to place these four men’s story within the larger context of the Civil War.

One of the challenges in creating this module was putting myself in the shoes of the students. After spending a few weeks researching, I knew all of the details of the story, was familiar with the 19th century language, and recognized how all of the pieces fit together. But the students, of course, would not. I had to think about the skills and knowledge the students would bring to the module and then provide supporting text, arrange sources, and ask questions in a way that would facilitate their journey of discovery.

Creating this module was not straightforward. It involved lots of trial, error, and revisions (especially after pilot testing with Alexandria City Public Schools students). But ultimately, working through the complexities of this project has resulted not only in a wonderful resource to teach U.S. history through cemeteries, but has also helped me become a better educator and historian.

Learn Local, Think National: Connecting Alexandria National Cemetery to American History

“They didn’t even spell out her name!”  This outraged exclamation from an 11th grader at T.C. Williams High School made me absurdly happy.  Why?  Because against all odds I had somehow managed to interest a high schooler in the story of women buried Alexandria National Cemetery (ANC).  And the student was outraged!  I couldn’t be more thrilled.

In Spring 2018 when we received a contract from the National Cemetery Administration (NCA) to work on a website for the Veterans Legacy Program, I wasn’t sure how we would make it interesting for students.  Even as a senior history major, I was skeptical as to how interesting a national cemetery could be.  Personally, I didn’t know much about the ANC and I had no experience writing lesson plans.  Where should we start?

At a site visit to Alexandria National Cemetery, Mr. James Saunders, Cemetery Superintendent, recounted the history and significance of ANC.  Source: RRCHNM.

As a research team, we knew the cemetery offered a rich history to work with but were not sure where to begin to tell its stories.  Established in 1862 as one of the first fourteen national cemeteries, ANC is the final resting place for veterans who fought for their country throughout its history.  That’s a lot of choice and we started, more or less, tracking down stories that sounded interesting and followed where they took.  There were interesting stories we found that we just couldn’t choose because they did not necessarily connect to curriculum standards or there wasn’t enough information.  Sometimes serendipity is a researcher’s best friend and that was how I stumbled upon an article about Alexandria’s L’Ouverture Hospital and its segregated wards for black and white soldiers.

The story I found unraveled to involve United States Colored Troops, the Quartermaster Department who oversaw all national cemeteries, and a fight against institutionalized racism in the United States.  Trips to the cemetery and the National Archives Administration (NARA) pieced together the story that linked ANC to a Freedmen and Contraband Cemetery, a former slave grave site.  Research unearthed collections that provided first-hand accounts of the cemetery and life around it. For example, the Julia Ann Wilbur diary courtesy of Haverford College, provided insights on racial inequalities during the Civil War, while the private collection of Charles Joyce preserved the image of a USCT Honor Guard in Alexandria, VA.  With the launch of For Us the Living, the L’Ouverture Patients’ Petition for burial in the national cemetery will be digitally published in its entirety for the first time.  Bringing our research together into cohesive narratives was satisfying but only half of the project.

Pilot-testing with students and educators at TC Williams High School in Alexandria, VA ensured the lesson modules worked for high school audiences.  Writing for a high school audience has challenges, but this encouraged all of us to find the clearest way to tell our stories and ask questions that guided learners through the historical research process.

Testing the site in an actual classroom was terrifying but ultimately as helpful and important as every other step in our process. Working with four classes of 11th and 12th grades allowed us to observe how they understood the content and interacted with the site.  Their feedback brought issues to our attention– questions that were too difficult or words that needed defining– as the students worked through the modules.  They also gave us great encouragement with comments like “The creators did a good job and I hope they make things like this for other historical locations in the Alexandria area.”   The pilot testing teachers, Sarah Whelan, Patrick Deville, and Philip Engle, also provided us with insights on how to improve the site as a teaching tool and make it more appealing to teachers.  Our final Teach page was a direct response to their feedback on how to integrate the site into national standards.  The contribution of ACPS strengthened For Us the Living as a tool for teachers and students across the country.

