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Archeology for Interpreters > 7. What Are the Issues of Sensitivity?

African American cultural traditions

[photo] Portait photograph of Mary McLeod Bethune.

Mary McLeod Bethune Council House National Historic Site in Washington, DC commemorates Mary McLeod Bethune, who worked tirelessly to influence legislation affecting African Americans and women. (NPS)

The archeology of African American people has included particularly the studies of African American cultural group diversity, the African Diaspora, and slavery. This archeology has grown rapidly over the past few decades and is a major interest in American archeology. In addition to research, many social, political, and intellectual forces have spurred the growth of African American archeology. These forces include: increasing numbers of African American archeologists with interest in their own heritage, black activism, passage of historic preservation legislation, archeological interest in immigrant ethnic groups, and the increased use of archeology, ethnography and ethnohistory in public interpretation of historic sites such as urban settings and plantations (Thomas 1998:531).

Effective interpretation of archeological resources associated with African Americans depends on sensitivity to public emotions about and understanding of issues such as slavery and racism. Evidence of these issues in the archeological record presents educational opportunities for archeologists and interpreters. African American contributions to American history are also well documented in the archeological record and serve equally to educate visitors. African American social traditions, religious practices and oral histories are rich resources for archeologists and interpreters developing research designs and educational programs.

Case studies

The Robinson House: A Portrait of African American Heritage, Manassas National Battlefield Park
The Robinson house survived the first and second battles of Manassas during the American Civil War. Explore how archeological research, architectural studies, and oral history reveal new insights into the changing lifeways of free African Americans.

African Burial Ground National Monument
After a GSA construction project revealed a colonial-era burial ground, archeologists sought answers about the people who had been buried there. The project culminated in the establishment of a national monument, which uses archeology to interpret the site.

Kingsley Plantation, Timucuan Ecologic and Historic Preserve
The Kingsley Plantation has a rich, transatlantic story. Learn about the extensive excavations at the slave cabins and read the story of people who enslaved and who were enslaved there.

President's House Site, Independence National Historical Park
Enslaved and free people at the President's House were part of the birth of a nation. Learn about the untold story of African Americans who lived and worked at the house.

Use What You Know: Assess Your Knowledege (#7 of 9)

  • Using what you have learned about archeology, how would you faciliate connections for modern populations to highlight the relevance of archeological work to modern life contexts?
  • What controversial or sensitive issues impact interpretation at your park? How might you use archeology as a medium to address a history of sensitive issues? As a medium for including traditionally under-represented populations?

TSM/MJB