An Interview With Terry Brock

1. What led you to make the focus of your research St. Mary’s City? Was there anything unique about the history or archaeological data that made it well suited to your purposes?
I entered my PhD program at Michigan State University (MSU) with the intention of studying the African American past. I had taken courses on archaeology and African American history, and it became clear to me that the discipline of Archaeology offered a perfect opportunity to answer questions about a past that we knew little about. Coming from an undergraduate background in Classical Studies, I really liked the idea of being able to do research that directly connected to communities that existed in the United States. So, that was what I went to Grad school with the intention of doing. Spring of my first year of graduate school, I came to St. Mary’s County to visit my grandmother. A faculty member suggested I look up a certain archaeologist at this place called Historic St. Mary’s City, because he had gotten his PhD from MSU. When I arrived, my Grandmother told me I needed to meet this archaeologist at Historic St. Mary’s City because he had been a friend of my grandfather’s. Turns out, they both meant Henry Miller. I visited Henry, and we had a great afternoon. A few weeks later, he introduced me to the 19th century data from HSMC, and offered it to me for my dissertation. I’ve been working in it ever since…and that was in 2007.
2. What made you decide to structure your research in the form of an online exhibit? What are some of the successes and challenges you’ve had with creating and maintaining All of Us Would Walk Together?
I’d wanted to do a digital exhibit about the research for a while, but had never had the financial support to do it. For quite a while I’ve been advocating that archaeologists use the web and social media as a means of engaging the public in archaeological research. For example, I use Twitter extensively when I am in the field to take pictures of our excavations and discuss what we’re finding with members of the public. It allows us to take them with us, in a way, and they can ask questions from their home or office. The digital exhibit was an expansion on this idea: it’s a way to make my research public and available. The blog, for example, includes posts about my research as I’m doing it. A lot of the time all you see is the final result, but I think it’s incredibly important for the public to know and understand how we came about that final result and how that result can change when we get new evidence. I wanted to create a space where that could happen. Where people could see the research unfold, ask questions about it, offer their opinions, and take part.
The most challenging thing has been updating it. It’s a lot of work, and I’m the only person working on that site. I built it all myself in one summer, and I’ve been doing all the maintenance, updating, and post writing. That takes a lot of time, and sometimes it is difficult to balance that with the actually process of writing the dissertation, along with my other responsibilities to my family, professional organization, and the other things we’re trying to do at HSMC, like turning the duplex quarter into an exhibit.
A lot of the successes have actually come within my own professional community: other archaeologists and public historians are curious about how the project was built, the approach I took, and how it works. So, in many ways the exhibit is a bit of an experiment, to see if this type of engagement works.

3. Your research blog illustrates a lot of your work with the duplex, both historical and physical archaeology, from examining the use of space both before and after emancipation, to how window glass represented an improvement in the quality of life. What do you think has been your most surprising find?

The window glass was actually very surprising. Not so much that there was glass, or that the data indicated that it was added immediately after the Civil War to the building. I expected to see that, since I figured it would be a relatively simple upgrade to a building. What I didn’t expect to see was the fact that the African Americans who lived their were using used windows salvaged from other buildings. While it makes sense afterwards, actually seeing it in the data was pretty neat. It adds another dimension to the situation: it highlights how they were looking to make improvements, looking to emphasize this newfound freedom, but also how financially difficult and straining this was for them. Remember: these people were working up from practically nothing. This is a theme that I see in other places, too. For example, the pursuit of education after the War. We knew that Brome, the former slaveowner, had donated land to become an African American school. This was actually not as surprising as it sounds… a lot of wealthy planters did this. Part of it was to provide a good reason for their former slaves to stick around as sharecroppers: they knew they wanted schools, so they offered to provide land for that to happen. The school, by the way, is where St. James Deli is now. At any rate, I located some documents from the Freedman’s Bureau that talk about the exuberance of the African American community in St. Mary’s County for supporting these schools. Black carpenters donated their time to build them. The meetings held by the Bureau officials were packed. When the community was told that the Bureau could no longer pay for teachers, they raised the money right then and there: an amazing feat considering these are the same people who are salvaging windows to fix up their homes. It really brings home the sense of urgency for education and freedom that existed. You could just tell that these people had been waiting for this moment, and weren’t going to let it slip away.

4. You emphasize that the blog is meant to be interactive. In the ‘Talk Together’ section of pages you even include questions for consideration. How has reader comments and feedback been so far? Has there been any particularly interesting discussion?

Yes. The goal was for the site to be interactive, and providing comment fields on the blogs and all the exhibit pages was one way I had hoped this would happen. Unfortunately, it has not worked. Part of this is related to meager traffic to the site. It has not been advertised as well as I’d had hoped. For example, we received funds from the National Trust for Historic Preservation to build the site, and were told it would be featured on their page. That hasn’t happened. HSMC’s own website is in the process of getting a major upgrade, so it hasn’t been featured as much there, either. But trust me: I am on the other side of the website waiting for people to interact and ask questions.
We do have more success on Twitter, where you can follow the exhibit @WalkTogethr. People are more inclined to interact with us there, which is great. We can also do live tweeting from the lab, events, or the archives. So, we get more engagement there.
5. We’ve heard some talk that this year work might begin on turning the duplex into an exhibit site. Do you know anything about whether or not they’re moving forward with the project?
We received funding from the Maryland Commission on African American History and Culture to begin the preservation and interpretation of the Duplex Quarter. Part of the process of getting that money released is to get our plans for the exhibit and preservation work approved, which has required us to put together a report. This is taking some time for us to complete for a number of reasons, but we are starting to work on it this month. Part of our biggest motivation for completing the project is that we have been working with descendants of the Milburn family. The Milburn’s lived in the building from the 1920s through the 1960s. We have done oral histories with Emma Hall, who grew up there, and who used to work at the College, and will be working with her and other members of the family on all the steps of the interpretation, since it was their home for so long. It is our hope that we will be able to not only interpret the period of enslavement and the post-War period, but also celebrate their occupation of the building during the 20th century. So, long answer short: yes, we are moving forward with the project. We just have to make sure that all the hoops are jumped through before we can start.