If you read history (or even historical fiction), this statement might easily be passed over. Yes, it happened. Yes, slavery was atrocious. But the reality of it? Rather abstract.
That slave was a young man named Adam Jackson. His life as a slave is likely one of the best documented of any American slave. And his story is real, palpable, and continues to resonate today.
You see, Joshua Hempstead kept a diary. For 47 years. His slave, Adam, worked alongside him, day after day, for over 30 of those years.
Now Joshua Hempstead was not, shall we say, a verbose man. But piecing together his life allows us to also piece together details about Adam’s life (as historian Allegra di Bonaventura has done), since they lived and worked together for so long.
Today, the life of Adam Jackson is increasingly a living thing to the people of New London, Connecticut, where he lived at what is now known as the Hempsted Houses, a property of Connecticut Landmarks. And his life, as well as that of members of the Hempstead family, their abolitionist descendents, and other African Americans from New London history, is inspiring teenagers as well.
This summer, Connecticut Landmarks partnered with Writers Block Ink, an organization that works with teens through the arts to address personal and social issues, to create a youth employment program. Seven young men delved into the life of Adam Jackson, the history of slavery in Connecticut, and African American history, and on Sunday, I visited Hempsted Houses and their first Freedom Fair to discover how these young men responded to this history.
It was fascinating. I was so impressed and delighted in how history came alive for them, and for how passionately they felt the stories that they shared. Through music and the spoken word, they conveyed depth of emotion and feelings of injustice to their audience. They gave Adam Jackson, among others, a voice.
But can an organization like Connecticut Landmarks take this emotion, this passion, and this energy, and bring it to their daily interpretation of this historic house? Like most historic house museums, this property has relied on guided tours, a method of interpretation that we have found in our research to be polarizing (and perhaps a contributor to attendance challenges at many historic houses across the country). What would happen if these young men had the opportunity to interpret Hempsted Houses for the general public? What would they do? What stories would they share?
Happily, we are going to find out. Thanks to IMLS funding, Connecticut Landmarks is embarking on interpretive planning at Hempsted Houses, and a component of that plan will involve continuing the youth employment program with Writers Block Ink. Next summer, Reach Advisors, staff of Connecticut Landmarks, and crack exhibit designer Robert Kiihne, will work with a new batch of young adults and we’ll hand them the keys to the kingdom (so to speak), asking them to develop a visitor experience that is historically accurate but also one they think will be compelling to their friends, families, and regular museum visitors. And then we will allow them to test their ideas and find out what visitors think.
We have no idea what they will come up with, but we cannot wait to find out. We suspect it will be different, compelling, and inspiring to both visitors and to other historic properties. Stay tuned!
Funding for the youth employment program was provided by the Frank Loomis Palmer Fund.