Steps Towards Public Engagement

Posted by on Oct 7, 2010 in Dirt, Research and Engagement | 2 Comments

Last Monday, I had a wonderful opportunity to give a presentation to the Maryland Commission for African American History and Culture. They were holding their regular meeting at Historic St. Mary’s City, in the reconstructed 17th century Statehouse. Besides the regular agenda, myself and Judge Robert Bell (read about him; an amazing man) were on the docket to speak (I was, as I introduced myself to him, his “opening act”. He received a standing ovation before giving his talk).

My presentation was covering the long history of African and African American life at Historic St. Mary’s City, starting with the first man of African descent to vote in a legislature in the New World, Mathias DeSouza, and ending with a discussion of emancipated slaves in the late 19th and early 20th century, and covering other moments in between. This was an important presentation for me not only because of the important scholars and politicians represented on the commission, but also because the meeting was open to the general public. A number of individuals from St. Mary’s College of Maryland and the surrounding African American community were in attendance.

It occurred to me right before I got behind the podium that this was my first time presenting to any “public” on my research: everything else has been to people in my graduate program or other archaeologists at a conference. For those who have presented at conferences, this might mean 15 people are there, 6 are listening, and maybe 1 or 2 are invested (this is particularly true for graduate students in “general sessions”). This audience could not have been any different.

First, people interested in the past know about Historic St. Mary’s City, and the people on the commission were generally enthusiastic about how to encourage its growth and appeal. They were anxious to hear about the other stories that were not told as often about St. Mary’s City.

Second, members of the public, particularly those involved in the Community-organized group The Unified Committee for African American Contributions, expressed a good deal of interest in my research considering they have often felt excluded from the narrative told at St. Mary’s.

Fortunately, this led to a lot of good contacts with members of the community that I otherwise would have had more trouble getting in touch with. This makes the process of community engagement less of a “cold-call” (“hi, I’m Terry, a graduate student who wants to do community engagement with you!”) and more like this: “hi, remember me? We met at the commission meeting, and had talked about ways we might be able to work together on some projects”. I much prefer the latter to the former.

One of the most surprising connections happened as a result of some of the data I used in my presentation. There was an oral history with a woman who, during the mid-20th century, had lived in the duplex quarter I am researching. After I had finished, a woman approached me, introduced herself, and said, “I conducted that interview!” I was floored! It turns out, the woman is still alive (I had been led to believe otherwise), and, even better, is willing to talk more about her life. I am very excited about this opportunity, as there are plenty of additional questions I would like to ask her that are more specifically “archaeological”. Additionally, it would be an amazing experience to actually talk with someone who had lived in the building. It would give an entirely different perspective into what living in that type of building would have been like.

In all, the day could not have been more productive, and I am excited about the number of avenues that opened up. I am sure that some will become fruitful, while others less so. Regardless, it was exciting to share the work I’ve done with people who pull a different type of meaning from it. Special thanks to the Commission and to Historic St. Mary’s City for this wonderful opportunity!

[photo: John Cook, “St. Marys Beauties” – courtesy of Historic St. Mary’s City]

  • Lynne

    Great, Terry – I’m glad to hear that things are working out so well.