Public archaeology, public history, and race

A lot has changed in public history and archaeology since 1992. And, a lot hasn’t. In 1992, there were very few African American archaeologists. Within that class, even fewer of them were historical archaeologists specializing in African American material culture.

Former slave cabins, Rappahannock County, Va.

Former slave cabins, Rappahannock County, Va.

The early 1990s were a critical time in cultural resource management/public history/historic preservation. Congress had just passed the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act and the world watched as archaeologists excavated the graves where more than 400 Africans were buried in downtown Manhattan. The archaeology was being done in advance of federal building construction and the site is now the African Burial Ground National Monument. At the time, debate swirled about what would become of the site and the people buried there.

Now, nearly a quarter of a century later, not only are there more African American historical archaeologists but there are more Native Americans, Latinos, and Asians specializing in the the field and turning their professional expertise inwards on their own pasts.

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Industrial displacement: an urban blacksmith faces change

SIA-2014Fridays are tour days for folks who attend the Society for Industrial Archeology’s annual conferences. This year’s conference was in Portland, Me., and I signed up for the urban tour: Portland. Stops included a high-tech chicken processing plant and a manufacturer that produces specialized generated rotor (gerotor) parts for pumps. The Portland Narrow Gauge Railroad Museum located in the historic Portland Company complex in the city’s Eastern Waterfront district was another stop. The most memorable site for me wasn’t on the itinerary, though.

After a ride along the 19th-century rail corridor, I slipped away from the other SIAers who spent an hour in the railroad museum. I set out to get some photos of an urban landscape in transition via gentrification and redevelopment. On my way back to the museum, I detoured to a side area in the Portland Company complex where I saw a sign for The Portland Forge. A couple of hundred feet down a narrow alley formed by the brick Portland Company buildings on one side and Portland’s 19th-century seawall on the other I met blacksmith Sam Smith, The Portland Forge’s proprietor and a business owner facing possible displacement by encroaching gentrification.

Portland Company complex. May 16, 2016.

Portland Company complex. May 16, 2016. The Portland Forge is located at the end of the alley where the car is parked.

Sam Smith (foreground) and an apprentice in front of his shop.

Sam Smith (left) and an apprentice in front of his shop.

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Thomas U. Walter: A day in Pittsburgh

From Thomas U. Walter’s diary, Thomas Ustick Walter Papers, The Atheneum, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Thursday, May 8, 1856.

Arrived at Pittsburgh at 1 A.M. Took lodgings at the “Monongahela House” — slept until 8 A.M.

Took a carriage and rode around the city — it was a Philadelphia look but excessively smokey and dirty — some well built houses, but no appearance of comfort. Allegheny City, on the other side of the river, look somewhat cleaner, but the whole region is filled with smoke and dust from the great number of furnaces always in blast., the factories and the steamboats, all of which use bituminous coal.


Thomas Ustick Walter Papers. Microfilm copy, Smithsonian Archives of American Art, microfilm reel 4133.

Thomas Ustick Walter Papers. Microfilm copy, Smithsonian Archives of American Art, microfilm reel 4133.

Mile marker 101

MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAEmily made it to mile marker 101 and beyond. Yesterday Laura and I sat with her on our vet’s office floor as he injected the drugs that ended her chronic pain and her life. Our basset hound was two months shy of 16 years old. Emily overcame every health problem she ever had: a bad heart, arthritis, bloat, and the full spectrum of infections that dogs can get but she couldn’t outrun time.

moonshine-bonjovi2013On my bike ride this morning along the Atlanta BeltLine’s Eastside Trail I passed local folk musician Moonshine walking and playing her fiddle. She was alone and it reminded me that I hadn’t seen her with her dog, Bon Jovi, in a while. When I met them last year, Bon Jovi wasn’t doing well and I couldn’t bring myself to stop this morning and ask Moonshine about Bon Jovi. If I’m right — and I hope that I’m not — I hope that Emily has met Bon Jovi and they are off exploring the best trails they can find.

Emily D. Basset, Aug. 10, 1998 - May 23, 2014.

Emily D. Basset, Aug. 10, 1998 – May 23, 2014.


Portland (Me.) flatiron building

The former H.H. Hay building is located at the intersection of Congress and Free streets in Portland, Maine. Geographer Loretta Lees documented gentrification in this district as a case study of “small city gentrification” [PDF]. Lees wrote in 2003,

Recessions in the late 1980s and early 1990s slowed but did not entirely stop the pace of redevelopment downtown. By the mid-1990s investment was spreading up the slope from the Old Port and along Congress Street under the auspices of the city’s Arts District and the philanthropic efforts of Portland native and microchip heiress Elizabeth Noyce.

