South Carolina Senate Chamber Portrait of Ann Pamela Cunningham, The “Founding Mother” of Historic Preservation. Photo credit South Carolina Legislature

 

Many women and men have contributed so much to the field of historic preservation in America. However, as is too often the case, the role of many women has been hidden in the shadows. Sometimes these roles have been completely ignored or forgotten. Yet, women’s roles are inextricably linked to and undeniably contributed to the summation of successes in the field of American historic preservation. Despite their essential role in preservation, their memories are often not preserved. As noted here:

“Although women have led the historic preservation movement, the history of women has not been adequately preserved.”

-Ellen Perry Berkeley & Matilda McQuaid, p. 159, Architecture: A Place for Women

This blog post is written with the intention of being one small part of the movement to uncover the hidden roles of women in preservation, by shining a bright light on the women in the shadows, especially in honor of Women’s History Month. These women have played and continue to play pivotal roles alongside men in historic preservation. This post also includes relevant resources for interested readers to explore further, as well as tips on brightening the spotlight on women’s roles in history and preservation. After all, as Harriot Hunt stated in her personal narrative (regarding the monument to the battle of bunker hill):

“Half a people made only half a monument: the other half, the feminine, made it whole.”

-Harriot Hunt, p. 163, Glances and Glimpses: Or, Fifty Years Social, Including Twenty Years Professional Life

 

Early Roots of Historic Preservation: Cultural Diversity and Minority Groups

Beginning our overview of women in preservation by first acknowledging the historic and cultural contributions of non-European groups in America seems most fitting, as many of the women in preservation come from these backgrounds. These groups represent some of the earliest examples of what we could deem historic or cultural preservation in America because they have all played a part in shaping what American culture is today. Their unique stories did not always include preservation of the aspects of the physical built environment that we now typically associate with historic preservation, but their efforts did contribute to preservation of culture. One way these non-European groups maintained their traditions and cultural heritage within a broader American culture was through folklore and story-telling.

These traditions are often attributed most to the elders of the groups, particularly the female elders. Shannon Smith described the legacy of “native storytellers” as Native Americans are well-known for this tradition. These women were the primary means of passing stories on to subsequent generations, to educate and protect their culture and values, as men’s roles (e.g., hunting and fighting) often limited their ability to act as narrators. Jackie Krogmeier also discussed how Native women acted as cultural mediators with the European settlers; although this mediating role was necessary for maintaining peace and in some ways then also protecting their culture, their own voices and perspectives often are not highlighted. Instead, their parts are written in the annals of history mostly through the voices of European men, if noted at all.

Amache Ochinee Prowers was an example of a native woman considered to be a cultural mediator between the diverse cultural groups in what is now the state of Colorado, and this interview by the National Trust for Historic Preservation details the cultural heritage she inadvertently left behind for archaeologists to discover. Ada Deer is a modern-day Native American advocate and scholar, known for her tireless work to preserve Native culture and heritage while fighting for the rights of Native citizens. This Menominee Tribe member from Wisconsin was crucial in the Menominee Restoration Act of 1972, which restored the tribe to federally recognized status. This was just one victory in the fight to maintain Native culture rather than completely assimilate Native people, as the federal government had once intended. 

African Americans also played a pivotal role in preserving their own cultural heritage as well as contributing to modern American culture. African American slaves in particular were repressed in every way possible, including being prevented from learning to read and write. However,   described how slaves adapted by telling folktales of their cultural heritage. They updated and adapted those tales to their present circumstances, to prevent detection from slave owners who might perceive obvious traditional stories and ties to the African cultural identities as a way to unite slaves and a threat to the power the owners held over their slaves. Another way enslaved African people maintained their cultural heritage to some degree was through food. Christina Regelski discussed how enslaved African cooks brought their heritage into the homes of their masters, heavily influencing what people think of as traditional Southern food today, and we can guess that many of these cooks were female. Sylviane Diouf noted that female slaves often bore the burden of passing their cultural heritage to their descendants simply due to the tendency of slave owners to divide enslaved husbands and wives as another way to maintain power over them, leaving women with their children as the men were sold elsewhere, and even in cases where mothers were separated from their children. As with Native women, many of their voices and stories were lost to history.

