The Enslaved Naturalist

December 20, 2021 admin 0 Comments

Historians, educators, and digital humanists: check out the John Mitchell Jr. Program for History, Justice, and Race’s newest digital history exhibit, “The Enslaved Naturalist.” The project was created between partners at George Mason University’s Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter School for Peace and Conflict Resolution and the Environmental Science and Policy department, and was funded by the National Park Service’s 400 Years of African American History Commission. In particular, the Enslaved Naturalist site was collaboratively built amongst historians, environmental scientists, and web developers to educate the public about how different people of African descent were experts on the natural environment in the Americas. The project argues that African Americans have always historically contributed to our modern-day understanding of the natural environment and science. The project maps and analyzes the naturalist expertise of Harriet Tubman, the enslaved man York who traveled with Lewis and Clark, and the history of “Black Walden,” an African American community in Concord, Massachusetts that contributed to Henry David Thoreau’s writings.

The digital exhibit was driven by collaborative and original research, digital mapping, and oral history interviews that were conducted this past year in 2021. Oral histories include interviews with Pauline Copes Johnson (Great-Great-Grandniece of Harriet Tubman), Rita Daniels (Great-Great-Great Grandniece of Harriet Tubman), Ranger Angela Crenshaw (Maryland Park Service), Dr. Iris Barnes (Lillie Carroll Jackson Museum), and Chris Haley (Maryland State Archives). Oral histories for this exhibit were coordinated by Jack Del Nunzio, with support from Joshua O’Neal. My interview with Chris Haley is throughout the site alongside video clips from other oral histories.

I am grateful to have been a part of this project in many ways, from the early intellectual work after receiving the grant to the historical research and project management to interviewing different community members. The particular exhibit I researched and co-authored alongside other project team members was the exhibit about Harriet Tubman. This section of the site argues that Harriet Tubman was a naturalist throughout her entire life, from enslavement to freedom – and all the other freedoms she facilitated for many other enslaved people.

For me, one of the most interesting finds during the research phase was realizing the many ways Tubman gained expertise of the natural environment while she was enslaved in Maryland, which she then transported and adapted to new places once she was free like in Auburn, New York. Here is an excerpt you can find on page 2 of the exhibit:

Enslavement overtime gave Tubman “tremendous literacies” about the specifics of Maryland’s landscape, giving her a knowledge base that would aid her personal escape and her future rescue missions that would one day help a multitude of others. Tubman used owl calls to signal coded messages to nearby enslaved people in the forest, sang spiritual songs with changed tempos next to slave quarters, hid undercover in several marshes and other natural plants on Maryland’s shore, and navigated her way North by not just the North Star but by reading the entire night sky.

Tubman learned a great deal about Maryland’s ecology – which mostly consisted of marshes, rivers, and forests, when she was enslaved during the first part of her young adult life. Yet when she ran away in 1849, she had to not only know a lot about the surrounding environment but also traverse it physically to her advantage. Once free, she returned to Maryland at least 11 times to successfully free enslaved people. Furthermore, she used and drew on her “tremendous literacies” about Maryland, Pennsylvania, and New York’s landscape multiple times to continue accompanying people to freedom. Below is a screenshot of a map in the exhibit that shows the different routes Tubman took during these rescue missions.

Screenshot of: Brannan, Laura. “Tubman: a ‘Woman of Earth’.” The Enslaved Naturalist. John Mitchell, Jr. Program for History, Justice, & Race: Digital Museum. November 1, 2021. https://jmjp.gmu.edu/the-enslaved-naturalist/tubman-p2. Photos from National Park Service.

Altogether, this project has something for everyone: runaway stories of Harriet Tubman, the life of the enslaved man York who traveled with Lewis and Clark, and the history of the Black Walden community that neighbored and influenced Henry David Thoreau. I hope you spend some time looking through the sources and arguments, and realize how much today’s knowledge of the natural environment is shaped by those who came before us – especially those who were enslaved in the U.S.

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