The City of Portland documented the area in a historic designation report for the Congress Street Historic District:

Congress Street is Portland’s “Main Street,” the peninsula’s primary east-west commercial and transportation axis. The richness and diversity of its architecture and public spaces, particularly along the section extending from Franklin Arterial to Bramhall Square, constitutes a unique record of Portland’s residential and commercial
development history …

… It was not until the 1970’s that Portland’s economic stagnation began a long slow path to recovery. With the availability of Federal “Urban Renewal” money, the ambitious Maine Way public infrastructure program signaled a new interest in and concern about downtown by city leaders … At the same time historic commercial buildings such as the Congress Square Hotel (#110) and the Upper H.H. Hay Building (#109) were rehabilitated for new uses.

Last week’s Society for Industrial Archeology conference was based in the heart of gentrified Portland and the conference hotel was only a few blocks away from this highly photogenic building. Below are some views that show the building between c. 1890 and now.

H.H. Hay building, Portland, ca. 1890. Credit: Maine Memory Network, Maine Historical Society.

H.H. Hay building, Portland, ca. 1890. Credit: Maine Memory Network, Maine Historical Society.

Credit: Congress Street Historic District Designation Report, City of Portland, Me.

Credit: Congress Street Historic District Designation Report, City of Portland, Me.

Congress and Free streets, May 2014.

Congress and Free streets, May 2014.

Former Hay building, May 2014.

Hay building, May 2014.

© 2014 D.S. Rotenstein

The fellmonger’s office

Wool pulling. Credit: Rudolf A. Clemen, By-Products in the Packing Industry (1927).

Wool pulling. Credit: Rudolf A. Clemen, By-Products in the Packing Industry (1927).

Fellmongers disappeared from the American industrial landscape in the last century. They were specialized meat and leather industry byproducts dealers who also prepared skins and leather from lamb pelts removed in slaughterhouses. In 2000, the last American fellmongers processed a batch of wool inside the Pittsburgh Wool Company. The exercise was captured in a documentary film produced for the Pittsburgh History Center and was documented in reports I prepared for the History Center and for the National Park Service (now in the Library of Congress: HAER No. PA-572).


James Callery’s Duquesne tannery (right) shortly after it was built. It later became the Pittsburgh Wool Company. The site on the Allegheny River north shore had tanneries and wool pulleries there continuously from the 1830s through 2000.

Pittsburgh Wool Company facade, 1996. Photo by author.

Pittsburgh Wool Company facade, 1996. Photo by author.

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Georgia sunshine: the semantics of public records


Georgia court records. Are they open if they are in plain view? Photo by author.

Georgia’s government regularly gets failing grades for transparency when it comes to making records available to the press, researchers, and the general public. A recent survey of states by the Center for Public Integrity flunked Georgia with a grade of 46% on two questions: 1) Do citizens have a legal right of access to information?; and, 2) Is the right of access to information effective?

Under Georgia law, the governor and legislative branches are exempt from the state’s Open Records Act (O.C.G.A. §50-18-70). The judicial branch, including county superior courts, operates under a different set of rules for making court records — case files, land records, etc. — available to the public. Continue reading

Columbia Heights reborn

The riots that tore through Washington, D.C., after Martin Luther King’s assassination in April 1968 left many neighborhoods physically and emotionally scarred for decades. Columbia Heights was one of the most adversely affected. Continue reading

Jesse James in Iowa

Jesse James (1847-1882) was a nineteenth century outlaw who became a popular figure in American folk legend and folk song. By the twentieth century, film and television joined the earlier oral and print traditions with fictional and documentary renditions of James’s life.

Jesse James Historical Site, Adair, Iowa.

Jesse James Historical Site, Adair, Iowa.

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New life for old interviews: Some Atlanta music & journalism history

Eric King and Joel (J.T. Speed) Murphy at the Blind Willie's bar, Oct. 24, 1990. Photo by author.

Eric King (front)  and Joel (J.T. Speed) Murphy at the Blind Willie’s bar, Oct. 24, 1990. My recorder is on the bar. Photo by author.

Earlier this year I began taking steps towards completing a project that had its origins back in 1990. For a few hours the evening of October 24, 1990, Eric King and I consumed a fair amount of alcohol  and talked blues music and history at the bar of his Atlanta club, Blind Willie’s. At the time, I wrote a blues column for a short-lived alt-weekly, Footnotes. I had been spending lots of time in Willie’s and I had wanted to interview King for background material for future stories. Continue reading