Since the abolition of slavery, more African American women have prevailed in preserving their culture and have been able to do so with more resources at their disposal. Mary B. Talbert was one African American woman who specifically focused on preservation of African American heritage. She also contributed to preserving the built environment by saving the home of abolitionist Frederick Douglass, after initial efforts by others were unsuccessful. Several other modern African American women are also working hard to champion Black History as an integral part of America’s holistic heritage.

These are just two cultural examples of many minority groups in America, but all have stories to tell about their contribution to preservation. The National Park Service has highlighted general cultural diversity in historic preservation, including the short timeline for recognizing the importance of preserving the cultural heritage of minority groups and including diversity as a preservation issue.  

Women have faced unique challenges in many societies, including the Western world. Compounding being female with being a non-European minority in America has added to this plight. These trials have rendered the triumphs of maintained cultural heritage and historical preservation by the women of these groups all the more meaningful.

Timeline of Women in the Formal History of Historic Preservation

Most chronological accounts of the history of historic preservation agree that the earliest recognized formal example of historic preservation – in European-American Culture – was the founding of the Massachusetts Historical Society in 1791.  Its founding is credited to Jeremy Belknap, a clergyman and historian. His pioneering act paved the way for other communities and groups, including women, to establish successful means of recording, preserving, and restoring history. However, little is noted about the roles that women may have played in this historical endeavor. 

Subsequently, several other organizations for history and preservation were formed, buildings were saved from decay or demolition and even restored, and museums opened. Notably, women were involved in many grassroots efforts. One famous early example was that of the monument to commemorate the Battle of Bunker Hill. Several women were part of a group in the 1820’s that initially championed the creation of a monument, and were at the helm of organized fundraising events for the monument. Sarah Josepha Hale (whose many accolades can be found here) was probably the most famous among them. The aforementioned Harriot Hunt also contributed to and lauded these efforts by her fellow female activists.

However, it was not until perhaps the mid-nineteenth century when Ann Pamela Cunningham – often credited as the American Preservation Movement’s Founding Mother – inspired a preservation movement. Finally, a woman was given specific recognition for preservation. Cunningham was appalled at the state of George Washington’s monumental Mt. Vernon Estate, and in 1853, inspired by her own mother’s concerns, penned an article about it that was published in a Charleston, S.C. newspaper. Even in the 1850s, the estate of the “Father of our Country” was threatened by a combination of neglect and speculators hoping to develop it for profit. Not even the tumultuous time period, including threat of secession and civil war, could squelch Cunningham’s entreaty. Her pleas were answered by like-minded women all over the country, even on opposite sides of the Mason-Dixon Line. The result was the chartering of the Mt. Vernon Ladies’ Association, and America’s first nationwide preservation campaign was underway. After several years the Association was successful in saving and preserving the property. This success-story spurred other preservation movements, and modern-day preservationists esteem Cunningham’s efforts as having set the stage for things that are still done today. 

Countless other named and unnamed women from various cultural and ethnographic backgrounds contributed to preservation and general history through the years. But many diminished or even scoffed at the work of these women. For a large part of American history, those women’s twentieth century successors were jokingly referred to as “little old ladies in tennis shoes standing in front of bulldozers.” However, as Elizabeth Byrd Wood – a past editor at the National Trust for Historic Preservation – pointed out, the 1966 enactment of the National Historic Preservation Act created jobs via state historic preservation offices, finally creating formal positions for people to make a recognized career out of preservation. One of those first professional preservationists was Nancy Schamu, who began working for the Maryland Historical Trust in 1969, and who is now also considered a leader of the modern preservation movement. She was interviewed upon her retirement, sharing significant insights into the changes in preservation over the past half-century.

Women in Modern-Day Historic Preservation

The creation of formal government-based preservation jobs marked a significant formalization of the preservation field in this country and made it so that historical female preservationists’ work was not in vain. Women’s roles have continued to evolve from their foremothers’ roles as preservers of culture and activists for the built environment. More and more women have successfully trained and demonstrated their merit in the hands-on work involved in preservation. The National Trust for Historic Preservation spotlighted just a few of those women who are now part of this niche field of skilled craftspeople. Another example of women in preservation is exhibited on countless TV shows such as those featured on the Do-It-Yourself (DIY) network and the Home and Garden Television (HGTV) network, demonstrating how much more mainstream preservation, or at least restoration and renovation, have become to the public via commercialism (for better or for worse depending on one’s opinion). With countless books and internet resources information proliferates more than ever before regarding the pivotal roles of women in history and historic preservation. Restoring Women’s History through Historic Preservation is just one fine example of these written efforts that recognize the feminist imperative to increase female visibility and involvement in history and preservation.