As a recent graduate and relative newbie to digital humanities and history education, this project has been a roller-coaster learning experience as well as a reaffirmation of why I love history.  For Us the Living is the first project I have contributed to from start to finish.  I worked with experienced professionals from different fields– from the National Cemetery Administration to local public school educators– and learned about the importance of different perspectives and interpretations when creating lessons for students.  It was fun to piece together our stories and figure how each fit into the nation’s larger narrative.  That I was able to be part of a team with the larger purpose of supporting the NCA’s Veterans Legacy Program and encouraging students to get involved in local and national history makes it all the more meaningful to me.

RRCHNM welcomes Jessica Otis

The Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media are very happy to welcome Jessica Otis (@jotis13) to our ranks as a director, and as an assistant professor in the Department of History and Art History. Jessica comes to us from Carnegie Mellon University, where she was the Digital Humanities Specialist in the University Libraries.

Otis is a historian of early modern Britain, she received both a MS in Mathematics and a PhD in History from the University of Virginia. Subsequently, she was a CLIR-DLF Postdoctoral Fellow in Early Modern Data Curation working on the NEH-funded Six Degrees of Francis Bacon at Carnegie Mellon University. She also co-founded the dSHARP digital scholarship center and the PGH|DH regional digital humanities group. Jessica’s research focuses on the cultural history of mathematics, cryptography, and plague in early modern England.

At RRCHNM, Otis will be a member of the senior staff, responsible for developing and leading projects, supervising staff, and contributing to the leadership of the Center. She will join Kelly Schrum leading the World History Commons project recently funded by the NEH Office of Digital Humanities.

Welcome Jessica!

Current Research in Digital History

The inaugural issue of RRCHNM’s new annual open-access, peer-reviewed publication Current Research in Digital History is now live. The issue was edited by Lincoln Mullen and Stephen Robertson, with crucial input from a program committee consisting of Kalani Craig, Jessica Marie Johnson, Michelle Moravec, and Scott Weingart. Editorial Assistant Greta Swain worked throughout the summer to prepare the essays for online publication, in a platform designed by Kim Ngyuen and Ken Alpers that allows for interactive visualizations, data and code appendices and other features not typically available from humanities journals.

The primary aim of Current Research in Digital History is to encourage and publish scholarship in digital history that offers discipline-specific arguments and interpretations. By featuring short essays, it also seeks to provide an opportunity to make arguments on the basis of ongoing research in larger projects.

This issue features 17 essays on topics ranging from language borrowing among Indian treaties and agency and authenticity in the 1960s American folk music revival to social reading in Old Regime France, war camps and wayward girls in Virginia and Herblock cartoons.

Essays published in CRDH are first presented at an annual one-day conference at George Mason University in Arlington, Virginia. Authors submit their essays in the fall, and then the conference is held in the spring. Each essay goes through two rounds of peer review, first by the conference program committee, and then by the conference commentator. CRDH is published at the end of August, less than a year after essays are submitted.

Submissions for the 2019 conference and publication are due by September 28, 2018.

CRDH is funded by donations to the RRCHNM Director’s Fund. Members of the program committee, commentators and participants in the conference plenary roundtable are paid small stipends to recognize the time they commit. Four $200 stipends are available to support the participation of presenters who have to travel to the conference. You can donate to support CRDH.

World History Commons receives NEH Award

We are delighted to announce an award from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) to create World History Commons in partnership with the World History Association and Associate Professor Adam Clulow of Monash University (Australia).

World History Commons, an Open Educational Resource (OER), will provide high quality, peer-reviewed resources for teaching and research in world and global history. World History Commons will introduce new humanities scholarship and pedagogy while preserving and enhancing widely-used resources from World History Matters, the award-winning, NEH-funded collection of world history websites, and the Global History Reader, a collaboration between scholars at Monash University and Warwick University (UK).

World History Commons is one of 15 Digital Humanities Advancement Grants funded through the Office of Digital Humanities.

ReSounding the Archives Symposium

On Tuesday, April 24, the first ReSounding the Archives Symposium was held in the Garden Room of the Colonnade Club at the University of Virginia. This event culminated the first year of work on the ReSounding the Archives digital project that seeks to bring historic sheet music back to life through contemporary recordings and contextual essays.