Practical ways to honor and include women in history and preservation

Even with these strides, there is much more work to do to ensure the visibility of women in history and historic preservation. The National Trust for Historic Preservation featured suggestions on “Putting Women Back in History.”  Suggestions from this article include:

  • Put females in the wider context of history. Rather than relegating them to only domestic roles, focus on their roles in every aspect of history. Women have played less obvious but no-less significant roles in growing crops, mediating with other cultural groups, creating war-time munitions, and working in factories.
  • Note how expectations for women varied. This might include defining the contributing roles of slaves, servants, and rich women to the country we live in. Consider the different cultures and times in which they lived.
  • Use women’s resources. Anything owned by a woman in history is an artifact of who she was and what she contributed.
  • Search for new sources. Do not assume you know or have all of the information; previously uncovered sources of documentation may exist. You never stop learning about someone.
  • View women as independent and part of the whole. Women are worth something in their own right, not just in how they support men or children.
  • Do not stereotype. Look beyond simple interpretations of their artifacts and contributions, and look at the whole person, the unique individual
  • Let the women speak. Use direct quotes and add well documented-stories.

Historic preservation is about more than saving windows in an old house, or repairing a plaster molding; it’s about preserving any and all aspects of the history of a culture, where possible. To do that requires allowing all of the voices and work of all of its contributors to be heard. Everyone of us can contribute to this enriched history by remaining curious, researching women, including historical women’s stories, quotes and objects in our museums and heritage sites, hiring women in all roles related to history and preservation, and educating women about other women in history. Women themselves can continue to share their own stories to pass them down to future generations. As Harriot Hunt basically said, women are the essential half to make the ideal whole.

 

Earlier this year we promised to provide you with regular posts on primary resources for the Civil War in honor of the sesquicentennial anniversary of the Civil War.  But life happens, and we’ve had an awful lot of “life” happening here in the office lately, so we haven’t been very regular.  We’re hoping to get more regular with these posts again now, but we’re not going to promise this time! Maybe we can offer you a “we’ll try as hard as we can”?

For this post, we’re taking a look at the battle of Fort Sumter through the eyes of Mary Boykin Miller – to whom we owe a tremendous debt for providing us for such rich insight into the Civil War at a time when recording history-in-the-making for posterity was difficult to do.  Literary critics have called Chesnut’s diary “a work of art” and the most important work by a Confederate author.

Who was Mary Boykin Miller?

mary boykin miller, civil war, civil war 150th anniversary, civil war diaries, civil war primary resources, civil war sesquicentennial, fort sumter, mary chesnut, women's historyMary Boykin Miller was born March 31, 1823 in the High Hills of Santee, South Carolina.  At the age of 17 she married James Chesnut, a prominent lawyer and politician who was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1858, and went on to serve the Confederacy as an aide to Jefferson Davis and as a brigadier general.  The Chesnuts moved in the very highest circles of Southern society.

Mary was a South Carolina author noted for a book published as her Civil War diary, a “vivid picture of a society in the throes of its life-and-death struggle.” She described the war from within her upper-class circles of Southern planter society, but encompassed all classes in her book.

Chesnut worked toward a final form of her book in 1881-1884, based on her extensive diary written during the war years. It was published after her death in 1905.  C. Vann Woodward  annotated edition of the diary, Mary Chesnut’s Civil War (1981), won the Pulitzer Prize for History in 1982.

The following is an excerpt from Mary’s diary entries while she was at the First Battle at Fort Sumter from April 11th, 1861 to April 13th, 1861.

April 12th.  Anderson will not capitulate. Yesterday’s was the merriest, maddest dinner we have had yet. Men were audaciously wise and witty. We had an unspoken foreboding that it was to be our last pleasant meeting. Mr. Miles dined with us to-day. Mrs. Henry King rushed in saying, “The news, I come for the latest news. All the men of the King family are on the Island,” of which fact she seemed proud.

While she was here our peace negotiator, or envoy, came in – that is, Mr. Chesnut returned. His interview with Colonel Anderson had been deeply interesting, but Mr. Chesnut was not inclined to be communicative. He wanted his dinner. He felt for Anderson and had telegraphed to President Davis for instructions – what answer to give Anderson, etc. He has now gone back to Fort Sumter with additional instructions. When they were about to leave the wharf A. H. Boykin sprang into the boat in great excitement. He thought himself ill-used, with a likelihood of fighting and he to be left behind!

I do not pretend to go to sleep. How can I? If Anderson does not accept terms at four, the orders are, he shall be fired upon. I count four, St. Michael’s bells chime out and I begin to hope. At half-past four the heavy booming of a cannon. I sprang out of bed, and on my knees prostrate I prayed as I never prayed before.

There was a sound of stir all over the house, pattering of feet in the corridors. All seemed hurrying one way. I put on my double-gown and a shawl and went, too. It was to the housetop. The shells were bursting. In the dark I heard a man say, “Waste of ammunition.” I knew my husband was rowing about in a boat somewhere in that dark bay, and that the shells were roofing it over, bursting toward the fort. If Anderson was obstinate, Colonel Chesnut was to order the fort on one side to open fire. Certainly fire had begun. The regular roar of the cannon, there it was. And who could tell what each volley accomplished of death and destruction?

The women were wild there on the housetop. Prayers came from the women and imprecations from the men. And then a shell would light up the scene. To-night they say the forces are to attempt to land. We watched up there, and everybody wondered that Fort Sumter did not fire a shot.

To-day Miles and Manning, colonels now, aides to Beauregard, dined with us. The latter hoped I would keep the peace. I gave him only good words, for he was to be under fire all day and night, down in the bay carrying orders, etc.

Last night, or this morning truly, up on the housetop I was so weak and weary I sat down on something that looked like a black stool. “Get up, you foolish woman. Your dress is on fire,” cried a man. And he put me out. I was on a chimney and the sparks had caught my clothes. Susan Preston and Mr. Venable then came up. But my fire had been extinguished before it burst out into a regular blaze.

Do you know, after all that noise and our tears and prayers, nobody has been hurt; sound and fury signifying nothing – a delusion and a snare.

Louisa Hamilton came here now. This is a sort of news center. Jack Hamilton, her handsome young husband, has all the credit of a famous battery, which is made of railroad iron. Mr. Petigru calls it the boomerang, because it throws the balls back the way they came; so Lou Hamilton tells us. During her first marriage, she had no children; hence the value of this lately achieved baby. To divert Louisa from the glories of “the Battery,” of which she raves, we asked if the baby could talk yet. “No, not exactly, but he imitates the big gun when he hears that. He claps his hands and cries ‘Boom, boom.’ ” Her mind is distinctly occupied by three things: Lieutenant Hamilton, whom she calls “Randolph,” the baby, and the big gun, and it refuses to hold more.

Pryor, of Virginia, spoke from the piazza of the Charleston hotel. I asked what he said. An irreverent woman replied: “Oh, they all say the same thing, but he made great play with that long hair of his, which he is always tossing aside!”

Somebody came in just now and reported Colonel Chesnut asleep on the sofa in General Beauregard’s room. After two such nights he must be so tired as to be able to sleep anywhere.

Just bade farewell to Langdon Cheves. He is forced to go home and leave this interesting place. Says he feels like the man that was not killed at Thermopylae. I think he said that unfortunate had to hang himself when he got home for very shame. Maybe he fell on his sword, which was the strictly classic way of ending matters.

I do not wonder at Louisa Hamilton’s baby; we hear nothing, can listen to nothing; boom, boom goes the cannon all the time. The nervous strain is awful, alone in this darkened room. “Richmond and Washington ablaze,” say the papers – blazing with excitement. Why not? To us these last days’ events seem frightfully great. We were all women on that iron balcony. Men are only seen at a distance now. Stark Means, marching under the piazza at the head of his regiment, held his cap in his hand all the time he was in sight. Mrs. Means was leaning over and looking with tearful eyes, when an unknown creature asked, “Why did he take his hat off?” Mrs. Means stood straight up and said: “He did that in honor of his mother; he saw me.” She is a proud mother, and at the same time most unhappy. Her lovely daughter Emma is dying in there, before her eyes, of consumption. At that moment I am sure Mrs. Means had a spasm of the heart; at least, she looked as I feel sometimes. She took my arm and we came in.