Faith Ellen Lam and Jimmy Stevens close out an evening of performances.

Faith Ellen Lam and Jimmy Stevens close out an evening of performances.

The symposium showcased the work of 22 students from George Mason University (Mason), the University of Virginia (UVA), and Virginia Tech (VT). An interdisciplinary group of 17 undergraduates presented their research on the social, cultural, and musical context of WWI-era sheet music. After each presentation, performing arts students from VT and Mason performed the pieces. In addition, UVA doctoral student Joseph Thompson presented on the ways he is incorporating digital humanities into his dissertation project, “Sounding Southern: Music, Militarism, and the Making of the Sunbelt.” VT English student Libby Howe also contributed two posters exploring the visual rhetoric of WWI sheet music.

The 17 songs presented and performed at the symposium will provide the initial ReSounding the Archives website content, including digitized sheet music, live recordings, and studio recordings produced by students at VT and Mason. Each song is accompanied by a contextual essay.

All sheet music and recordings will be available for download under a Creative Commons license and freely available for educational use. The website will launch in summer 2018.

 

ReSounding the Archives homepage.

 

The Pilbara Aboriginal Strike

The Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media is proud to announce a new international project in collaboration with scholars in Australia, The Pilbara Aboriginal Strike website. Working with Bain Attwood, a scholar of Australian history and settler colonialism at Monash University, and Anne Scrimgeour, a scholar of Aboriginal history, this digital project will be part of the first major scholarly study to examine one of the most important events in Australia’s post-war history: the Pilbara Aboriginal strike of 1946.

Mustering in the Pilbara.

Mustering in the Pilbara. Image credit: Anne Scrimgeour.

In 1946, Aboriginal stockworkers led a strike in the Pilbara region of Western Australia against harsh working conditions and meager pay by walking off their pastoral stations. Though police and the government tried different repressive strategies to stop the strike, the Communist Party, trade unions, women’s organizations, and churches came together to help the strikers. Ultimately, the strikers were successful as they gained better pay and working conditions, but many Aboriginal workers then formed mining co-operatives, forging their own economic, social, and cultural space. Amidst the backdrop of settler colonialism and World War II, the strike resulted in changes in public policy and influenced nationwide advocacy for Aboriginal rights. The Pilbara Aboriginal Strike website will detail the events of the strike and historical context, the co-operative movement, and the commemoration of the strike through today.

The Pilbara Aboriginal Strike aims to highlight Aboriginal communities’ roles in this event. It will feature oral histories of Aboriginal people from the Pilbara region, foregrounding their voices in this history. The project also strives to show the multiplicity of voices and perspectives involved in the strike and beyond.

Geared toward Aboriginal communities, scholars, and post-secondary students, the site will include multiple exhibits of narrative content, as well as an interactive timeline, a primary source archive, and a section that spotlights the individuals and organizations who played integral roles in the strike and its aftermath.

Launching later this year, The Pilbara Aboriginal Strike digital project is an exciting transnational collaboration that will showcase the actions of the Aboriginal people who fought for their rights and for Aboriginal rights across Australia.

Veterans Legacy Program contract awarded to RRCHNM

Alexandria National Cemetery site visit

RRCHNM students receive a tour of Alexandria National Cemetery with James Sanders, Director of the Quantico and Alexandria National Cemeteries. Photo credit: Chris Preperato

The Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media is proud to announce that we received a contract from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) National Cemetery Administration (NCA) in support of their Veterans Legacy Program.

Students working within RRCHNM’s Education Division will be researching the history of Alexandria National Cemetery, one of the original 14 national cemeteries established in 1862.

RRCHNM will create online learning modules that teachers and high school students in the Alexandria Public Schools will pilot test later this spring. The modules will include a digital activity or service learning activity aimed at exploring commemoration, historical memory, and national mourning. On completion, these modules will be available to other classrooms around the country.

RRCHNM received one of nine contracts awarded to academic organizations across the nation. For further information about the Veterans Legacy Program, visit https://www.cem.va.gov/legacy/.