April 13th.  Nobody has been hurt after all. How gay we were last night. Reaction after the dread of all the slaughter we thought those dreadful cannon were making. Not even a battery the worse for wear. Fort Sumter has been on fire. Anderson has not yet silenced any of our guns. So the aides, still with swords and red sashes by way of uniform, tell us. But the sound of those guns makes regular meals impossible. None of us go to table. Tea-trays pervade the corridors going everywhere. Some of the anxious hearts lie on their beds and moan in solitary misery. Mrs. Wigfall and I solace ourselves with tea in my room. These women have all a satisfying faith. “God is on our side,” they say. When we are shut in Mrs. Wigfall and I ask “Why?” “Of course, He hates the Yankees, we are told. You’ll think that well of Him.”

Not by one word or look can we detect any change in the demeanor of these negro servants. Lawrence sits at our door, sleepy and respectful, and profoundly indifferent. So are they all, but they carry it too far. You could not tell that they even heard the awful roar going on in the bay, though it has been dinning in their ears night and day. People talk before them as if they were chairs and tables. They make no sign. Are they stolidly stupid? or wiser than we are; silent and strong, biding their time?

So tea and toast came; also came Colonel Manning, red sash and sword, to announce that he had been under fire, and didn’t mind it. He said gaily: “It is one of those things a fellow never knows how he will come out until he has been tried. Now I know I am a worthy descendant of my old Irish hero of an ancestor, who held the British officer before him as a shield in the Revolution, and backed out of danger gracefully.” We talked of St. Valentine’s eve, or the maid of Perth, and the drop of the white doe’s blood that sometimes spoiled all.

The war-steamers are still there, outside the bar. And there are people who thought the Charleston bar “no good” to Charleston. The bar is the silent partner, or sleeping partner, and in this fray it is doing us yeoman service.

April 15th.  I did not know that one could live such days of excitement. Some one called: “Come out! There is a crowd coming.” A mob it was, indeed, but it was headed by Colonels Chesnut and Manning. The crowd was shouting and showing these two as messengers of good news. They were escorted to Beauregard’s headquarters. Fort Sumter had surrendered! Those upon the housetops shouted to us “The fort is on fire.” That had been the story once or twice before.

When we had calmed down, Colonel Chesnut, who had taken it all quietly enough, if anything more unruffled than usual in his serenity, told us how the surrender came about. Wigfall was with them on Morris Island when they saw the fire in the fort; he jumped in a little boat, and with his handkerchief as a white flag, rowed over. Wigfall went in through a porthole. When Colonel Chesnut arrived shortly after, and was received at the regular entrance, Colonel Anderson told him he had need to pick his way warily, for the place was all mined. As far as I can make out the fort surrendered to Wigfall. But it is all confusion. Our flag is flying there. Fire-engines have been sent for to put out the fire. Everybody tells you half of something and then rushes off to tell something else or to hear the last news.

In the afternoon, Mrs. Preston, Mrs. Joe Heyward, and I drove around the Battery. We were in an open carriage.

What a changed scene – the very liveliest crowd I think I ever saw, everybody talking at once. All glasses were still turned on the grim old fort.

Russell,the correspondent of the London Times, was there. They took him everywhere. One man got out Thackeray to converse with him on equal terms. Poor Russell was awfully bored, they say. He only wanted to see the fort and to get news suitable to make up into an interesting article. Thackeray had become stale over the water.

Mrs. Frank Hampton and I went to see the camp of the Richland troops. South Carolina College had volunteered to a boy. Professor Venable (the mathematical), intends to raise a company from among them for the war, a permanent company. This is a grand frolic no more for the students, at least. Even the staid and severe of aspect, Clingman, is here. He says Virginia and North Carolina are arming to come to our rescue, for now the North will swoop down on us. Of that we may be sure. We have burned our ships. We are obliged to go on now. He calls us a poor, little, hot-blooded, headlong, rash, and troublesome sister State. General McQueen is in a rage because we are to send troops to Virginia.

Preston Hampton is in all the flush of his youth and beauty, six feet in stature; and after all only in his teens; he appeared in fine clothes and lemon-colored kid gloves to grace the scene. The camp in a fit of horse-play seized him and rubbed him in the mud. He fought manfully, but took it all naturally as a good joke.

Mrs. Frank Hampton knows already what civil war means. Her brother was in the New York Seventh Regiment, so roughly received in Baltimore. Frank will be in the opposite camp.

Good stories there may be and to spare for Russell, the man of the London Times, who has come over here to find out our weakness and our strength and to tell all the rest of the world about us.